Utah football: A new Whittingham takes Utah into a new league
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was talking to a group of reporters after a recent practice when he took a couple of moments to reminisce about the superstitions of former Utah coach Ron McBride.
With great detail and a smile on his face, Whittingham recalled how McBride would have Utah's players step through magic sand McBride had shipped in from the islands with the belief the sand would improve the players' performance, then he told of another time when McBride dressed up as "Captain Voodoo," his own version of a witch doctor.
"That's probably too much info," said Whittingham, stopping the trip down memory lane.
Actually, it was just the kind of personal experiences and insight reporters often try to pry out of coaches to make profile stories more interesting.
Whittingham, though, has rarely let down his guard in the public eye. Rarely, that is, until this season.
One would think as the Utes receive more national attention and more expectations are heaped upon the school, Whittingham, who stands as the symbol of the football program, would withdraw more into his world, centered around the football offices.
Instead, the man with perhaps more to lose than anyone if Utah's switch to the Pac-12 doesn't go well seems more relaxed than ever.
He gleefully created the music soundtrack to Utah's preseason practices this year, giving his team a bunch of classic rock that served as background noise during workouts. He also has taken the time to play more golf and is more comfortable than ever in the public eye. Recently he joked that he and sports radio personality Jim Rome were "tight like that."
As much as he has been on Rome's show since the 2008 Sugar Bowl, it's easy to believe the two have crafted a friendship. In some respects, it's an easier to grasp than the concept of Whittingham letting down his guard as the stakes for his program rise.
For his part, Whittingham says he hasn't changed he's just learned enough to operate on autopilot when he has to. He is more comfortable being the figurehead of Utah's football program and has come to understand how valuable publicity can be. After all, as great as Utah's BCS bowl wins were in themselves, the greater value was all the recognition that came with them as Utah became an attractive addition to the Pac-10.
"The media exposure is great, and it comes with the territory," Whittingham said. "We knew it would be enhanced and it has been and it is good all positive and the players have handled it well."
That Whittingham is so much more at ease than he used to be will serve him well in the Pac-12, said Norm Chow, Utah's new offensive coordinator. Chow, who has coached at USC and UCLA, knows as well as anyone that playing in a BCS league can be difficult not only on the field but also off it.
"No question, the scrutiny is crazy; there is scrutiny everywhere," Chow said. "Everywhere you go there is national TV or something and he has to learn to handle that, but he will do fine. Knowing him, I don't think he'll have a problem with that."
There was a time, though, when Whittingham might have. When he followed Urban Meyer as Utah's coach in 2005, Whittingham knew he had to prove he was a capable replacement for Meyer, who transformed Utah into an up-and-comer at the mid-major level.
That pressure, coupled with his natural tendency to be reserved in public he was a career assistant coach up to that point, with limited interaction with the media made Whittingham a hard coach to get to know, one preoccupied with all the details that come with a new coaching job.
"The first couple of years, what we saw was almost to the point of constant panic mode and stress," said his brother, Brady. "As the years have gone by, he has naturally been able to deal with things. People wanted to know if this was the right choice, if he was capable from moving to a coordinator to a head job so he wasn't just worried about the pressure of coaching. He had to keep trying to prove to everyone he was capable of handling the role, and now he doesn't have to."
To be sure, Utah's win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl gave Whittingham national credibility and allowed him to relax into the role as the Utes' coach.
Even as the program steams full speed ahead into unknown territory, Whittingham took time this offseason to hone his golf game.
"He'd put his phone in his drink holder on the golf cart, listen to music and go play nine holes in the evenings," Brady Whittingham said. "A couple of years ago, there is no way he would have done that."
Don't get the impression, though, that Whittingham has also relaxed on the job. Anyone within earshot of a recent chewing out he gave receiver DeVonte Christopher following a practice would know the fire still burns, as it always has. Whittingham remains a demanding coach whose attention to detail and film study has carried over to the team.
"He might be more loose off the field," quarterback Jordan Wynn said. "But I see him as the same. He is a great coach, and he has done a great job of getting us ready."
The Utes now face their greatest challenge as they move into the Pac-12, but if anything Whittingham is enjoying himself more.
He is ready to take on BCS opponents, the media and anything else that might come his way.
"It's a big departure of what we have been doing here for a lot of years and years," Whittingham said. "It was the MWC from the old WAC, and now a gigantic departure is going on here. There is a lot of excitement and anticipation in the community and as well as the team. We're all excited about it."
If only everyone had the same "peaceful easy feeling" that Whittingham, a self-proclaimed Eagles fan, has about the challenges ahead.
Whittingham's wins, losses as U. head coach
Bowl games under Whittingham
Year Bowl Opponent Result
2004 Fiesta Pittsburgh W, 35-7*
2005 Emerald Georgia Tech W, 38-10
2006 Armed Forces Tulsa W, 25-13
2007 Poinsettia Navy W, 35-32
2008 Sugar Alabama W, 31-17
2009 Poinsettia California W, 37-27
2010 Las Vegas Boise State L, 26-3
Montana Stateat Utah
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