Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley wishes his 40th birthday this week could have come with Utah’s football team unbeaten and ranked in the top 10.
That status, spoiled by a 30-23 loss to USC last month, would have become another amazing milestone for Scalley. The Utes finished 12-0 in his senior season as a star safety in 2004 and went 13-0 in his first year as a full-time coach in 2008.
Reality struck Scalley and the 2019 Utes in Los Angeles, where USC scored four touchdowns against his defense, thanks mostly to four long pass completions. So his career is not completely charmed, yet the way the No. 15 Utes (4-1) answered that defeat with a 38-13 shutdown of Washington State’s prolific offense endorsed his ability.
Standing on the practice field Tuesday, the day he turned 40, Scalley repeated a question about dealing with the USC game: “What did I personally go through?"
He chuckled and continued, "When you struggle with your job, how do you feel? I’m prideful in what I do, as well. I love the players. You do the best you can, and the best you know how, and keep fighting. Those are never fun, but ... we’ve got a great group. They respond well, they’re resilient, and it showed up.”
Utah’s improvement vs. Washington State also illustrated Scalley’s ability to adjust, even if the players believe the Highland High School graduate blamed himself too much for what happened at USC.
“He put that on himself,” senior safety Julian Blackmon said. But “it was just us, not making those plays.”
Against WSU, “We locked up everything,” Blackmon said. “We wanted to show him that we had his back, for sure.”
The work of Scalley and the defensive players impressed his boss. “He just gets better every year,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He's so smart … he learns fast.”
At 40, in his 12th year on the staff and his fourth season as a coordinator, Scalley has a career trajectory that’s remarkably similar to Whittingham’s. The difference is Whittingham worked his way up to Utah after six years at Idaho State on the FCS level. Scalley started at Utah, although the program then competed in the Mountain West before moving to the Pac-12.
The natural question is how prepared Scalley would be to succeed Whittingham, sometime in the 2020s. Whittingham, 59, recently told ESPN 700, “I can just about guarantee I won't be coaching at 65.”
That's not surprising, although it may be the first time Whittingham has spoken of an age limit. His contract runs through the 2023 season, when he'll turn 64. Scalley then will be 44, one year younger than Whittingham was when he followed Urban Meyer as Utah's coach. The related issue is whether Utah, as an established Power Five school, would seek a proven head coach or trust a another longtime assistant to grow into the job, as Whittingham did.
WHEN THEY WERE 40 ...
Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley turned 40 on Tuesday. A look at selected coaches in Ute history and where they were at that age:
Ike Armstrong – 11th year as Utah's head coach (1935).
Jack Curtice – third year as Texas Western's head coach (1947).
Ron McBride – third year as Utah's offensive line coach (1979).
John Pease – first year as Philadelphia Stars’ (USFL) defensive line coach (1983).
Jim Fassel – fifth year as Utah's head coach (1989).
Kyle Whittingham – fifth year as Utah's defensive coordinator (1999).
Andy Ludwig – third year as Oregon's offensive coordinator (2004).
Gary Andersen – first year of second stint as Utah's defensive line coach (2004).
Urban Meyer – second year as Utah's head coach (2004).
Sharrieff Shah – personal injury attorney and Ute radio sideline reporter (2011).
Scalley clearly is valued within Utah’s athletic department, having received a 56-percent raise to $820,000 annually. That salary seemingly is sufficient to keep him at Utah for the next few years, regardless of what comes after that. And his influence with the Utes is expanding, with a defense that ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 and No. 14 nationally in yards allowed (282.4).
During the 2016 season, when Scalley was a first-year coordinator, Whittingham carried a play-call sheet on the sideline, suggesting a high level of involvement in the defense. “Not so much now,” Whittingham said. “It’s his show. He’s doing a great job, and not just Morgan — his entire staff is doing a great job. … It’s a collaborative effort, but Morgan is the leader of that group.”
Whittingham “will ask pointed questions,” said former Utah defensive coordinator John Pease, who remains a close observer of the program, “but he pretty much lets the coordinators run it. It's built by Morgan.”
Pease directed Utah's defense in 2015, overseeing Scalley, who continues to coach the safeties. Pease labeled him “a fire-eater, competitive to the Nth degree” and “absolutely fun to work with.” He's sure Scalley will become a head coach at some level.
During his five years years on the Washington staff, Pease became an admirer of the late Don James, the Huskies’ legendary coach. With their shared perspective of football, Pease believes James and Scalley “would really get along.”
James’ statue is outside Husky Stadium, where the Utes will play next month. Beating the Huskies in Seattle would make the season of Scalley’s 40th birthday memorable, especially if it keeps the Utes moving toward a Pac-12 championship. First, though, comes Oregon State on Saturday night in Corvallis, Ore.
NO. 15 UTAH AT OREGON STATE
When • Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • Pac-12 Networks.