Amid the many positives Kyle Whittingham has built into Utah football, one of the most notable is its sometimes-surprising propensity to win big games -- games similar to this Saturday's monstrosity at TCU.
Earlier in his five-year stint as head coach, Whittingham's teams surprised all right ... at both ends of that dial. They ascended to great heights against some of the better teams they played and splashed to deep nadirs against dogs and also-rans.
No two-week swing illustrated that more than the Utes beating highly ranked UCLA, 44-6, in 2007 and then following it with their infamous 27-0 embarrassment at UNLV.
Since that time, Utah has smoothed the ride against all varieties, losing just two games.
But the success in the biggies stands out.
Whittingham's overall record in big games is 14-8, highlighted by last season's ridiculously huge win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, a victory that punctuated other wins over Oregon State, TCU and BYU. The Utes' bowl record under Whittingham is 4-0.
How exactly does he get his team jacked up to play and win?
Asked that question the other night, the coach stumbled around, lost somewhere between humility and veracity.
"Our guys prepare very well," he said.
"It's finding the hot buttons," he said.
"It's trying to get them riled up," he said.
"Football is a passionate sport, so there's got to be some [emotion] involved," he said.
Yeah, the emotion. That's something Whittingham specializes in. Like a lot of coaches, he game plans meticulously. He organizes until the cows wander home. He breaks down film and studies an opponent's tendencies ... blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But Whittingham also knows how to tap into his players' psyches; he underscores areas of great challenges for them and then he motivates them to flat-out man up. He finds those hot buttons and pushes hard.
Somebody once said, "All coaching is, is taking players where they can't take themselves."
Once a Whittingham weakness, that now is a strength.
He inspires confidence within his team, as evidenced by freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn, who said the following about facing the fourth-ranked Horned Frogs: "I'm ready. I'll be ready to play. I'm not scared."
On the other hand, to quote the great Jedi master Yoda: "You will be. You will be."
Three years ago, before the Utes played TCU, the Frogs had a tough defensive end named Tommy Blake. Whittingham was worried about his offensive line's ability to keep Blake off the quarterback. So, he hung up a poster of the D-end in front of the linemen and had them write whatever they wanted on it. Getting increasingly frothy, the players plastered nasty notes all over the poster, and then Whittingham, in a kind of motivational crescendo, tore the thing up. All hell broke loose.
That's the kind of stunt that in and of itself might not work so well, but added with the proper technical preparation sends a bunch of 300-pound, 20-year-olds through the roof.
"Kyle's not afraid to use anything as motivation," says one of his former players. "The practices the week before the TCU game aren't the same as the practices the week of Wyoming or San Diego State. He might yell at you if the effort isn't there the week of the Utah State game, but if it happens the week of TCU, he'll start practice over. He uses psychology, mind games, he'll fabricate a story, to get your attention.
"He'll call a team meeting and tell everybody: 'We're going to get our asses kicked.' He'll make you wonder: 'Am I doing enough to be ready this week?' That gets everyone hyper-focused."
And that's precisely what happened against Alabama, in the bowl many thought Utah couldn't win. In the minutes right after that game ended, with the victorious Utes hugging one another on the field as confetti floated through the air, bowl MVP Brian Johnson said: "Nobody believed we could win this game, nobody except us."
It was an absolute triumph of great coaching, great playing.
Whittingham's mix of prep and pep works, then, at least when the right combination of players is in place. That's the issue this week against TCU that trumps the will-Utah-be-ready question. It's a are-the-Utes-anywhere-near-good-enough question.
Even Whittingham isn't sure about the answer to that one: "There isn't one phase of [TCU's] game that isn't hitting on all cylinders," he said. Against some opponents, coaches, even good ones, can't take players where they can't take themselves.
More often than not, though, Whittingham does.