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Monson: Utah football coaches are coaching for their jobs

First Published Aug 26 2014 10:28AM      Last Updated Aug 26 2014 10:22 pm

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah QB Travis Wilson and new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen during Utah football practice at Rice Eccles Stadium, Saturday, March 22, 2014.

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.



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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