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

Published August 28, 2014 9:52 am

College football • Utes coaches started on Bengals' sideline; now two more ex-Utes are facing them.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

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."

Kramer also praised Fifita for his role in the transformation not only of ISU's D-line, but of his personal life.

"I'm proud of both those guys," he said.

Whittingham said Idaho State, playing in the competitive Big Sky, is a great place for a young coach to get started.

A 160-mile drive north on Interstate 15 is where Whittingham and Christensen did just that. Christensen has estimated he made about $18,000.

Whittingham was struck that Christensen played and worked as a graduate assistant under Washington legend Don James, and Christensen saw in Whittingham the attention to detail, discipline and energy that he strived for himself.

Their families held dinners together, and when D.J. Christensen was born, Jamie — a nurse — was by Susie's side at the local hospital.

Christensen said he's studied Whittingham's career since they went their separate ways, and he "always thought it would be great to be on the other side of the ball with the experience and the success that he had as a defensive coach."

And they haven't changed a lick, they both say. But they've learned a few things — things that Toone and Fifita may pick up before long.

"Obviously with 20-something years under our belt between that point in time, hopefully we're a little more experienced and know a little bit more about the profession, but you're constantly learning," Whittingham said. "You've never arrived as a coach."

mpiper@sltrib.com

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

O 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. —

Season opener Idaho St. at Utah

O Thursday, 5:30 p.m.

TV • Pac-12 Network