With the news that Kyle Whittingham has hired Gary Andersen as his eventual replacement … err, as an associate head coach at Utah, the program’s future is becoming, if not an absolute lock, at least a bit more predictable and recognizable.
Let’s start with the juicy, long-shot stuff, and speculate from there.
Whittingham’s name has appeared in recent reports regarding open NFL head coaching jobs, in particular the vacancy with the New York Giants. ESPN and other news outlets have listed Whittingham among the potential candidates. Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel has him ranked fourth on a list of 10 college coaches, behind only David Shaw, Jim Harbaugh and Brian Kelly, who could be in line for a jump to the NFL.
“I never comment on job possibilities,” Whittingham has said when asked about them in the past. But he’s also said he would “take things as they come.”
If he did, in fact, take them as they come, or take one as it came, the Utes would need a capable, versed mind and body to step in: Yep … Andersen.
The former Utah alum and assistant and defensive coordinator, and head coach at Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State has always coveted the Utah head coaching position. And now, after those sometimes-glorious, sometimes-tortuous sojourns in Logan, Madison and Corvallis, he is coming home to the place where he is most comfortable, to the place where he belongs, the place where he can stage for his next top job.
Logic dictates that the Whittingham-to-New York chatter will not actually happen. There are other more likely choices. Kyle is not the frontline candidate.
Still, his name wouldn’t appear on such lists from reputable outlets if there weren’t at least bits of substance to them. This much is a fact: Somebody in the know, somebody in a position of power, is considering Whittingham a potential good fit.
And when you think about it, Whittingham is a good fit. Not just for the Giants, but for a number of NFL jobs — in the present and in the near future.
Think about the characteristics that have made him successful at Utah: He’s defensive-minded. His No. 1 priority on that defense is to stop the run. He’s conservative by inclination, but also, at times, willing to take risks.
He’s organized. He’s smart. He’s a stickler for detail. He spends substantial time with his coaches and players on the importance of possessing the ball, not turning it over. He loves the run game, but understands the importance of passing, too. He wants explosive offense, but not at the expense of his defense. He stresses superior special-teams play. He’s put a lot of players in the NFL, even guys who weren’t exactly on the fast-track to the league. He develops them.
And then, there’s Whittingham’s demeanor, which is darn-near perfect for professional players, for the pro game. He’s clear and concise, direct with his players, measured and demanding and also excitable when the situation calls for it. In addition, he’s typically honest with the media, answering questions with candor, without giving up too much information. Like all coaches, he’s somewhat paranoid. He can be stubborn. He’s not the most creative mind in the business.
He’s not flawless, but then … who is?
Through an adulthood of coaching, Whittingham has learned a lot of lessons along the way. He can get fired up, but his rough edges have been knocked off. The days of Whittingham ordering up a late onside kick with his team ahead by a thousand points because he’s ticked off at what an opposing coach said at a pregame pep rally are long gone. In a game filled with extraordinarily large and aggressive — and sometimes angry — men, he’s about as mature a coach as there is.
After losses, he suffers. But, more significantly, he studies and identifies what went wrong, and then corrects what can be corrected. That’s necessary in the NFL, where the regular season is long, with varying chapters and results from one stretch to the other. Tides ebb and flow there, making it necessary for a coach to keep himself and his players afloat, even — no, especially — in the face of adversity.
To that end, Whittingham can motivate, but he’s equally about breaking down film and making technical adjustments.
Another note: Kyle’s father, Fred Sr., was a respected NFL assistant coach for many years. After playing in the league for the better part of a decade, Fred coached with the Rams and the Raiders. None other than Andersen once told a story about Fred Sr. and that aforementioned respect.
Andersen said many years ago when he tried out for the Rams as a player, he was in the weight room lifting with other offensive linemen, including Rams great Jackie Slater. He said there was all kinds of banter going on, a mix of working and joking — until Fred W. walked in. “When he did,” Andersen said, “everyone in the room fell silent.” That’s the kind of esteem Kyle’s dad carried among the pros.
Could the son earn the same regard?
Does he even want it?
Is he ready to make room for Andersen to take over?
Already comfortable in his home state, making $3.6 million annually at Utah, having hashed out most of his past differences with athletic director Chris Hill, and set up for a nice retirement, Whittingham would have to have a great offer to make that kind of change. Whether he is wanting to do so is unknown.
If he is, Andersen awaits.
There’s another possibility for grading Andersen’s road.
Whittingham is 58 years old, and never has appeared to be the type who would coach and coach and coach until he died on the sideline. He is a well-adjusted guy with varied interests, an individual who has made his money and could walk away from the game, or at least take a few steps, and with good health and a good number of golden years ahead, enjoy life.
And then … You-Know-Who is the ready-made replacement.
It’s all speculation, but it’s the sort of conjecture that serves a purpose, no matter what happens.
Whittingham just came off a 7-6 season, a year in which Utah went 3-6 in league play. As some Ute fans grumble, it’s worth remembering that quality coaching, even if it isn’t flawless, is indeed noticed, as is rock-steady demeanor, in places far beyond Utah and the Pac-12.
And like any good, confident leader, Whittingham, when his time does come, wants to leave the program he poured his coaching life into in the competent hands of a prepared, qualified successor.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.