Calling plays in the Holiday Bowl, Mick McCall will conclude his 11th season as Northwestern's offensive coordinator.
McCall’s tenure is by far the biggest distinction between the Utah and Northwestern football programs. Yet even that contrast creates another common thread for Ute coach Kyle Whittingham and the Wildcats' Pat Fitzgerald. Some percentage of fans on each side will find a flaw in this sentence: Nine play-callers have worked for Utah during McCall’s time at Northwestern, with another Ute hiring or promotion to come after Monday’s game in San Diego.
While the biggest complaint about Whittingham’s era is the turnover of his offensive coordinators, Fitzgerald gets questioned why he has held onto McCall (defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz also is in his 11th season, with more favorable reviews).
Otherwise, Whittingham and Fitzgerald are a lot alike. They’re former college linebackers who were promoted to their jobs, they’ve enjoyed two of the country’s longest active coaching stints at their schools and their programs are known for toughness and overachievement.
The coaches have become acquainted through the Under Armour apparel provider that sponsors each school's athletic department. “I think we're similar, personality-wise,” Whittingham said. “His teams are very physical and hard-nosed, that's their M.O. We like to think that we're [built] along the same lines.”
Whittingham’s San Diego appearance with the Utes comes 40 years after he played for BYU in the inaugural Holiday Bowl, 30 years after he began his full-time coaching career as an Idaho State assistant during an 0-11 season, 20 years after Utah rebuilt Rice-Eccles Stadium and 10 years after he beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Utah vs. Northwestern
When • Monday, 5 p.m. MST
TV • FS1
Joining Whittingham in San Diego earlier this month, Fitzgerald enjoyed pointing out how he had just turned 4 in December 1978 when Whittingham was a BYU freshman. His rise in the profession came more quickly than Whittingham's, partly because the move to his current job came so abruptly. Fitzgerald was promoted in the summer of 2006 after coach Randy Walker died unexpectedly. That was one year after Whittingham took over the Utes.
Northwestern, like Utah, is recognized as a program that maximizes its roster. Northwestern was the only Power Five school that offered scholarships to seven current Wildcat starters, The Athletic noted.
The website PickSixPreviews ranked Utah and Northwestern in the top five nationally over the past five seasons, factoring the numbers of wins and four- and five-star recruits. The Utes and Wildcats are listed behind only Wisconsin, Iowa and Kansas State.
When former Ute offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick spent the 2017 season out of the profession, he picked some programs to study closely with a theme of learning from coaches who “do something with less” talent than other schools. Northwestern was one of them.
Stanford also made Roderick’s list, with a natural comparison to Northwestern. The private schools offer elite academics, while competing at the Power Five level. Stanford has considerably more athletic tradition than Northwestern. Yet the Wildcats have become more than respectable under Fitzgerald, who won multiple national awards as a Northwestern linebacker in the mid-1990s and helped the team reach the Rose Bowl. His 95-70 record (.576) is fairly comparable to Whittingham’s 120-60 mark (.667), and is even closer to Whittingham’s 62-40 record (.608) during Utah’s Pac-12 era.
“Well, I say a lot in Chicago: We're not your father's Northwestern,” Fitzgerald said. “Back in the day, it was obviously a different time. Quite frankly, the support that our players received was not where it is today.”
Fitzgerald works in a new, $270 million facility on the shores of Lake Michigan, and his program is worthy of it.
“They do a great job of coaching there,” said Ted Tollner, a former college and pro football coach who's a member of the Holiday Bowl board of directors. “I'm not sure on a national basis whether their image is high-profile, but they play high-profile football.”
Tollner also is a longtime fan of Whittingham. As a Cal Poly quarterback, he was a teammate of the late Fred Whittingham Sr., Kyle's father. Tollner spent a season on the BYU staff in 1981, when Kyle was a star linebacker and Fred was the defensive coordinator.
“I just wish Fred would have had a chance to watch what Kyle's doing,” Tollner said.
He certainly would have enjoyed these Utes and appreciated Fitzgerald’s Wildcats.
Huntley or Shelley?
Whittingham won’t name a starting quarterback for the Holiday Bowl, telling reporters Friday in San Diego, “One guy will trot out there on our first offensive possession, and that will be the guy.”
Whittingham also said original starter Tyler Huntley has “shaken all the rust off” and is “up to speed,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Huntley broke his collarbone Nov. 3 vs. Arizona State. Shelley went 3-1 as a starter in November, including a 10-3 loss to Washington in the Pac-12 championship game. Whittingham has said Huntley would start the Holiday Bowl if he’s “game ready.”