El Paso, Texas • Back when the Utah Utes opened Pac-12 play with a four-game losing streak and were struggling to find offensive answers following the season-ending injury suffered by quarterback Jordan Wynn, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham didn't make a bunch of changes to Utah's philosophy, overhaul his staff or shuffle the lineup.
He merely held a meeting with his seniors and juniors to understand their point of view on the situation, learned the team needed more intensity and set about finding ways to deliver it.
Beefed-up practices and more intense drills resulted in one of Utah's best turnarounds in recent history. If it weren't for that blasted loss to Colorado in the regular-season finale, the Utes would have landed in the Pac-12 championship game.
But even the November heart-breaker against the Buffaloes at Rice-Eccles can't take away from what will likely be regarded as one of Whittingham's better coaching seasons.
His analytical approach to the season has earned him kudos from his players and staff and a nice raise from his boss. Call 2011 yet another year of success for Whittingham, who enters the Sun Bowl with a 65-25 record in seven seasons as the Utes' head coach.
That he was able to resurrect the Utes' season is a testament to his growth as a coach, those around him say.
"Expectations were high and when we went through that spell, he did a great job keeping things together," outgoing offensive coordinator Norm Chow said. "His ability to hold teams together like that is probably his best strength as a coach. I was impressed. Sometimes you can talk too much and players listen less, but he knows how to temper what he says."
Whittingham, who isn't one to rate his own coaching abilities, said his first year in the Pac-12 held no surprises for him which could be an indication of his level of preparation or the experience gained playing against BCS teams, or both.
"I don't know if I learned anything other than we have to keep improving in all areas," he said. "I've said it all season and I'll say it again: The bar continues to be raised, and we can't get complacent. We've got big challenges ahead of us, and they're all moving targets. No one is staying the same, we're all trying to keep getting better and we have to keep busting our tails recruiting and building facilities to stay up to the level of the Pac-12."
Whittingham said he didn't panic when the Utes started conference play 0-4 because he'd been through worse, pointing out the 27-0 shutout at UNLV in 2007 that will go down, he believes, as one of the most painful losses he'll ever experience.
Even the Utes' embarrassing 34-10 loss to Cal or the bitter loss to Colorado at season's end can't compare to that game, he said.
"We've faced bumps in the road for sure as most coaches and programs do, but that game was a turning point," he said of the UNLV game. "That was rock bottom right there, and I think fortunately we've turned things around and have had a pretty good run since then."
Picked to finish third in the Pac-12 South in the preseason behind USC and Arizona State, the Utes ended the season with a convincing run that showed they weren't a BCS bust afterall, finishing tied with ASU for third place behind USC and UCLA.
The effort was satisfying enough that athletic director Chris Hill awarded Whittingham a $300,000 raise and extended his contract another year to take him through 2017.
"We knew the first year [in the Pac-12] was going to be a challenge," Hill said. "He did a good job, and we wanted to do what was fair by him."
Moving up to the Pac-12 wasn't as much of a transition for Whittingham as others he has experienced. Handed the reins to the program when Urban Meyer left for Florida following the Utes' undefeated 2004 season was an initiation by fire. Finding a staff, developing a young team and trying to live up to the high standard Meyer created was a much bigger task than game-planning for the likes of USC and ASU, Whittingham said.
"Essentially we were starting over," he said of the 2005 season.
This year, the Utes had that Fiesta Bowl experience plus the win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and other victories against BCS teams to help them prepare for the jump.
It was a successful leap, in Whittingham's estimation, even if the loss to the Buffs cut short Utah's chance of a Pac-12 title game appearance.
"That stings, no doubt," Whittingham said. "But you put it behind you. It was a great example of how the Pac-12 week in and week out is good and how just about anybody can beat anybody else. If you play a game and you aren't hitting on all cylinders, you are going to struggle."
Kyle Whittingham head coaching record
Year Overall Bowl
2004 1-0 W (Pitt/Fiesta)*
2005 7-5 W (Georgia Tech/Emerald)
2006 8-5 W (Tulsa/Armed Forces)
2007 9-4 W (Navy/Poinsettia)
2008 13-0 W (Alabama/Sugar)
2009 10-3 W (Cal/Poinsettia)
2010 10-3 L (Boise State/Las Vegas)
2011 7-5 (Georgia Tech/Sun)
*Co-head coach of 2005 Fiesta Bowl
P Utah vs. Georgia TechSaturday, noon TV: Ch. 2