Home in the Holiday Bowl: Ute coach Kyle Whittingham will relive his college days in San Diego

Former BYU linebacker is one of three defensive players in the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame.

(Photo courtesy of Mark Philbrick/BYU) BYU linebacker Kyle Whittingham accepts his defensive MVP award in the 1981 Holiday Bowl.

Forty years later, Kyle Whittingham wants to see the film.

Utah's football coach, preparing his team to play Northwestern in the 41st Holiday Bowl on New Year's Eve, is convinced that his biggest moment of the inaugural game in San Diego is inaccurately recorded. Whittingham's 3-yard run for BYU on a fake punt? Exaggerated, he believes: “I would bet my life that I didn't get 3 yards.”

His version of the play vs. Navy in 1978 is he “needed a yard, got six inches,” Whittingham said. “In my defense, one of our guys up front didn't get the call. He thought we were punting, so he took off and didn't block his guy.”


Utah vs. Northwestern

When • Dec. 31, 5 p.m. MST

TV • FS1

What’s undeniable historically is Whittingham was stopped short of the first-down marker and BYU eventually lost 23-16 to the Midshipmen in the first of his four appearances in the Holiday Bowl. Then came a 38-37 loss to Indiana and a 46-45 win over Southern Methodist, remembered in BYU lore as the “Miracle Bowl” comeback. Whittingham’s college career ended with a defensive MVP award in a 38-36 win over Washington State, and the linebacker is one of only three defensive players in the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame, compared with 18 offensive players.

Although he led the Utes to Poinsettia Bowl victories over Navy in 2007 and California in ’09 in the same venue (now called SDCCU Stadium) in an event also staged by the Holiday Bowl organizers, coaching in the Holiday Bowl itself is “pretty cool,” Whittingham said. “It’s full circle for me. … Nothing but good memories.”

No. 59 knows he was born in 1959, making him 59 years old. Yet as he did the math recently, Whittingham was stunned to realize the first Holiday Bowl was staged 40 years ago. And now he’s leading Utah into the most prestigious bowl game of the program’s Pac-12 era, a coaching opportunity that Ute athletic director Mark Harlan labeled “aspirational” for Whittingham. It’s also inspirational, considering the emotions the return to San Diego will evoke. His father, the late Fred Whittingham Sr., was BYU’s defensive coordinator in those years.

(Photo courtesy of Mark Philbrick/BYU) BYU linebacker Kyle Whittingham and coach LaVell Edwards celebrate the Cougars' 1980 Holiday Bowl victory.

“He’s so much like his dad, with respect to toughness, being accountable,” said Ted Tollner, who coached BYU’s quarterbacks and called the offensive plays in Whittingham’s senior season of 1981.

The reunion is meaningful to Tollner, now a member of the Holiday Bowl board of directors after a career that included stints as the head coach of USC and San Diego State. Tollner was a Cal Poly teammate of Fred Whittingham in the early 1960s, when Kyle was a toddler.

In his one year on the BYU staff, Tollner remembers, “Defensively, we were really good. Kyle was one of the leaders in establishing toughness, and competing. His consistency as a player is the same as a coach.”

Whittingham recorded remarkable statistics in the 1980 Holiday Bowl against SMU. So did the Mustangs. Appearing in a recent news conference in San Diego, Whittingham got laughs for recounting being credited with 22 tackles — “and 21 of them were about 10 yards-plus downfield, chasing Eric Dickerson and Craig James. The stats were padded, I guess, because I was looking at their rear ends.”

Whittingham officially finished with 16 tackles, including 10 solo stops. Ten times, he tackled a member of the famous Pony Express backfield; James and Dickerson totaled only 14 yards on those plays. “OK,” Whittingham said, informed of those numbers, “I must not have tackled them the other times.”


Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's performances as a BYU player in the first four Holiday Bowls:

1978 • Navy 23, BYU 16. As the blocking back in punt formation, Whittingham carries the ball once for 3 yards on a fake, but is stopped short of the first-down marker.  

1979 • Indiana 38, BYU 37. Having moved to linebacker as a sophomore, Whittingham plays in a reserve role and makes one tackle for a 5-yard loss on a reverse.  

1980 • BYU 46, SMU 45. Whittingham makes 16 tackles (10 solo), including 10 stops of star running backs Craig James and Eric Dickerson. His tackle of Dickerson for a 1-yard loss on SMU’s last possession leads to a blocked punt, giving BYU a chance to win on the game’s final play.

1981 • BYU 38, Washington State 36. Whittingham is named the game’s defensive MVP after making 10 tackles (eight solo), although WSU rallies from a 31-7 deficit in the second half.  

2009 • Whittingham is inducted into the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame.

That's basically how it worked. James carried the ball 23 times for 225 yards, Dickerson added 110 yards on his 23 carries and the Mustangs totaled 393 rushing yards. Yet they couldn't get a first down on their last possession, starting with Whittingham's stop of Dickerson for a 1-yard loss. Bill Schoepflin then blocked SMU's punt and Jim McMahon threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Clay Brown as time expired. Kurt Gunther's extra point gave BYU a 46-45 win, the school's first bowl victory.

As Whittingham said in San Diego this month, “Two Catholics connected on a Hail Mary at a Mormon school to win the game. That was interesting.”

The next year, Whittingham made 10 tackles in BYU's 38-36 defeat of Washington State. Whittingham's Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame bio credits him with a fumble recovery, but the play-by-play account and WSU's offensive statistics don't mention a lost fumble.

In any case, BYU held off WSU’s rally from 31-7 behind. “We ended up hanging on for the win,” Whittingham said. “You always remember your last game; that’s pretty vivid.”

Whittingham’s brothers Cary and Freddie also played in Holiday Bowls. Freddie Whittingham, who coaches Utah’s tight ends, played in BYU’s 1989 loss to Penn State with a broken bone in each wrist, compiling 78 yards of rushing and receiving. He’s counting this month’s game as his ninth Holiday Bowl as a coach’s son, player’s brother, player and coach.

Thanks to his body of work, and being one of few players to appear in the first four Holiday Bowls, Kyle Whittingham was inducted into the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame. The only other defensive players so honored are BYU linebacker Leon White and Missouri defensive end Bobby Bell. Whittingham will join Oklahoma State quarterback Mike Gundy as a Hall of Fame player who also coached in the Holiday Bowl.

The twist is that while Gundy coaches OSU, Whittingham works for his former rival school. He makes certain to rarely mention the name of BYU, but it happened during his promotional visit this month, as he summarized Utah’s overcoming adversity in November. “Our kids responded,” he said. “Beat Oregon, beat Colorado, then beat our rivals right down south, BYU, right in succession.”

Something about being back in San Diego made that slip forgivable.

(Photo courtesy of Mark Philbrick/BYU) Kyle Whittingham (59) and BYU defensive teammates including Tom Holmoe (46) align for a goal-line stand vs. Washington State. FTB 411 1981 Holiday Bowl December 17, 2018 Photography by Mark Philbrick/BYU FTB 411 08 FTB 411 December 17, 2018 Photography by Mark Philbrick/BYU