The first half of Kyle Whittingham’s first game as a full-time college football coach hardly could have gone better, from his perspective on the Idaho State sideline. One of his Bengals linebackers returned an interception of a Scott Mitchell pass for a touchdown and ISU trailed Utah only 13-10 at halftime.

The third quarter? Another story entirely, just like the rest of that winless 1988 season in Whittingham’s introduction to the profession in ISU’s downtrodden program at age 28.

Three decades later, approaching Utah’s all-time wins record and having earned more than $30 million in 15 years as the school’s head coach, Whittingham can look back at six losing seasons on the ISU staff as “an excellent experience.” He’ll oppose the Bengals as a head coach for the second time Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the since-rebuilt facility where 28,422 fans watched his debut as ISU’s linebackers coach.


Saturday, 2:15 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks.

Tony Manu’s pick-six was among few defensive highlights for the Bengals that night and throughout that season. ISU never came within 10 points of any opponent or allowed fewer than 27 points, competing with the likes of Nevada, Idaho and Boise State in the Big Sky Conference.

In the Bengals’ opener, Mitchell responded to his first-half struggles by passing for 225 yards in the third quarter as Utah scored four touchdowns in a 41-16 win, during a 6-5 season that featured a 57-28 defeat of BYU. Whittingham dealt with Ute coach Jim Fassel’s occasional use of the “Duck” offense (an extreme spread formation) that produced a 72-yard TD pass as Mitchell finished with a school-record 511 yards passing.

Whittingham is an in-the-moment guy, rarely reciting names and details of past games. He remembers this much from the '88 opener: “We hung around for a quarter or two,” he said, “and then kind of got run out of the stadium, which you would expect.”

The Bengals’ outmanned defense would be subjected to other opponents’ big performances that year. Yet Manu and Whittingham’s bosses say he never wavered.

Garth Hall, the ISU coach who brought him to Pocatello, Idaho, believes those trials “in a weird way” helped shape Whittingham. “Having to go through that, I think, allowed him to be more appreciative of what he got as his career went along.”

Selected former Idaho State assistant football coaches and where they are now:

Kyle Whittingham (1988-93), Utah head coach.
James Franklin (1999), Penn State head coach.
Gary Andersen (1992-93), Utah State head coach.
Derek Mason (1997-98), Vanderbilt head coach.
Bruce Barnum (1998-2006), Portland State head coach.
Andy Ludwig (1989-91), Utah offensive coordinator.
Lance Anderson (1997-98), Stanford defensive coordinator.
Todd Bates (2011-12), Clemson defensive line coach.
Marvin Lewis (1981-84), Arizona State adviser; former Cincinnati Bengals head coach.

In contrast to Whittingham’s background, Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley’s first full-time job was coaching the Ute safeties for a 13-0 team in 2008. Some outstanding college players who become coaches have trouble working with athletes who lack their own drive or talent. Whittingham apparently stayed patient, even during the 0-11 season of ’88.

“He would just teach,” said Denny Moller, ISU's defensive coordinator that year. “He never would get in the faces of those linebackers. No matter how difficult it was, he just kept teaching. Because of that, the players had a good relationship with Kyle. That's one thing that never changes in life, is relationship-building. You either have that gift, or you don't.”

Manu, a detective with the Bannock County Sheriff’s Office and a part-time high school football coach in Pocatello, tries to model Whittingham’s coaching style. “Players always wanted to play for Kyle. He was one of those guys that understood football at a whole other level, but he taught it at a level we could understand,” Manu said. The ’88 season “obviously wasn’t a good experience for him because he’s so competitive, but at the same time, he remained positive. I probably learned more about football in that one year than I did ever.”

The Bengals improved slightly during Whittingham’s time in Pocatello. After the 0-11 season, ISU won three games in each of the next five years to finish 15-50-1 in his tenure. He was the only holdover from Hall’s staff after four years, becoming the defensive coordinator for two seasons under Brian McNeeley. He then joined the Utah defensive staff of his father, the late Fred Whittingham Sr., working for coach Ron McBride.

“It was a tough six years in a lot of respects, as far as wins and losses. It was a little bit frustrating,” Whittingham said this week. “But I was just excited to have a job and be in the profession at that time.”

With no prior experience, Whittingham took over the Bengals' special teams shortly before the season when another coach left the staff. Even now, he personally coaches Utah's punters and kickers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham walks off the field during a lightning delay as BYU hosts Utah in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
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Hall made him part of the newly formed ISU staff, having coached him as a freshman fullback at BYU in 1978 before Whittingham moved to linebacker (former Cougar quarterback Robbie Bosco also was among Hall’s initial hires). Whittingham had coached as a BYU graduate assistant and dabbled in pro football, including a partial season with the Los Angeles Rams as a replacement player during the strike of 1987.

Recalling the tough times in Pocatello, Hall once said, “You just knew he was never going to buckle, because he never did as a player. His dad taught him, ‘Just do what you can do.’ He always knew who Kyle Whittingham was. That would be my greatest compliment.”

The Whittingham of today is 59 years old, with a 122-61 record as Utah's coach (including a 56-14 win over ISU in 2014) and a contract that will pay him about $4 million annually through 2023. The numbers are adding up nicely, in multiple ways. Whittingham needs 20 victories to overtake Ike Armstrong as Utah's all-time leader in football coaching wins. That should happen early in the 2021 season.

Whittingham undoubtedly will move one win closer to Armstrong after Saturday, as another visit from the Bengals resembles what happened when he stood on the opposite sideline.