Ute football coach Kyle Whittingham at 60: He’s same guy as ever, yet ‘always getting better’

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham greets fans after defeating BYU at an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Provo, Utah. Utah defeated BYU 30-12. (AP Photo/George Frey)

Kyle Whittingham suddenly is so old that Lovey Howell looks young.

The Utah football coach’s name-check of the “Gilligan’s Island” character from the 1960s television series is partly a concession to his turning 60 on Thursday. It’s more of an illustration of how much he’s enjoying this season as the Utes keep winning.

The reference stemmed from a question about how Whittingham spends idle hours on game day, a chore compounded by the rare case of playing on a weekday when other college football games are not being televised. He cited his childhood love of “Gilligan’s Island,” and marveled how Thurston Howell III’s wife — played by Natalie Schafer, in her mid 60s when the show originally aired — once seemed “ancient” and now appears young to him.

Whittingham also has quoted movie lines from Bill Murray and Chevy Chase in postgame interviews this season (after wins, of course). Anyone who has attended his weekly news conferences for 15 seasons can draw a direct line to Utah’s unbeaten year of 2008, the last time the Utes (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) had a record like this through 10 games. Then, as now, Whittingham was far less tightly wound and getting much more enjoyment from every aspect of his job.

“It’s not nearly as much fun around here, or any program, when you’re not winning,” said Whittingham’s brother Freddie, who coaches the Ute tight ends.

In his 15th season as head coach, Whittingham finds satisfaction in performances such as the Utes’ breakthrough win at Washington this month, although he said, “I do myself a disservice by not enjoying victories as much as I should. … I guess that’s how a lot of coaches are built; you’re always on to the next thing.”

In that context, his mind is on Saturday’s game at Arizona — and certainly not any 60th celebration this week. Whittingham is an “anti-birthday guy,” his brother said. “He doesn’t want anybody to know. He doesn’t want anybody to bring him a cake or sing him ‘Happy Birthday’ or celebrate or anything like that.”

But here he is at 60, a natural checkpoint for a coach who could reach the height of his career in January if the Utes play in the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff. And then what?

“I can just about guarantee I won’t be coaching at 65,” Whittingham told ESPN 700 in October. The declaration surprised no one who knows him, yet was the first time he mentioned any timetable. The realization that his father, Fred Whittingham Sr., died at 64 undoubtedly enters his mind.

Whittingham’s $4 million salary is both a reason to keep going and a reason to stop, considering he already has earned about $31 million as a head coach.

What’s evident, in the final phase of his career, is Whittingham has figured out his job. “He’s always evolving,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, who worked for Whittingham for 10 seasons. “He’s always getting better; that’s what I see. … Hopefully, we’re all doing that, we all get better with age. And I know he’s doing that.”

Having steered the Utes through a transition from Mountain West to the Pac-12 that he recently likened to “spanning the Grand Canyon,” Whittingham has built a program with some staying power. It took him nine seasons to break even in Pac-12 play — Utah is 40-39 in regular-season conference games — and that’s a tribute to his competitiveness and consistency, according to those in Utah’s program who have known him the longest.

That includes Freddie Whittingham (from his birth in 1966), offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig (from their time on the Idaho State staff, beginning in 1989), defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley (from playing safety in Whittingham’s scheme in 2001-04) and receiver Britain Covey (from playing for Whittingham’s brother Cary at Timpview High School in 2012-14).


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Freddie Whittingham: “One of the things I’ve learned about him is just how dedicated he is to what he does. I’ve always known he’s competitive, because we competed in things our whole lives; he always wanted to beat me. But I’ve been impressed about just how competitive he is and what an impact that has on the culture of this program. Everything in this program is meticulously organized by him, in terms of what our priorities are and how we attack them, how we set up our work day.”

Ludwig: “You’ve heard me say it before: So much has changed, so much is the same [Ludwig returned in January after coaching at Utah from 2005-08]. … He’s not the same guy I knew 30 years ago, but he’s the same guy I knew 10 years ago — focused, driven, players-first, organized, detailed. If anything, it’s just kind of ‘upped.’ Nothing catches him off-guard or surprises him.”

Scalley: “What you’ve seen every single year is just him being more comfortable with, ‘This is who I am, and the players will buy into that.’ And they have. … It’s just him being more confident that his system works.”

Covey: “He genuinely cares about the players and their futures and even their feelings. … He really has a soft side to him. And I think that's the biggest thing that all the players get to know when we come in the program.”

Whittingham’s assistants don’t want recruits doing the math about how long he would remain on the job, considering they’re already targeting players in the high school class of 2021. At some point, they’ll have to acknowledge the reality of Whittingham’s shelf life.


The longest-tenured coaches at FBS schools (with ages):

21st season – Kirk Ferentz (64), Iowa.

20th season – Gary Patterson (60), TCU.

15th season – Mike Gundy (52), Oklahoma State; Frank Solich (75), Ohio; Kyle Whittingham (60), Utah.

14th season – Pat Fitzgerald (44), Northwestern; Rick Stockstill (61), Middle Tennessee.

A couple of milestones should keep him engaged, for at least a couple of more years, even if the Utes do something historic this season. With a 129-62 record, he needs 13 wins to overtake Ike Armstrong as the school’s all-time leader. Realistically, that should take him into the 2021 season, when Utah will play in an expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium.

And then it will get interesting regarding Whittingham’s exit strategy. In March, Ute athletic director Mark Harlan awarded him a contract that runs through the 2023 season, when he’ll turn 64. The agreement allows for him to become a special assistant to the athletic director — basically giving him a $4 million-plus retirement bonus to function as a Ute ambassador for eight years.

Another contract extension would enable Whittingham to coach until he's 65, perhaps with a formal succession plan. The 40-year-old Scalley, notably, is valued within the athletic department.

Those long-range plans can wait, though, while Utah's fan base looks ahead only as far as the Rose Bowl or the Playoff. Whittingham? He just wants to beat Arizona.

(Tribune reporter Norma Gonzalez contributed to this story).


Notable figures in Utah sports, and where they were at age 60:

LaVell Edwards – 19th season as BYU’s head coach (1990).

Frank Layden – three years removed from coaching the Jazz (1992).

Ron McBride – 10th season as Utah’s head coach (1999).

Jerry Sloan – 14th season as Jazz’s head coach (2002).

Bruce Summerhays – 11th year as PGA Tour Champions golfer (2004).

Chris Hill – 24th year as Utah’s athletic director (2010).

Elaine Elliott – five years into retirement as Utah’s women’s basketball coach (2015).