In the days leading up to Utah’s opener against Utah State, coach Kyle Whittingham hinted how much last year’s loss to the Aggies affected the Utes, describing how it lingered and set the tone for the season.
“I know it affected me,” he said.
That game is still setting the tone for Utah’s ninth-year coach as the Utes continue to strive for success against the cutthroat competition of the Pac-12.
Whittingham, who has always carried himself in a no-nonsense, businesslike manner, has been even more focused and demanding in the way he has coached the Utes this season.
The classic rock music that blared consistently over Utah’s past preseason camps was muted. The coach has been quick to publicly call out players for poor effort or conditioning, and even has tried to control some aspects of media coverage with demands of what can and can’t be reported about injured players.
In practice Whittingham is asserting himself, too, most notably coaching up the cornerbacks himself after their poor performances early in the season.
It is obvious that as the competition has cranked up in the Pac-12, so too has the coach’s expectations — both for his team, and most of all, for himself.
Bad night in Logan
What’s driving Whittingham?
Last year holds the answer. Whittingham suffered through his first losing season, a season that started painfully with that loss to the Aggies and his former assistant coach Gary Andersen.
That game set the tone for what wound up a 5-7 season. This year, Whittingham is using the experience as motivation.
“That loss was the catalyst for quite a few things this year,” he said of the night in Logan. “Looking back, to me that is the one that kept us out of a bowl game, so it was especially impactful. From the way we handled offseason practice to spring ball, everything got amped up this year.”
Whittingham has taken numerous steps to ward off a repeat debacle. He went out and hired veteran coach (and two-time national champion) Dennis Erickson to jump-start the floundering offense. He cut Utah’s practice time, but made the workouts more intensive to get more out of the players. Most recently, he “got his hands dirty,” as he put it, when he stepped in and coached up the Utes’ lagging cornerbacks.
No doubt about it: Whittingham is driving Utah harder than ever, according to those in the program.
“There isn’t a day that has gone by that he hasn’t thought about that loss, I guarantee you that,” Utah defensive end Trevor Reilly said of the USU defeat. “It affected a lot of us, but it definitely affected him.”
The Utes seem to be responding through their first five games, even if the improvements haven’t necessarily shown in the win-loss column.
Utah’s improvement was obvious against No. 12 UCLA on Thursday. Having been burned by Utah State’s and Oregon State’s offenses, the Utes went out and held the Bruins’ explosive offense to 34 points and just over 400 years — about 20 points and 200 yards below their season average.
If the Utes keep it up, they’re going to get that breakthrough Pac-12 win at some point.
“All you can do is keep working; we’ve got no choice,” Whittingham said. “We just have to find ways to make a few more plays at the end.”
Perhaps those plays will come against No. 5 Stanford, the next Pac-12 heavyweight scheduled to visit Rice-Eccles Stadium.
No one would rejoice more than Whittingham, whose lips curl in disgust when asked how important it is to avoid another losing season.
He might drink kombucha and partake in hot yoga, but there is no zen for him when the Utes come up short.
“It stinks,” he says of losing.
Down this road before
Whittingham is no stranger to tough seasons. The Utes were 7-5 in his first year as head coach in 2005, after replacing predecessor Urban Meyer, and 8-5 the following season. But he also was making a steady climb, and reached a pinnacle by leading the Utes to an undefeated season in 2008.
The other came in 2010. With assists from Meyer and his predecessor, Ron McBride, Whittingham molded Utah into a national-caliber program that enjoyed enough consistent success to earn an invitation into the Pac-12.
The Utes’ first year in the conference was acceptable, finishing 8-5 and just missing out on a berth in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game. But last year? Finishing 5-7?
It left a mark.
Whittingham has “won all his life as a player and a coach, and all of a sudden you have a bad year,” said Erickson, who knows a thing or two about the ups and down of coaching. “You question why you did what you did and didn’t do. It hurts your pride, so you become even more focused, although I don’t know if a guy like him can be more focused.”
Sharing the pain
Apparently Whittingham can, because he found a way to tighten the screws just a bit more. His amped-up intensity is notable — and appropriate — in Utah athletic director Chris Hill’s estimate.
“Last year was a new experience for him, and for all of us,” Hill said. “We didn’t go to a bowl game and we had a losing season, so maybe everything is more intense this year with him. We’d been winning so long in our league; losing isn’t easy to take and last year was a hard experience. It was a hard experience for all of us, and we are all feeling it.”
Whittingham often says it will take time to build, through recruiting, the depth and talent the Utes need to compete consistently in the Pac-12. However, that doesn’t mean he will sit by each year waiting for recruiting classes to deliver.
Instead, he seeks other ways to improve his team. In the past he has listened to players and cut back on practice times so they are fresh for games. He also has fostered strong relationships with the seniors, which has translated into sense of ownership of the team, from the upperclassmen to the underclassmen.
This year his focus has been on nutrition and building team chemistry, elements Whittingham felt were lacking last year.
“With the way the Pac-12 is, you have to be on a competitive level with everything,” Whittingham said. “We’re always looking for ways we can improve.”
Whittingham credits the new football facility as a key part in the effort, believing all the elements designed to cater to the players, such as the lounge and cafeteria, have encouraged them to hang out with one another more.
The Utes coach wears it as a point of pride that his players don’t want to escape from the world of football, but spend more time in it — just as he does.
“He has done a great job of allowing this team to become closer as a group, a family,” said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. “That closeness is a huge part of what we do here and he is the head of it. He loves the work ethic of this group because they are football junkies, just like he is.”
Patience in an impatient business
Whittingham likened the experience of losing to the Aggies last year to the 27-0 shutout the Utes suffered to UNLV in 2007 — a defeat that ultimately propelled Utah to an undefeated 2008 season.
The Utes are in a different place now, no longer one of the top teams in the MWC, so the Utes’ improvement might not lead to a drastic change in the record, but Whittingham at the very least wants to avoid losses to the teams the Utes should beat, such as their in-state opponents.
It is one of the reasons the Utes celebrated their wins over the Aggies and the Cougars as much as they did. They might be struggling in the Pac-12, but they still own the state.
Of course, fans might not think winning the so-called state title is enough.
Even after Utah came within a play or two of possibly upsetting the Bruins, some fans were calling for the Utes’ coaching staff to be fired, expecting more out of a program that reigned in the MWC.
Don’t expect a change anytime soon. Hill is one of those preaching patience. If he didn’t see improvement he’d be concerned, but he knows what Whittingham and the Utes are up against as they find their way in the Pac-12.
“You want a willingness to win,” Hill said. “But you have to have patience, too. Do you have that patience? That is what you have to ask yourself.”
Probably the guy with the least amount of patience is Whittingham.
All the warm fuzzies and camaraderie that he has strived to build this year are great — but only if the closeness and chemistry fosters wins as much as it does friendships.
To that end, Whittingham ultimately isn’t in the business of making friends or making life easy on his players, as he has shown this year. He is in it to win.
“Last year hurt; of course it did,” he said. “It had an impact.”
An impact the Utes are still feeling.
Kyle Whittingham’s coaching record
Year Overall Conference
2005 7-5 4-4 (MW)
2006 8-5 5-3 (MW)
2007 9-4 5-3 (MW)
2008 13-0 8-0 (MW)
2009 10-3 6-2 (MW)
2010 10-3 7-1 (MW)
2011 8-5 4-5 (Pac-12)
2012 5-7 3-6 (Pac-12)
2013 3-2 0-2 (Pac-12)