Henderson, Nev. » Facing a throng of reporters at the Green Valley Ranch during the Mountain West Conference media days, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham tried once more to answer the question he has been asked ever since his Utes beat Alabama in the 2008 Sugar Bowl to finish the season 13-0.
"So how does it feel to be the poster child of the BCS?," the reporter inquired.
Later, after explaining how every season is different and what the Utes did in 2008 won't have any effect on what the Utes do in 2009 in an effort to address the question, Whittingham admitted just how uncomfortable the topic is to him. It's a reminder that no matter how he tries to stay in the background of his program and put his players first, he can't. Like it or not, the Utes are the symbol of what is so wrong with the BCS in the minds of many college football followers and as coach of the Utes, Whittingham is the point person.
"I still kind of cringe at that," he said. "It's good for the conference and the university, but I'm just a football coach trying to win games. I don't have any agenda or platform or that kind of thing."
Being asked to delve into the political world of college football is just one of the many ways that life has changed for Whittingham since January, when Utah stunned college football by beating Alabama 31-17 to complete its second undefeated season in five years.
The game was indeed predicted to be a blowout, only no one thought it would be the Utes celebrating in the French Quarter. Since that win, Whittingham's life has been a whirlwind of TV appearances, coaching accolades, BCS controversy and speaking engagements as he went from a relatively unknown coach in the MWC to one whose 15 minutes of fame just keeps going and going, save for a few days of vacation when he escaped to Lake Powell with his family.
"I've been going on adrenalin, haven't slept very much," he said.
Now entering his fifth season, Whittingham is undoubtably the most recognizable coach in the MWC and indeed the man of the hour. Sure, TCU or BYU might take the spotlight from the Utes in 2009 as predicted by the media poll which placed those teams ahead of the Utes, but for now Whittingham is still the one who has it, the others are the have nots. Jim Rome, ESPN, CBS, they all want a piece of him.
"Everyone loves a winner," said his secretary, Helen Buchanan, who has the task of going through his many appearances and speaking requests. "Ever since the Sugar Bowl, they all want him. You know you've made it when Jim Rome calls."
The other coaches in the MWC? They want to be in his position.
They might even be a little jealous, TCU coach Gary Patterson hinted, as he went back to his childhood to explain how he and the other coaches view Whittingham and the Utes now.
"I grew up in a blue collar family and when families have more than what you have and you can be a little upset because you don't have that," he said. "But I changed my thought process with that. If they are fortunate to have that then fine...They earned something. They worked hard at beating Oregon State and to come back and beat us and win that game. They deserve what they have."
What Whittingham has is a new 5-year contract extension worth $1.2 million annually, a better known national identity and the same expectations of himself.
The first, he has been too busy to do anything with to celebrate. "As you can see by my outfits, I didn't buy anything," he said. "It's all Under Armour or Costco."
The second, he still isn't comfortable with, although he knows it comes with success. "If you are looking for anonymity, coaching in Division I football is not the realm you want to be in," he said.
The third, well, that is the area he believes will change the least going into the 2009 season. It's on the field where it's just himself and his football team that he remains most comfortable.
"It's all about the players," he said. "I'm very comfortable when the players are thrust in the spotlight, but I'm still not comfortable being the face of the BCS or whatever," he said.
Perhaps more than anything that uneasiness is why he is so eager for fall camp to start, when he can go from being the poster child of the BCS to just the Utes' coach again.
"What we did last year was great, but it's time to move on," he said. "We had that meeting in January. It wasn't easy to put it into practice, when the town was having parades, there was no clean cut from last year. Hopefully everything is behind us and we can move forward."
2005 7-5 4-4
2006 8-5 5-3
2007 9-4 5-3
2008 13-0 8-0
Totals 37-14 22-10