MONSON: Losing football season could lead to exit for Utes' Whittingham
The morning after Utah was eliminated from the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, Ute coach Ray Giacoletti, who after just three seasons had been freshly strong-armed into retirement by athletic director Chris Hill, sprawled himself out across a lounge chair at a hotel pool and bathed in the hot sun.
He had a cold beverage in his hand and no other place to be.
There was an empty lounger next to him.
Some think it has Kyle Whittingham's name written all over it.
As spring football unfurls, Whittingham says that he's all comfortable and eager for the fall to arrive, that he's learned from the past two seasons, his extended initiation as a head coach.
He needs to have learned.
Problems sprang up over that span, including stretches when the Utes did not play up to their potential, when egregious coaching mistakes were made, and later defended in almost comical fashion, when results have not pleased - nor drawn attendance from - fans who quickly had grown accustomed to the success of Urban Meyer.
Giacoletti knows about the hazards of following in the wide wake of a winning coach. Gary Crowton is fully aware, too.
Meyer was only at Utah for a couple of seasons, but 22-2 left little room for dawdling, and plenty for the possibility of falling backward.
Whittingham has gone 15-10 in the same amount of time. He's finished well down the standings in the Mountain West, but won two bowl games and gone 1-1 against Brigham Young. There have been big wins and big losses.
He thoroughly knows football, and he's generally a bright man, but has struggled to find his proper place as a head coach. In that search, a few of his flaws have emerged.
Emotion too often veers his compass. Whittingham sometimes flies off the handle and gets in the grilles of his players, who subsequently are switched off by his intense and explosive reactions. Plenty of successful head coaches are intense, but for Whittingham the key is holding his players accountable without turning too many of them away from or against him.
The ones who are similarly constituted love him. Others do not. The same was true of Meyer, but he found ways to motivate. Whittingham needs to do the same - push or pull the bulk of his players, and to remember the words of John Wooden, who said, "Do not treat all players the same, because they are not the same."
Whittingham is a man's man, much like his late father, Fred. He would take pride in that comparison, and he should. But his show-no-weakness stance, when there are weaknesses, has the ever-present potential to blow up in his face and cost him credibility.
It did last season.
People who questioned his infamous decision of inserting Tommy Grady into the UCLA game, directly after Brett Ratliff masterfully guided the Utes down the field, throwing a touchdown pass to tie the score at seven, and, then, Grady threw an interception returned by UCLA for a touchdown, triggering a rout, were almost scoffed at by Whittingham.
It came across as beyond condescending.
It was, "How dare you stupid people question me."
That makes it difficult for fans to get behind him, to show forbearance through the undulations that are bound to come. Whittingham seems unaware as to how that reaction sounds to people whose support teeters in the balance.
The reason that point is so significant is this: Fans who don't get behind a football coach don't cut him as much slack when times are tough. And that increases not just the pressure he's bound to feel, but the likelihood that administrators will pull out the hook, sooner rather than later.
That's never good, especially when expectations were jacked higher than they should have been following Meyer's off-the-charts tenure.
Whittingham's us-against-the-world mentality rears up occasionally as a denial of reality. That's not advantageous, not over the long haul.
As for the results on the field, his record has had moments of glory, and moments that were difficult to fully understand. Yes, Whittingham was still in the process of building, or restructuring, a program that lost some - coaches and players - of what had made it great in 2004, but the inconsistency was harsh.
Utah's abysmal performance against Boise State at home last year was followed later by a game at Wyoming in which the Utes fell behind, 31-0. They were disorganized and disheartened - on offense and defense. Utah converted two first downs in 15 third-down attempts in that loss.
And there was the defeat at New Mexico, after the Utes took a 21-0 lead. In the run-up to that game, Whittingham publicly complained about having to face the mediocre Lobos with a backup quarterback as his starter, suddenly referring to Brian Johnson's redshirt season. The error in that cover-my-butt statement was Ratliff had been Utah's starter all season.
Some blame a good bit of Utah's past troubles on offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who Whittingham hired right from the start, and also on the lack of a running game.
Clearly there are areas for improvement, all ultimately accountable to him, on the coach's plate. It will be interesting to watch, in addition, the manner in which Whittingham handles Marquis Wilson's recent drunken-driving charges, as far as finding the correct measure of discipline for a key player, and setting the appropriate tone for the character of his team.
On the other hand, Utah has accomplished some positives under his watch, finishing strong the past two seasons. That is noted alongside.
Should Whittingham, then, be unceremoniously shoved off to take the pool lounger next to Giacoletti after the 2007 season?
Only if the Utes fall apart, a condition for which Hill - and everybody else with an opinion - will have to find his own definition, be it a sub-.500 season, a .500 season or something close to it. If that happens, many seats will go unoccupied at Rice-Eccles, and just like empty spaces at the Huntsman Center, that's a huge barometer for the timely dropping of a guillotine blade.
For Whittingham's part, he's already talking about a coming league championship.
That would be a certain way to stay out of the hot sun.