Quantcast

Monson: Utah football coaches are coaching for their jobs

Published August 27, 2014 8:40 am

Short-term contracts put Whittingham, staff on notice that progress is needed.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On the brink of a new season, times are uncertain for Utah football.

For the guys who run Utah football.

Anybody who thinks Kyle Whittingham isn't under extreme pressure to make headway in the Pac-12 — right now — by delivering a winning record, anybody who thinks urgency isn't throttling toward redline levels up on the hill, hasn't sneaked a peek at the terms of his staff's contracts.

Like the sharp edge of a switchblade, they are short and unforgiving.

Even specific assistant coaches and coordinators with proven track records, whose deals typically are rolled over, are on the business end of a threat pointed straight at them: Win now or … hasta la vista, baby.

The promise of potential progress in 2015 hasn't diminished the threat.

The man with the knife in his hand is Utah athletic director Chris Hill. When contacted on Monday, Hill was nonchalant about the coaches' short-term status, saying: "It's just something we decided to do this year." Those words seemed harmless, but you could almost hear the flick of the blade as he spoke them. The telling information, obtained by The Tribune via an open-records request, is spelled out in black and white.

The only members of the staff whose deals run past June 30, 2015, are the three newcomers — Dave Christensen, Jim Harding and Taylor Stubblefield — all of whom were hired after last season and all of whom have two years on their deals from the day they were hired. Everybody else has 10 months … and counting down.

Established assistants who normally are or would be rolled over every year to avoid lame-duck status, such as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Kalani Sitake, safeties coach and recruiting coordinator Morgan Scalley and running backs coach Dennis Erickson, have no security, nothing after June.

Those coaches didn't want to talk about terms or threats or twists of/to/in their status, seemingly preferring at this juncture to do their work and see where it lands them. But it is curious that a coordinator like Sitake, who has had job opportunities elsewhere and turned them down, now is working under duress at the school where he has coached since 2005 and run an effective defense since 2009 and helped land significant recruits.

Sitake had no comment.

It is a clear, ominous signal from Hill, whether or not he says it, that this season is critical and that jobs are blowing in the wind. Even Whittingham, whose contract runs through 2016 and provides, in the case of termination, $750,000 — plus additional monies — per year through the length of the agreement, is on notice.

The blade's edge is sharp for him, too.

It's hard to imagine a scenario where, given another losing season, seven assistants would be sent packing but the head coach would stick around to pick up the pieces and start again. That could happen — testing Whittingham's loyalty to the guys who have gone to battle with him en route — but sound reasoning shouts something different, shouts this: If the Utes don't get suitable results in 2014, everybody is out.

There's no other reason not to roll over program pillars like Sitake, Erickson and Scalley, who combine to make $985,000 per year.

Looking at the Utes' schedule provides no relief. Five of their league opponents (Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, and Arizona State) are ranked in the preseason Top 25. Over the past two seasons, Utah won a total of five Pac-12 games and 10 overall. Prospects for wins this time through are daunting, even against the back half of the league.

That's not to say the Utes haven't improved. They have. And next season, when so many of the established quarterbacks around the conference will be gone, Utah may have a shot at climbing higher, if it gets good health and consistency at that key position from junior Travis Wilson in 2014.

That's an optimistic view.

The cynical one is that a scenario like that could give Hill the perfect opportunity to look like a genius by bringing in a new head coach with a new staff to make a big splash with a better chance at winning. Is there another iteration of Urban Meyer out there somewhere?

Hill probably has a list of names.

The pessimistic view is that, according to recruiting services, Utah is not gaining ground in stockpiling athletes against the better programs in the Pac-12, rather it is falling farther behind. In other words, the Utes might be getting better, but so is everyone else. Taking heart in guessing about positive things that might happen the season after this one apparently held no sway when it came to adding extra time onto certain coaches' contracts.

That may not be fair to some staff members who deserve better, but it is a fact. And it's a fact that reflects on the uneasiness enveloping and clouding Utah football, from the bottom of the team's coaching ladder straight to the top.

Whittingham's a terrific coach, a strong football mind. The same can be said for Sitake, Scalley and Erickson. But the rewards of coaching in the Pac-12 — Whittingham makes $2.4 million per — also come with the risks. Losing year after year, even in a tough league, is intolerable. Close losses and untimely injuries and reasonable excuses don't bleach out defeat. Circumstances conspire. Blame bleeds in all directions. Is it Sitake's fault, for instance, that the Utah offense has bumped and skidded off track over the past few seasons?

Memories of Whittingham on the day the Pac-12 officially invited Utah into its company, as a celebration at Rice-Eccles Stadium erupted around him, stir now. While administrators and boosters and fans partied, Whittingham broke out in a smile, then broke out in a sweat. He was the only one in the building over that hour who seemed troubled. His gridded face looked like a street map of the city. He knew the climb in front of him was steep.

It has grown steeper.

These are uncertain times for Utah football.

For the guys who run Utah football.

They know they are coaching for their livelihoods now, with a razor-edged threat pointed straight at their hearts.

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. —

The Whittingham record

Year Overall Conference

2005 7-5 4-4

2006 8-5 5-3

2007 9-4 5-3

2008 13-0 8-0

2009 10-3 6-2

2010 10-3 7-1

2011 8-5 4-5

2012 5-7 3-6

2013 5-7 2-7

Total 76-39 44-31

• 2006-2010 Mountain West Conference

• 2011-2013 Pac-12

• Credited with win in 2005 Fiesta Bowl