Kyle Whittingham laughed at the intent and implication of the follow-up question.
When he recently was asked what made him feel positive about the 2018 season, his 14th in the left seat of the cockpit at Utah, he rattled off a list of explanations, all of them having to do with individual and collective strengths of his players. They are talented, they are conscientious, they are diligent, they are leaders, they are two or three deep at most positions.
“I can’t wait to watch them play,” he said. “We have a chance to be a pretty good football team. There are a lot of reasons for optimism here.”
Great coaching, too?
“Yeah,” he said, pausing long enough for better effect. “All the coaches … uh, except for the head coach.”
As he praised others, as he deprecated himself with a smirk, as he spoke those words — We have a chance to be a pretty good football team? Are you kidding me? — Whittingham, after all these years, darn near morphed into the legend who helped carve him into the coach he’s become. He sounded like his own college coach … LaVell Edwards.
There are some differences between the two — Edwards drove a Pontiac, Whittingham drives a Porsche — but the similarities are distinct, foremost among them longevity. Edwards lasted 29 years at BYU, a tenure not likely to be matched in the swirl of modern-day coaching, where volatility rules. Whittingham, though, is on his way, which is to say, he’s going nowhere.
Edwards was once tempted by an offer to coach the Detroit Lions. Whittingham could have left Utah, could have taken a quality job elsewhere, but … why? The only serious threat to sheer him loose from his moorings came in a dispute with former Utah athletic director Chris Hill. That was eventually tucked away.
For Edwards, BYU wasn’t perfect, but it was home. For Whittingham, same thing with Utah. He has found success, and relished it, at a place others might use with the same number of wins as a steppingstone.
Whittingham, like Edwards, has transformed his football program, in his case benefiting from the foundation built by Ron McBride and Urban Meyer, and utilizing the opportunity presented when Utah landed in the Pac-12. Everyone partied that day in 2010, in a large suite at Rice-Eccles Stadium when the red-and-white balloons flew and the announcement was made that the Utes were leaving the Mountain West and heading to the Rose Bowl’s league. Everyone but Whittingham. Again, like Edwards, he was happy on the inside, but granite-faced, concerned, on the exterior.
He should have been. He knew, more than anybody, how challenging the move would be. Beating New Mexico and Air Force and Colorado State was one thing; beating USC and Stanford and Oregon was another.
Seven seasons into the fray, starting the eighth in the weeks ahead, Whittingham has bridged the gap from that lesser league to a greater one, a gap that was wide, one that could have seen the program fly off a cliff, spiral downward, crashing hard, plumbing the depths.
Well. The undefeated seasons are over, along with the complaints that the mainstream doesn’t appreciate the good things the Utes accomplish. The climb in the Pac-12 is arduous, and it always will be, but the fact is Utah belongs, not just in name, not simply because the powers-that-be invited it in, rather because Utah football is rock solid.
Who is the constant in all of that? Whittingham.
Ask any Pac-12 coach how he feels about having to play the Utes at Rice-Eccles on an October night, and any of them will look at you as though he’s landing at Normandy. They know the defense will be fierce, the opposing minds will be tough, the hitting will be hard, the winning problematic. That’s a reflection of the head coach.
There have been bumps along the way, criticisms, too.
Last season, when Whittingham called a timeout near the end of the Washington game in hopes that his defense would stop the Huskies and allow his offense to set up kicker Matt Gay for a long walk-off field goal, that bit of aggression bit him, giving Washington time to score and win. It happens.
Even legends endure that. Over his final four seasons at BYU, against competition that pales compared to what Whittingham’s teams face, Edwards lost 20 of 49 games, and he heard the complaints, but didn’t allow them to cut too deep. He powered on, finishing with an all-time record of 257-101-3, and the school named its stadium after him.
Utah’s offense under Whittingham has struggled — the passing game in particular. The quarterbacking has been inconsistent. The churn of offensive coordinators has been silly. The month of November, after many promising starts, has been troubling. The Utes have never won the South division. But the overall result has been as good as any realistic, reasonable observer could have expected.
Since coming into the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah has posted the following records, in league and overall: 4-5, 8-5; 3-6, 5-7; 2-7, 5-7; 5-4, 9-4; 6-3, 10-3; 5-4, 9-4; 3-6, 7-6.
Recruiting has been the biggest challenge, and steadily the Utes are making upgrades. Heading into this season, they are deeper than they’ve ever been, and, Whittingham said, as talented.
Overall, the coach’s mark at Utah is 111-56. Unlike Edwards, he’s prospered in bowl games, with a record of 11-1. That all should be appreciated, especially given the transformation the program has undergone.
Whittingham, like Edwards did, will continue to win as long as he stays in the game. He’s reached a rare position for a Division I head football coach — he’s comfortable, but still driven to do more. He’s figured out how to win. And barring the completely unexpected, he will have done the entirety of his winning — and losing — at one school, the place that’s become his home.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.