Kyle Whittingham knows he is up against it at Utah, feeling heavy pressure to do something big and something quick to help save his job.
After consecutive 5-7 seasons during which he won a total of only five Pac-12 games, losing 13, he accomplished the latter on Friday, hiring Dave Christensen as his new offensive coordinator and reassigning Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson as position coaches, Erickson to the running backs and Johnson the quarterbacks. It’s a step back for Erickson and Johnson. In fact, if Johnson backed up any farther, he’d end up coaching the cross-country team. As for the former, all will have to see the enormity, the effects of the enormity, before they believe.
In some respects, the move is mind-blowing, junking Erickson after just one season, seeing that quarterback Travis Wilson got hurt and Erickson had nothing to do with recruiting the backups already in the fold. And now, with assistants out recruiting mere weeks before signing day, they must change their tune from singing Erickson’s praises to championing the new guy’s approach.
It seems frantic.
One obvious thing, no matter whose fault it was, is that the Ute offense to this point has fallen short of any standard by which success can be claimed. Utah finished 11th in the Pac-12 in total yards in 2013, edging tepid Colorado. It was the exact same spot as the season before, although the Utes did manage to score 30 more points. After finishing dead last in pass offense in 2012, Utah elevated to 10th this past season, but its inability to move the ball consistently was a glaring weakness.
Erickson was brought in after the 2012 failure to better the results. Barely better, though, wasn’t good enough, especially since Whittingham is running out of time. The university has said nothing about the head coach’s status after nine seasons at the helm, but treading at the bottom of league standings in consecutive years has left him vulnerable — and desperate.
When contacted by The Tribune for comment regarding his demotion, Erickson was taken by surprise, saying he knew nothing of the development. He does now. Not only do the Utes find themselves without a pilot, in a kind of quarterback limbo with the uncertain health of Wilson, they now will attempt to go throttle up with a new leader at ground control, upon whom Whittingham relies for offensive direction. Asked about that heavy reliance during the season, the coach, who has mostly a defensive frame of reference, said he does — and will — turn that responsibility over to his offensive coordinator.
He’s tying his fate, then, to Christensen, another failed head coach, a man who couldn’t get above .500.
The new OC was Wyoming’s coach from 2009 to 2013, compiling a record of 27 wins and 35 losses. His most famous moment leading that program was an inauspicious one, coming in 2012, when Christensen went berserk on Air Force coach Troy Calhoun after the Falcons beat the Cowboys by a point. The Wyoming coach thought Calhoun had directed his quarterback to fake an injury to preserve time. In protest, Christensen put together an impressive string of profanities and called Calhoun a “flyboy.”
So dude can swear like a mother, but can he make a difference for Utah’s offense?
He had some terrific, prolific results at Missouri as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator before he went to Laramie, rolling up all kinds of yards and points with a pass-heavy version of the spread. If there’s one thing Whittingham has had crammed into his mug, it’s that scoring a lot of points is a must to compete and contend in the Pac-12, even when his defense is decent.
His team must have a two-armed attack — one on each side of the ball — to have any chance at winning the South, or at saving his job. For that to happen, the Utes must find a proficient quarterback, a quarterback who can move the chains, but also a QB who can stay healthy. They’ve had neither through their first three seasons in the Pac-12.
It will be up to Christensen to uncover that quarterback and put him in positions to thrive and survive. If he does, Whittingham could also survive. If he doesn’t, sing a requiem for coach Kyle.
Fitting it is, at some mad level, that Whittingham at the edge of the end will either make his last stand or forge triumphantly ahead with a good coaching pal. Kyle and Dave have been boys since their days coaching together at Idaho State. Their wives are friends, and when Christensen was fired at Wyoming, it seemed a possibility that the two would come together for a final push at Utah.
The question remains: Will Erickson stay on to coach the running backs?
Answer: Fat chance.
Another question: Why would he?
The man has a résumé a mile long and credentials, not to mention pride, stacked up like planes at LaGuardia. Unless he needs the cash, it’s a solid bet that Dennis Erickson will not be coaching running backs at Utah next season.
The biggest question of all: Will Kyle Whittingham be the head coach at Utah in 2015?
Answer: Only if he handles his desperate business in 2014.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.