Advocates can blow it up bigger than it is. Critics can pick at it, making it smaller than it should be.
When it comes to Kyle Whittingham’s bowl record, it’s easier to edge toward the former, not the latter. Plainly put, in the college football postseason, the man knows how to grab victory by the throat with his bare hands and thrash it around to complete acquiescence. No matter how rough the going gets for his team in October or November, everything smooths out in December.
If Whittingham’s team is accomplished enough to qualify for a bowl game, it’s going to win it.
The numbers — 11-1 — are convincing enough. Taken comprehensively, including circumstances in the run-up to those games, the record becomes more impressive. The Utah coach has won bowl games with more efficiency than even that little-big man in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban is only tied with Whittingham for bowl triumphs and has suffered more defeats, including one administered by the Utes in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
There are concessions to make. But even in those there are underpinnings that bolster a favorable review of Whittingham’s work.
The wins started with the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, a victory that was shared with, if not wholly borrowed from Urban Meyer, who coached that Utah team to an undefeated season before bolting for Florida. He was hired before the bowl game that year and was permitted to hang around for the festivities as Whittingham took half the wheel in beating Pitt.
Thereafter, the Utes in chronological order won:
• The 2005 Emerald Bowl, beating Georgia Tech, 38-10.
• The 2006 Armed Forces Bowl, beating Tulsa, 25-13.
• The 2007 Poinsettia Bowl, beating Navy, 35-32.
• The 2009 Sugar Bowl (2008 season), beating Alabama, 31-17.
• The 2009 Poinsettia Bowl, beating Cal, 37-27.
• The 2011 Sun Bowl, beating Georgia Tech, 30-27.
• The 2014 Las Vegas Bowl, beating Colorado State, 45-10.
• The 2015 Las Vegas Bowl, beating BYU, 35-28.
• The 2016 Foster Farms Bowl, beating Indiana, 26-24.
• The 2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl, beating West Virginia, 30-14.
The only loss came in Vegas in 2010, when Boise State crushed the Utes, 26-3.
Regardless of who Utah plays in the postseason, with that single 2010 exception, Whittingham knows how to get his team prepared. None of his opponents, with the exception of Alabama at the end of the 2008 season, were elite. That’s the biggest concession to make here, and it should not be downplayed or shuffled to the side.
These bowl opponents have not been great teams.
West Virginia was 7-5 coming in, and the ’Neers were playing without their starting quarterback and their top running back. They absolutely sucked in Dallas. Indiana finished 6-7 in 2016. BYU finished 9-4, and was moderately OK. Colorado State was out of the Mountain West. Georgia Tech was 8-5. Cal finished 8-5. Navy was 8-5. Tulsa was 8-5, out of Conference USA. And Georgia Tech was 7-5.
The crowds, outside of the Fiesta and the Sugar, attending those games ranked from meager to modest, including the nearly vacant Cotton Bowl on Tuesday against West Virginia.
But even in those significant concessions there is honor.
Some of the Utah teams weren’t all that great, either. A number of them were coming off slides through November, requiring Whittingham to get his guys put back together enough to win. And the motivation factor should not be overlooked.
Opponents — such as this season’s West Virginia team — often come into a middle-tier bowl game without drive or purpose. Whittingham’s teams almost never fall short there. He seems to stir within his players a need to win, regardless of how good/bad the Utes are, how good/bad the opponent is, how good/bad the crowd is, how good/bad the excitement around the game is.
That’s worthy of note. And the fact that Whittingham’s record now stands where it does is testament to a coach’s ability to make a postseason game carry meaning and heft — beyond his own financial bonus written into his contract — that others do not feel, do not grasp, do not exhibit.
Whittingham readies for these bowl games by dividing practice time between those players who will start in the games and those who are up-and-comers, presumed contributors for whatever comes next. Not surprisingly to anyone who knows Whittingham, there’s not much goofing around in that preparation, only focused intensity.
And the results are painted by the numbers that everyone can see.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.