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Kragthorpe: Not much to celebrate for Utah's Kyle Whittingham

Published November 21, 2012 9:25 am

He's confident Utes are just a few pieces away, but Pac-12 football climb only gets tougher.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With the entire season on the line on a November night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, his team responded with a clutch drive, followed by a miraculous fourth-down conversion and an overtime defensive stop.

Yeah, life is good for one of the Whittingham coaching brothers, anyway.

Cary Whittingham concluded his first season as Timpview High School's coach with a Class 4A state championship last Friday. The next night, Utah's Kyle Whittingham lost a fourth-quarter lead against Arizona, assuring himself of his first losing season.

Concluding its second season of Pac-12 play Friday at Colorado, and allowing for a remote bowl possibility, Utah already is at a critical point in the program's history. Whether Whittingham can elevate the Utes from a 6-11 conference record to respectability in the coming years is a good question.

That reality is spoiling Whittingham's 53rd birthday (Wednesday), although he's endured worse late-November weeks in his career.

Birthday No. 43 came when he was preparing Utah's defense to play the last game of coach Ron McBride's tenure, with no idea of knowing if the next coach would keep him — as Urban Meyer did.

Birthday No. 32 came under similar circumstances at Idaho State, where the head coach was fired and, eventually, Whittingham was the only assistant retained by the new boss.

So with his $2 million salary and a contract through 2016, Whittingham could handle another muted birthday observance. Not that this season has been much fun — in his words, "without a doubt, the most frustrating, most difficult, most trying … all of the above" experience of his eight-year tenure.

This is Whittingham's own doing, having assembled a coaching staff so lacking in experience outside of this program. Until proven otherwise, questions will persist about this staff's ability to compete against the coaching talent of the Pac-12 overall and the South division in particular.

Utah managed to go 4-5 in conference play in 2011, but that record was deceiving. It only illustrated the mismanagement of some other programs. With Tuesday's dismissal of California's Jeff Tedford, Utah is 2-10 in two seasons against Pac-12 schools that retained their coaches.

So now that UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State have solid leadership, it will be even tougher for Utah to make any kind of climb in the South.

Having lost to each of them, Whittingham credited those new coaches for their impact, while pointing out they inherited some talent. That's one way of saying he believes the Utes can catch up by recruiting well, which his staff is designed to do.

Except for a 37-7 loss at ASU, the Utes have been competitive every week. Whittingham said landing a few "impact players … real difference-makers" in upcoming recruiting classes can help Utah make up ground in the conference.

Whittingham cited "no negative impact" of the Utes' Pac-12 record on recruiting. "That's what we're selling right now, is what we've got in store for the future," he said.

The immediate problem is that the Utes have gone 2-7 in two seasons against South rivals, while not taking advantage of missing Stanford and Oregon in the scheduling rotation. If Utah's biggest issue is that the competition is so good, well, it's only getting better.

Improving the Utes' offense remains a huge project. Utah is 11th in the Pac-12 and 108th in the country in total offense. Any signs of progress, such as Saturday's 449-yard effort against Arizona, are framed by the fact that freshman quarterback Travis Wilson and his offensive line have succeeded against the bottom tier of Pac-12 defenses.

Yet if Wilson can keep developing, that will be a start. Regardless of how anyone else viewed Utah's quarterbacks, Wilson was No. 3 in early September. Colorado coach Jon Embree said "consistent quarterback play" is the biggest advantage for the other South programs over Utah and Colorado.

Is that all? We'll find out, beginning next season.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com