The suggestion seemed like a joke at first.
Like a few rogue Utah fans whose moods had turned from crimson to blue about the Utes’ disappointing finish at Washington on Saturday night, disheartened by a blown lead, a bad coaching decision to call timeout with 23 seconds left, a stoppage of play that contributed to the loss and now a 5-6 record, 2-6 in the Pac-12, after Utah started the season 4-0.
And then, as correspondence kept coming in, it became apparent that there really are more than a handful of fans who think it’s time for Utah to unload Kyle Whittingham. One of those messages stressed that if the Utes lose to Colorado this week, it will be the third time in the past six seasons under the coach that they will have wound up at 5-7.
Understood. That’s frustrating for those who pour their hearts and souls and cash into a program for which they root, to which they tie their self-esteem, their personal identities, their reason for living.
But … really?
There’s no scientific way to quickly determine the extent of such thinking. We could fire off a poll and be certain of measuring Utah fans’ thoughts on the matter — because polls are never wrong, right?
It’s hard to believe that a massive amount of Utes want the coach gone. He’s accomplished too much at the school for all the good to be swept out the back door, down the steps, down a back alley on account of some bad now.
So Whittingham blew that deal with the timeout. It didn’t work the way he wanted it to. He explained that he thought his defense could get the ball back for the offense, which could then, even with just seconds left, get Matt Gay, the best kicker in the land, in position to attempt a long field goal for the win.
Instead … well, you saw what happened.
Still, it was the coach’s aggressive attitude from start until those final seconds that helped boost the Utes to one of their best performances of the season against a team that is flat better than they are, a game that might have fallen their way had the fortunate aggression continued straight on through.
It didn’t, and that made Whittingham, in that moment, look wedged somewhere between careless and inept.
He is not. He is neither.
Whittingham has piloted the program through the biggest challenge it ever has faced — getting up to speed in the fast company of the Pac-12. If any lesson has rung in clear with that move, it is this — the success the Utes saw in the Mountain West was nice and all, the undefeated seasons, the bowl wins, but they never might have happened had Utah been faced with the schedules they play against now during those years.
That’s not meant to diminish Whittingham’s — and Urban Meyer’s — accomplishments before entrance into the Pac-12. But … yeah, it kind of is. That winning was good for who it was for, but all those complaints and protests about how Utah should have been this and that, national champs and all, were naive, including those that came from this corner.
Facing USC, Washington, Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington State, Oregon, week after week after week, is a hundred times more difficult than beating up a couple of marquee programs, mixed with New Mexico, Air Force, Wyoming, BYU, San Diego State, Colorado State.
It’s a whole different thing.
The fact that Whittingham has put his teams in a position to compete the way they have in the Pac-12 deserves praise, not derision.
Utah has compiled the following records, overall and in conference, since joining the big league in 2011: 8-5, 4-5; 5-7, 3-6; 5-7, 2-7; 9-4, 5-4; 10-3, 6-3; 9-4, 5-4; and now, this season.
That may not be good enough for some, but it’s pretty solid for those who remember what Utah football was for many, many years.
Can it be better? It can.
There’s so much necessary to climb over and conquer the Pac-12 challenge — most of it couched in recruiting. That’s what it takes to regularly embrace victory, and while the Utes have made progress in this regard, they aren’t quite there yet.
When Utah first joined the conference, one prominent writer who had covered the Pac-12 for years predicted it would take the Utes 25 seasons to get to the Rose Bowl. It’s been seven … and counting.
There are credible criticisms of Whttingham.
The offense has been a problem, and everybody knows it. The regular rotation of offensive coordinators has been ridiculous. The inconsistencies at quarterback have been plain to see. Whittingham has been the single constant in all of that. The month of November has been a nightmare in recent times. The Utes never have won the South.
But Whittingham also has established the Utes as a tough out around the league. Nobody looks forward to playing Utah, especially not at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Even in a down year like 2017, some of the Pac-12’s best teams barely beat the Utes — Stanford, USC, Washington. They counted themselves lucky to win.
Whittingham has much more to do. But what he’s already done is notable.
He makes $3.6 million. He should do notable things, and maybe more.
But he’s earned the chance to attempt it.
Those calling for his job are overreacting. Maybe they’re joking. Maybe they are lone voices in the crowd.
Here’s the truth: Whittingham should be appreciated, not canned — even at the end of a season that has had considerably too little to celebrate.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.