Ute staff’s family ties: Freddie Whittingham’s players develop, as his career evolves

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Freddie Whittingham at University of Utah football practice in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 26, 2019.

Freddie Whittingham’s boss interrupted the question in its developing stage, as someone started to suggest the assistant coach was doing good work with Utah’s young tight ends.

“Don't give Freddie too much credit,” Kyle Whittingham said.

That’s all part of the brotherly dynamic of the Ute football staff, a collaboration now in its eighth year overall and a fourth season of Freddie Whittingham’s coaching on the field. The younger brother understands.

“You spend a lifetime of ‘big brother’ mentality, I’m sure it’s hard to break away,” he said. “But everything in the [Eccles Football Center], it’s professional. He treats me just like one of the other assistant coaches — demanding every bit as much from me, is just as hard on me, but also is every bit as lenient on me when he needs to be.”

Fred Whittingham Jr. is the third of four brothers in the family; they have a younger sister. The first three sons followed their late father into the coaching profession. Kyle Whittingham is entering his 15th season as Utah’s coach. Cary Whittingham won three state championships in this decade as Timpview High School’s coach before stepping away.

Freddie Whittingham was a successful executive in the textbook publishing industry before taking what he labels “a leap of faith to change careers at age 45,” becoming Utah's director of player personnel in 2012. He directed on-campus recruiting efforts, while hoping for an opportunity to coach someday. “I understood I needed to start in an operations role,” he said, “and I feel like some of the things we've done in recruiting helped grow our program to the point we are right now.”

He’s developing a diverse, talented group of tight ends who will be featured in offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s scheme. Whittingham originally worked for co-coordinators Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding in 2016. He was the program’s tie to the next coordinator, with his son having played for Troy Taylor at Folsom (Calif.) High School. Taylor is now Sacramento State’s head coach.

Tight ends Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe emerged as capable freshmen last season in Taylor's system. They'll be even more prominent under Ludwig in 2019, both as blockers and receivers. Fotheringham had a quick transition back to football last August after returning from a church mission and has maximized his offseason training this year. “He looks like a whole different guy,” Kyle Whittingham said. “I think he's going to be a big-time player.”

Southern Methodist transfer Hunter Thedford also will have a role in Ludwig’s personnel packages. Redshirt freshman Thomas Yassmin, an Australian who’s new to American football, is “still kind of in ‘project phase,’ ” Freddie Whittingham said, while veterans Bapa Falemaka and Ali’i Niumatalolo also look for their opportunities.

“It’s great to have a diverse group, because you can do a lot of different things with them,” Whittingham said. “I love working for coach Ludwig. It’s a tight end-friendly offense. He’s brought a mentality to our offense that I’m really excited about.”

And at 53, Whittingham is becoming established in the on-field phase of his second career. “Four years into it, I feel comfortable,” the former BYU running back said. “I understand I don’t have all the answers; I’m still learning the game. That’s one thing I picked up from my dad, that you’re always learning.”

Fotheringham labeled his position coach “very passionate; someone that is going to give his all to make sure we have a great experience, not only on the football field, but through the university as a whole.”

A family theme is not uncommon on a football coaching staff. Luke Wells worked at Utah State for all six seasons that his brother, Matt, coached the Aggies. They're now together at Texas Tech. BYU coach Kalani Sitake hired his cousin, Fesi Sitake; they have described themselves as brothers.

Some extra scrutiny and occasional teasing accompany those relationships. Freddie Whittingham knew what he was getting into when his brother gave him the support-staff position and then promoted him to the field. If it means some kidding in interviews, as happened with Kyle Whittingham this week, that's OK.

“What a lot of people don't see about him is he's got a sense of humor, joking around a lot,” Freddie Whittingham said.

And, it should be noted, Kyle Whittingham eventually allowed the question to be completed, and responded with a compliment: “He’s done a nice job.”