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Utah football: Whittingham, Christensen come full circle vs. Idaho St.

First Published Aug 27 2014 10:03AM      Last Updated Aug 27 2014 11:31 pm

(Utah defending lineman Steve Fifita, returned an interception for a touchdown against UNLV. Photo by Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune) 10/27/2004

Were it not for their time at Idaho State, Kyle Whittingham and Dave Christensen wouldn’t be coaching together at Utah.

Were it not for their time at Utah, Spencer Toone and Steve Fifita wouldn’t be coaching together at Idaho State.

Between the four, such symmetries abound.

It’s been almost a quarter-century since Utah’s head coach and offensive coordinator first bonded as assistant coaches in Pocatello. Thursday, their reunion tour begins against the team that gave them their start.

And on the other sideline at Rice-Eccles, 10 years after they played an integral role in leading Utah to its BCS-busting Fiesta Bowl victory, Toone and Fifita will try to make life difficult for the alma mater.

Both young coaches took jobs with the Bengals last year. Toone, as co-defensive coordinator and Fifita, as defensive line coach.

And like Jamie Whittingham and Susie Christensen before them in 1990-91, wives Kristen Toone and Heidi Fifita have made fast friends while their husbands work long hours for low pay as rookie D-I assistants.

But the ex-Utes’ lives weren’t always so similar.

"I always tell my guys, Spencer was the guy at Utah who did everything right," Fifta said. "I was the guy at Utah who you don’t want to be like."

Fifita declined to go into specifics, but said he was "young and dumb," while at the U. A few years after Fifita’s stints with Miami and New England, Whittingham — seeing at the 2012 alumni game that his former all-Mountain West defensive tackle had wised up — invited him to become Utah’s team chaplain and help coordinate the team’s academics.

Fifita spoke to the Utes for 10 to 15 minutes twice a week, quoting from the Bible and sharing anecdotes from his own life. He jokes that he was "stealing money" from the program, because it was such a cozy gig, but still, he yearned to be a coach. He landed two offers. One, to be strength and conditioning coach at Hawaii, the other at Whittingham’s old stomping grounds.

"Coach Whitt just advised me that if coaching football was what I wanted to do, then I needed to take this job."

That was the right advice, he said Monday.

Toone’s route to Pocatello was more conventional. Like Fifita, he played a couple seasons in the NFL after leaving the U. in 2006, getting drafted in the seventh round by Tennessee. Unlike Fifita, he jumped into coaching right away.

He turned to Whittingham first, but there were no opportunities for him at Utah. Instead, he took a position as a graduate assistant with former coach Urban Meyer at Florida, who retired after his first year in Gainesville. Then it was onto Logan with Gary Andersen — another coach whose first D-I duty came at Idaho State.

Finally, Mike Kramer hired the Blackfoot, Idaho, native to his first full-fledged assistant post, working with Roger Cooper to mend a defense that Kramer said was "an unmitigated disaster."

So far, so good. In 2012, the Bengals allowed opponents to score 49 or more points eight times, and 70 or more four times. In 2013, ISU opponents topped 40 just three times, and two of those (BYU and Washington) were FBS schools.

"We were so bad at defense in ’12, it just defies description," Kramer said. "Last year, just in one season, we were able to slow everybody down, gain some confidence and play with a lot more aplomb."


Season opener Idaho St. at Utah

O Thursday, 5:30 p.m.

TV » Pac-12 Network


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Utah coaches, Idaho State ties

Kyle Whittingham* » 1988-91 linebackers and special teams, 1992-93 defensive coordinator

Andy Ludwig » 1989-91 quarterbacks and wide receivers

Dave Christensen* » 1990-91 offensive line, tight ends, running backs

Gary Andersen* » 1992-94 defensive line

*First Division-I job

Idaho St. at Utah

At Rice-Eccles Stadium

Kickoff » 5:30 p.m.

TV » Pac-12 Network

Radio » 700 AM

Records » Utah (0-0); Idaho State (0-0)

Series history » Utah leads 6-0

Last meeting » Sept. 10, 1994 at Utah; Utah 66, ISU 0

About the Utes » Utah is 36-0 against teams currently in the Big Sky. ... The Utes are planning to play Dominique Hatfield at both cornerback and receiver, making him the first two-way player since Eric Weddle.

About the Bengals » Idaho State quarterback Justin Arias threw for 3,547 yards and 24 touchdowns last year, and he will play behind five returning starters on the offensive line.