He is The Great Constant, he of the unmistakable sideline sneer, one of the longest-tenured bosses in the sport. The man, peers say, who would be their No. 1 overall pick if they needed backing in a brawl. The head coach who loves running the ball again and again as much as stuffing the opponent in the backfield. He is, however, no longer the head coach zeroed in on unfinished business. Because Kyle Whittingham is there, finally, with this unflappable bunch of Utah Utes, the final member of the Pac-12 South division to be crowned its champion.
It is fitting that of all the groups Whittingham has had over all these years, of all the defensive stars, of all the battle-tested offensive linemen, of all the dependable running backs, he led this one to the place Utah fans have dreamed of the past eight years and even beyond. A team finally stocked with the right talent at the right spots, the appropriate depth and approach to play and win Whittingham’s way. This is year No. 14 as head coach of the Utes, with his 120 wins and 59 losses, all of which played a role in getting this program to where it will be Friday night inside Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Four quarters away from smelling a bountiful bouquet of crimson roses. The Pasadena variety.
For so many obvious reasons, this season is now part of Utah lore, from the listless start, to the thundering response, to losing what was perceived at the time as the two irreplaceable staples on the team, to roaring back from the depths of a 20-0 third-quarter deficit to keep the rivalry win streak over BYU at eight.
This team, those who know Whittingham best say, is as close as it gets to his prototype.
“Your team always takes on the personality of your coach and Coach Whitt is a very detailed, organized, passionate, loyal, honest, I could go on and on, but he’s always about the players and will always put them first,” former Utah safety Eric Weddle told the The Salt Lake Tribune this week. “When you have a coach like that, your players are willing to do anything and everything for him. With the ups and downs early on in the season, we could’ve easily folded, but that’s not who we are, that’s not who our coach is.”
Is it his best year ever as a head coach, though? Can a 9-3 regular season with one very big Pac-12 Championship game still to go come close to the magic of 2008? Of making Nick Saban go bonkers on the sideline? Of 13-0? Former Utah coach Ron McBride said it’s Whittingham’s toughest group to date, and it’s easy to see how these players and assistants have emulated their head coach.
“It all has to do with how Kyle sets the program and what he expects of them,” McBride said. “This team is probably his best team.”
Looking back on his 25 years at Utah, Whittingham said of this team this week: “This might be my most enjoyable year of coaching.” Which goes such a long way, considering how far the program has come with Whittingham in the trenches since he first arrived in 1994. The powerhouse Mountain West Conference years led the Utes to the eventual Pac-12 invite, which in retrospect, Whittingham says was like getting a brand-new job.
When he was in need of some advice, he found solace in an old boss. Urban Meyer joked with Whittingham that when Utah’s Pac-12 invite became official, the Utes would be swapping conference games with Wyoming and New Mexico for USC and UCLA. Looking back on the evolution of the program, Meyer said he used to get into arguments with reporters who disputed his claims that the Utes could survive and thrive in a transition to the highest level of college football.
“We knew there’d be growing pains,” Meyer told the The Tribune this week, “but I don’t think they do it without Kyle.”
PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
NO. 17 UTAH VS. NO. 10 WASHINGTON
When • Friday, 6 p.m. MST
TV • Ch. 13
Could anyone argue otherwise? Everything, Whittingham said of joining the Pac-12, was different. The arms race was magnified unlike anything Utah had seen before. Year by year, piece by piece, the Utes built toward this potential moment, toward this potential season. Now it’s his normal. They’re still transitioning, Whittingham said. But they’re equipped for the weekly matchups like never before.
So when the Utes once again were searching for an offensive identity earlier in the year, with fans grumbling that maybe the program had peaked under Whittingham, the Utes were staring at an 0-2 start to conference play with a much different road trip to the Bay Area on deck. Whittingham sat down with ESPN college football analyst Rod Gilmore before Utah was on the road at Stanford, and Gilmore remains in awe of how poised Whittingham was about turning the year around, about how his Utes were so close.
“We’re not dead,” he told Gilmore.
Nope. Not even a little.
Utah went on to win seven of its next eight. The Utes got back to running the ball, finding once again what Utah football was about. That was Whittingham’s doing. The Utes became Pac-12 South champs without their starting quarterback and running back the last month of the season.
“Yeah, I told him that a couple weeks ago,” Gilmore said when asked if he believed this is Whittingham’s most impressive season as a head coach. “I think this is his best job. I think it’s unbelievable what he’s been able to do.”
In his first meeting with new athletic director Mark Harlan in the summer, Whittingham told Harlan that he believed this was his most-talented roster he’s ever seen at Utah. Harlan pressed Whittingham. “You’ve been here almost 25 years,” Harlan said. Whittingham responded, “Yeah.” That reality, Harlan believes, set the tone for this season.
Asked this week how he’d grade his own coaching performance in 2018 up to this point, Whittingham’s wit rose to the surface as Harlan took in his coach’s weekly news conference in the back: “I let Mark Harlan grade me. You can ask Mark what he thinks.”
So here are Whittingham’s Utes, finally in this elusive Pac-12 title game, finally Pac-12 South titleholders, looking every bit like the team their head coach knew they could be, looking every bit like the team their head coach wanted them to become. This is how they got there. The hard way. Busting down nearly every obstacle each week, when their season was on life support just two months ago, making Kyle Whittingham as proud as he’s ever been.
“He bleeds Utah, he knows Utah better than anybody, and I can’t be happier for him,” Meyer said. “There’s no one more deserving.”
KYLE WHITTINGHAM AT UTAH
Kyle Whittingham’s record as the Utes' head football coach by year, overall wins and conference wins.
2018 • 9-3, 6-3 Pac-12
2017 • 7-6, 3-6 Pac-12
2016 • 9-4, 5-4 Pac-12
2015 • 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12
2014 • 9-4, 5-4 Pac-12
2013 • 5-7, 2-7 Pac-12
2012 • 5-7, 3-6 Pac-12
2011 • 8-5, 4-5 Pac-12
2010 • 10-3, 7-1 MWC
2009 • 10-3, 6-2 MWC
2008 • 13-0, 8-0 MWC
2007 • 9-4, 5-3 MWC
2006 • 8-5, 5-3 MWC
2005 • 7-5, 4-4 MWC