A week before training camp in the summer of 2015, Kenneth Scott made his way up the Wasatch Mountains for the annual rite of passage inside the Utah football program.
In a three-story cabin near Park City, about 30 minutes from the freeway, Scott met up with the rest of Kyle Whittingham’s leadership council that year. It was a tradition started back in 2005, when Whittingham first took over the program.
Scott knew what to expect. He and the rest of the players would be without cell service for the weekend, and put through a series of challenges. It would be anything from rock climbing to treasure hunts. And when dusk hit, there would be potluck cooking and talks deep into the night. It’s Whittingham’s ultimate exercise in development and building family.
“I think that’s what he prides himself on, creating this environment of development,” Scott said. “Yeah, we can probably go into the [transfer] market and get the latest people, which will be good. But he develops us over the long haul. Sticks with us. Knows us.”
It’s old school, but it’s the model that slowly built a juggernaut in the mountains of Salt Lake City. It’s taken the Utes to four of the past five Pac-12 championship games and landed them a date in Pasadena a year ago. Once an afterthought in the Pac-12, Utah is now the conference’s winningest program over the last half decade.
But times change and the ground shifted under Whittingham’s family-style behemoth. And this week, in another championship game against USC, Whittingham is preparing to see perhaps the greatest threat to his program’s way of life in 18 years.
USC is the new school, a traditional power that realized doing it the traditional way wasn’t always good enough anymore. It represents what college football is becoming.
It’s a group built on transfers, 26 of them to be exact. It’s a team fueled by NIL money, millions of dollars worth. For as much as Utah is built on lasting development and relationships, USC is now built on one-year transactions that propelled it from four wins last year to 11 this year.
And when the two teams meet on Friday, the outcome will mean everything to the Utes, Trojans and the Pac-12, but the real winner may be decided well after both teams leave Las Vegas.
If USC were to take down Utah — a Utes team that was supposed to be the best in Whittingham’s tenure — what would that mean for Whittingham? Does it mean his model can longer work in his era of the sport?
If Utah leaves Las Vegas a champion again, does that mean a threat is extinguished for good or simply for now?
“I think [this game] does hold a lot of weight. You know, just to prove that his way of doing things is still a viable option,” former Utes wide receiver Dylan Slavens said. “It’s gonna be a really difficult road for a guy like him, who kind of likes to develop players and develop that family-like atmosphere in college football. ... I think he’d rather leave than change who he is.”
A changing landscape
When Whittingham stood up on the dais back when he was introduced as Utah’s head coach, he was resolute in his mandate: Build a sustainable winner.
Urban Meyer brought the program to new heights from 2003-04, taking the team to the Fiesta Bowl as the first non-Power Five team to bust into what was then the Bowl Championship Series.
But Whittingham was stepping into the shadows of the other side of that success. Alex Smith left for the NFL draft. A short burst onto the national scene seemed finite.
To Whittingham, the model of how to make a one-hit-wonder a consistent presence was simple. Build a strong culture, give players time, and be rewarded when middle-tier recruits punch above their weight class.
In all his years as coach, Utah’s best recruiting classes never registered in the top 30 in the country, per 247Sports. It took time, but it worked. He won 214 games, the most in program history.
“It felt very player-centric. It wasn’t about money. It was about development,” Slavens said. “He was really good at giving players chances to improve. And then the players trusted the coach enough to stick around because of the family environment he’s built at Utah.”
That resolute mindset, though, has shown fractures this year. He still thinks his way is the right way, but maybe it isn’t the winning way any longer.
“Pay them a bunch of money. ... Do you have money we can use to pay them?” Whittingham said when asked for his thoughts on NIL rules. “That’s kind of what it comes down to. … I said before, there’s going to come a time in the very, very near future where the top-25 NIL pots of money are going to mirror exactly the top-25 teams in the country.”
This week, he noted teams like USC can catch up to what he has built at Utah in a single year. To some, it felt like the resolution that eventually, sooner rather than later, he was being phased out.
“It’s a lot easier than it used to be because of the transfer portal,” he said. “You saw several teams this year have almost complete 180s because of talent brought in through the portal. ... It has turned it into a one, two-year project.”
A players coach
During downtimes in the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Whittingham would go golfing with some of the kickers. Utah was desperately trying to break through to the Rose Bowl, ranked No. 3 in the nation at one point, but Whittingham wanted to go and spend time with his guys.
Former Utah kicker Andy Phillips said that’s just who Whittingham is. He still golfs with them. He isn’t a one-year relationship guy, he is a long-standing relationship guy.
“It’s super rare, especially now. I mean, you only have a few coaches like him,” Slavens said.
Because of how close he is with players, they grow. This current team in particular felt like the culmination of all of that.
It’s not to say there are no transfers and no NIL money on the team, because there are. But it’s minimal, and not even close to the estimated $2.1 million valuation USC quarterback Caleb Williams is bringing in alone. Williams hauled in deals from Beats by Dre and a Beverly Hills real estate company upon arriving in Los Angeles.
Instead, most of the main players are guys who stuck it out. Cam Rising lost his job to Charlie Brewer a year ago, but then became one of the best quarterbacks in program history. Thomas Yassmin was another guy buried in the depth chart for years but is now playing a key role with injuries. Utah’s top wide receiver, Devaughn Vele, is a former walk-on.
Whittingham had his best group possibly ever, with real College Football Playoff aspirations. But then they lost to Florida the first week of the season and UCLA a couple of weeks after that. Now it is an underdog to USC just to get back to the Rose Bowl.
If 18 years of work can be overtaken that quickly, does it mean Utah’s model will eventually fail?
“Just look at this big game this weekend, right?” Phillips said. “Obviously NIL had a huge impact on the success of USC. It’s hard to know if that will crack down on the integrity of these programs that are built around family and built around those relationships. I’d like to think that they’d be able to stay together but you know, money talks, unfortunately.”
Phillips is going skiing with Whittingham in a couple of weeks, whenever this season ends. The coach’s future, at some point, will likely come up.
And different people have different perspectives on what should, and will come next. Some believe this spells the end, regardless of the USC outcome on Friday. Others say Utah and Whittingham have a path forward.
With the playoff expanding, there will be more opportunities for everyone. If it was a 12-team playoff, Utah would have made it last year and narrowly be in the picture this year at No. 11.
“I think what they’re expanding to is giving him a little bit more new blood,” Scott said.
Others think the new world is going to take time for Whittingham to digest. And maybe time isn’t on the side of a 63-year-old coach who has said he does not intend to coach past 65.
“I would say it does wear on him. I mean you’d have to be superhuman for it to not,” Phillips said.
But regardless of their predictions for the future, Utes past and present were watching this week. In a way, the Pac-12 title game matchup is everything Whittingham represents against everything the new world is pushing onto him.
And regardless of the game’s outcome, they know there is truth and there is reality. The truth is Whittingham will be able to retire whenever he wants, on his own terms. But the reality is the current era of college football will play a factor in any decision he makes.
Whether or not the Utes beat USC, Whittingham will still one day have to decide if he wants to try to beat what USC represents.