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Gordon Monson: Kyle Whittingham is the best football coach Utah has ever had

Urban Meyer and Ike Armstrong had better records, but Utes’ current coach has success at a higher level, and staying power.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham becomes emotional as he watches a tribute on the big screen to his former running back Ty Jordan during Utah’s game against the Weber State Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

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There was a day when Kyle Whittingham’s job as supreme leader of Utah football rightly teetered in a precarious state of imbalance and uncertainty. He initially struggled in that role and was staring down the threat that nearly every college football head coach faces when he goes 15-10 over his first two seasons and then starts the next year at 1-3 — particularly after the previous guy, some dude named Urban, went 22-2.

That was a long time ago.

Now, 15 seasons later, Whittingham has beamed himself to a different sphere, a rare demesne of security, a comfort zone as wide as Jimmy Kimmel’s, hovering consistently in a most lofty realm.

How lofty?

Lofty enough not just to have given Whittingham extensive license, enabling him — barring disaster, in spite of what happened to Gary Patterson at TCU — to stay at Utah for as long as he wants, but also earning a distinction.

This designation: Whittingham is Utah’s best-ever football coach.

That statement comes haltingly and after serious consideration, what with Urban Meyer having been that “previous guy,” doing what he did in his two seasons leading the Utes, jacking that program into theretofore untouched, unheard of trajectories. And an admission here: I never watched in person the teams of Ike Armstrong, the coach Whittingham will pass in total Utah victories in the days ahead. Arguments can emerge, whomever your personal front-runner is.

What I am sure of is that Whittingham taking the Utes from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12 is a challenge unparalleled in the history of Utah football. Not only has he boosted the Utes into the Pac-12, making a success of that arduous transition, but to the upper echelons of that league. He has no conference championship — yet — but he’s come oh-so close, pushing and pulling Utah to a position of annual power among the Pac-12′s best teams.

He’s come within whispers of championships, bettered once by Washington and once by Oregon in title games.

And this year? There’s a shot.

Were it to actually happen, it would be the greatest coaching feat of Whittingham’s career, even surpassing his unbeaten run in 2008. He’s guiding a team this time that lost to BYU and San Diego State, getting tangled up in its quarterback choice and then untangling it, and that suffered the shooting death of a beloved teammate in a heartbreaking, senseless killing — is there any other kind? — after another teammate was lost to the blast of a gun in December.

A tip of the cap to Whittingham, not only for the arc of an entire head-coaching career, for longevity must be heavily factored in through such a best-ever evaluation, but for the immediate skill and work, sweat and tears he’s put in and put out.

Remarkable.

The whole of that sort of focus and force through adversity is reminiscent of a period of time when Whittingham was Utah’s defensive coordinator and his mentor, his father Fred, unexpectedly passed away in the middle of the season, while Fred’s son was busy preparing his defense for … you know, football games. When Whittingham spoke at his dad’s funeral, he said: “My dad is my hero.”

Then he went back to what Fred would have expected — no, required — of him: to coach. Not just to coach, but to coach his butt off. So he did, including a shutout of BYU, the first time the Cougars had been held scoreless since 1975, in a game where his defense was absolutely immovable. (The inclement weather helped, too.)

“It’s been emotional for me,” he said after that game. “I feel like I’ve been torn in 15 different directions. I’ve just tried to focus on doing my job, that’s what my dad would have wanted …”

He paused to contain the backed-up plumbing in his eyes.

“… It hasn’t been easy. It still isn’t. There have been many sleepless nights. Time will heal me, but right now I’m just trying to soak it all in. But even with this win, it’s still always in the back of your mind. It’s always there.”

He added: “I’ve had a responsibility to this team, to these players.”

It’s a responsibility that has stayed with him this season, but also remained on his shoulders in one way or another every season, through dips and peaks of every kind, through winning and losing and those bigger, more important things, too.

As mentioned, it hasn’t always been remarkable.

When Whittingham stepped in as Meyer’s replacement in 2005, there were holes in the program after an undefeated season, and there were many lessons for the locum tenens to learn. If he hadn’t been a good student, he never would have lasted.

Over that early term, Whittingham made mistakes, his teams underachieved, he labored with finding the right tone and tenor in properly working with his assistants and motivating his players. It’s not unusual, but some of them loved him and some hated him.

Whittingham was forever bright, but his demeanor was intense, emotional, explosive, sometimes corrosive. He wanted to hold everyone around him accountable — his players, his staff, his trainers, his secretaries, his water boys and girls, his headphone attendant, his milkman — but the trick was to hold them tight without suffocating them.

He needed trusted allies, not huffed-up enemies.

He stubbornly took show-no-weakness stances when there were weaknesses apparent to everyone. He bristled when he was questioned about dumb coaching decisions, such as the infamous one against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, long before the Utes were in what would become the Pac-12, where he removed Brett Ratliff from the game after the quarterback led Utah straight down the field to score on a sweet touchdown pass, tying the count at 7-all. He inserted Tommy Grady, who threw a pick-six, igniting a Bruin rout.

In the direct aftermath, Whittingham wanted accountability from everyone but himself, scoffing at criticism, revealing insecurities, denying what was his fault, what was real. His early teams played great on occasion, but bad on others. Inconsistency was a problem. The Utes periodically ranged from disorganized to embarrassing. In subsequent years, Whittingham’s offensive coordinators were here today, gone later today. He made strategic errors.

And he stressed the run to a fault. But then, he echoed that long ago straight from the mouth of Meyer: “If you control the ball by running it, nobody’s going to beat you. A quarterback’s best friend is a strong run game.”

A quarterback’s best friend isn’t a coach who loves to run and run and run the ball. At times, Whittingham took Meyer’s advice too literally.

Hold it. Hold it right there.

The point here isn’t to execrate Whittingham, it’s to praise him.

But showing how far he’s come is part of the commendation.

What has Whittingham been in a majority of seasons if not consistent? His teams, too. That’s exactly what he and they have been. Whittingham gets the credit for that, having been the constant in maintaining the Utes as a defensive-minded team that truly worries whoever lines up against it, an opponent to be respected and feared, even in its imperfection.

Which is to say, the coach has grown, paid attention and adjusted, smartly evolving. “I’m a guy who deals with reality really well,” he once told me. “I am boring, but that’s the way I like it.”

That’s even more impressive than it would have been had he arrived as some sort of charismatic coaching Wunderkind, a genius, a splashy prodigy touched by the heavenly hand of Knute Rockne or Bear Bryant, naturally destined for a tremendous career. He had certain advantages, learning as he did from Fred, a respected football man, and from others, such as LaVell Edwards and Meyer. But after years as an assistant, he had to sprout into a comprehensive head coach, which requires the skill of a shrewd, gifted CEO.

Whittingham has become both.

Whenever he’s been favored with great success, the first thing he’s done is pay tribute to his players. “Bottom line,” he’s said, “players are the ones who win games.” It’s a humble projection, but a truthful one. He knows football inside and out, but his identity now lies in his adapted, rocksteady character.

When Whittingham in recent seasons is asked postgame questions, he rarely dodges them, instead being as straightforward and honest as he can be. Typically, though, he is aware of the effects his comments have on those players. He’s absorbed his education well. That’s what a stellar coach does. Lives and learns.

And that’s exactly what Whittingham is — stellar.

The best Utah has ever had.

Armstrong won his games, but not at a substantial Power 5 level. Meyer hauled Utah to new vistas, but only briefly. Whittingham sustained it.

He is Utah football. He’s become that, earned it.

His record over the past five-plus seasons heading into Saturday’s game against Arizona sat at 45-23. His record in the Pac-12 was 85-55 and his overall record was 140-69, one more win tying him with Armstrong for the all-time most for a coach at Utah. It was an achievement of which, as The Tribune’s Josh Newman this week reported, Whittingham was utterly unaware. Armstrong had fewer losses, but also an easier schedule. In addition, KW has nurtured fantastic talent, having 21 players selected in the past five NFL drafts alone.

Ask opposing coaches about facing Whittingham’s Utes and they’ll tell you about the difficulty that challenge presents. He’s put a governor on his emotions, most of the time, although, pity the fool who works for him and neglects to do his work. Being unprepared is loathsome to Utah’s boss.

Remember that just two seasons after Whittingham’s 15-10 start, he led the Utes to an undefeated season and the most notable win in school history — over Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

That’s exceptional.

The coach (and his players) made it happen.

There is no bias or favoritism here. I’m no buddy of Whittingham’s. I like the man, though I’m not sure that door swings both ways. When the coach was having troubles with former athletic director Chris Hill, which he most definitely was, Whittingham threatened to leave the Utes. And he and his minions used the media, myself included, to publicize the fact not only that he might exit stage left, but he’d consider heading to a certain in-state rival.

We weren’t making that stuff up. It was being fed to me and a couple of others by people extremely close to Kyle. It didn’t happen, and Whittingham played us to get that word out and turn the momentum his way in the dispute. And it worked. He benefitted from that deception, ending up re-signing with the Utes and he’s been nicely remunerated for his efforts — with huge stacks of cash.

None of that matters in calling him the best. He just is. I’ve got nothing to gain from complimenting or celebrating him. Just saying it all plain here.

“Every day, I’m still trying to become qualified for this job,” he’s said. “There’s so much to it, so many variables, things you have to adjust to, not only year to year, but week to week and day to day. As long as you don’t think that you have all the answers to everything, that you have it all figured out, you have a chance to keep progressing.”

Progressed, he has.

He’s stayed home and mastered his craft. Meyer took two, skipped town, and found his greatness elsewhere.

Kyle Whittingham is a very, very, very good football coach.

If he finds a way to win the Pac-12 and head to the Rose Bowl, and maybe win it, that status should be cranked from very, very, very good to … great.

Either way, he’s the best Utah’s ever had. And that’s heaping high praise on a coach who after all these years deserves it.

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