Utah’s football program is entering its 10th year in the Pac-12. The Utes have proved a good fit.
(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune File Photo) Utah athletic director Chris Hill, left, Utah interim president Lorris Betz, and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott hold up a football jersey commemorating the day as the University of Utah officially became a member of the Pac-12 conference on July ,1 2011.
Things began moving quickly for the Pac-10 in June 2010.
After being on the job all of 14 months after resigning as chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, league commissioner Larry Scott
was authorized to issue invitations to Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech in the hopes of forming a 16-team “superconference.”
It took Colorado less than a week to accept. The biggest domino of the bunch, Texas, famously declined, so the other four predictably got in line, pledging their allegiance to the Big 12. Now with 11 teams, but needing a 12th in order to hold a football championship game, things swung to the University of Utah
, a charter member of the Mountain West since 1999 and a charter member of the WAC before that beginning in 1962.
Things kept moving quickly in the wake of the Big 12 teams declining, and on June 17, 2010, Utah accepted an invitation to join as the 12th member.
“We had, for the longest time, put ourselves in position to be attractive,” former Utah athletic director Chris Hill told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It all worked out, we were thrilled and we weren’t afraid of high expectations.”
Added Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham
: “We’d heard rumors, but who knows how much of it was true. We were obviously excited about the possibility of joining the league, but when it came to fruition, we were elated. It was a huge plus for a lot of people at the university level, the athletic department. It was a big, new opportunity.”
On Nov. 7, Whittingham and the Utes will open their 10th season
as a member of the Pac-12. For a program best known as the original “BCS Buster” before becoming one of 65 Power Five programs nationwide, the last decade has offered profound highs, its share of lows, and a growing perception that the Utes can be a consistent factor at the top of the Pac-12.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)
Kyle Whittingham, as Utah faces Oregon in the Pac-12 football championship game in Santa Clara, Calif., on Friday Dec. 6, 2019.
In discussing this topic over the years, Whittingham told The Tribune that he has consistently used one specific analogy, and the 60-year-old, 16th-year head coach went back to it when the topic was again broached on Tuesday.
“Everything involved, it’s like spanning the Grand Canyon,” Whittingham said with a slight laugh. “Everything, from recruiting, facilities, budget, personnel, the bar was immediately risen.”
Armed with a Mountain West roster, but now in need of Pac-12-level players, recruiting became an immediate need.
The mere fact Utah had moved up in the college football world got Whittingham and his staff in the door in a lot of instances, but the work still had to get done.
In 2011, Whittingham scored 17 recruits in his first recruiting class as a Power Five head coach. He remembers JUCO running back transfer John White being an important get during that cycle, a notion that stands up given White rushed for 2,560 yards in two seasons. Nate Orchard had plenty of scholarship offers, but chose Utah, morphed into an All-American defensive end, and has been in the NFL for six seasons.
“I remember being very optimistic about Utah,” Stewart Mandel, Editor-in-chief of The Athletic’s college football coverage, but a Sports Illustrated senior writer at the time, told The Tribune. “There was so much talk back then about TCU and Boise State, but with Utah, people were sort of dismissive of them entering a big conference. It became apparent pretty quickly it would take some time to build the depth to compete at that level every week, but they eventually got there.”
There have been lows in the last decade, namely back-to-back 5-7 seasons in 2012 and 2013, but those bowl-less campaigns gave way to highs.
Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune
Utah Utes running back Devontae Booker (23) runs past Michigan Wolverines linebacker Desmond Morgan (3) and Michigan Wolverines defensive tackle Matthew Godin (99) during the second half of the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday September 3, 2015. Utah defeated Michigan 24-17.
Utah beat Michigan in Jim Harbaugh’s debut at his alma mater in 2015, and later that season dropped 62 points on Oregon, which, at the time, ruled the league with an iron fist. The Utes won 10 games that fall, sharing the Pac-12 South title for the first time, but they lost the tiebreaker to USC, which played in the Pac-12 championship game. The Utes rose to No. 3 in the AP Poll that season, but with a chance to win the Pac-12 South outright
, it also featured back-to-back November losses at Arizona and vs. UCLA
by a combined 15 points.
“I thought that season was a step in the right direction for the program,” Whittingham said. “A step in the evolution as a Power Five team, becoming a legitimate Power Five team. It’s still the recruiting, the coaches and I can’t give them enough credit for their ability to project talent. It’s not where the kid is now, but in two or three years, how much growth can there be. Our coaches have been able to develop talent.”
The 2015 breakthrough was important, but the recognition of what Utah football has become and where it can still get to have never been stronger. A trip to the Pac-12 title game in 2018, and a dominant march through the 2019 season back to the title game have done wonders for the program’s perception.
“We kind of had to weather the storm early for a while, it was rough sledding here and there,” Hill said. “We weren’t as deep as other Pac-12 programs, but we hung in there and established ourselves. I would be less than honest if I said it hasn’t been fun to see the university and the athletic department get better in so many ways since we entered the Pac-12.”
Furthermore, the bar is now set at 2019, an 11-win campaign in which the Utes went 8-1 against the Pac-12 and rose to No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings. That, despite a slew of personnel losses, helped lead to the Utes being ranked 22nd in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.
“This continues to be tough as the years go by,” Whittingham said. “Teams are never stagnant, they’re always moving targets. Everyone gets more competitive, and this is what we’re paid to do. We need to continue to work and put the best product we can out there because all of these teams are still trying to accomplish the same thing.”
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utes sing Utah Man as they celebrate their 45-15 win over the Colorado Buffaloes, in PAC-12 football action at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
Whittingham’s tenure as head coach will be remembered for, among other things, shepherding Utah into big-time college football. He is 13 wins shy of becoming the program’s winningest coach, but any rational observer would peg him as the program’s most successful coach. His contract runs through the 2023 season, at which time he will be 64.
Whether or not Whittingham opts to coach beyond the current contract is unknown, but at some point, retirement will become a bigger topic of conversation. It should be noted that Whittingham does not sound like a guy ready to step away, not with his program growing in prominence as a Pac-12 contender.
“I’m not a legacy guy or a guy who looks back,” Whittingham said. "I’m constantly looking forward, thinking forward. I don’t reminisce, it’s not my personality, I’m too focused on the next task. This job is too demanding, too consuming, so you better enjoy it and thrive in the competitive arena you’re in. If you’re not excited to get up and do it, it’s time to call it.”
Added Hill: “Kyle knows what he’s done, he doesn’t need me or anyone else patting him on the back.”
UTAH IN THE PAC-12 ERA
2011: 8-5 (4-5 Pac-12)
2012: 5-7 (3-6)
2013: 5-7 (2-7)
2014: 9-4 (5-4)
2015: 10-3 (6-3)
2016: 9-4 (5-4)
2017: 7-6 (3-6)
2018: 9-5 (6-3)
2019: 11-3 (8-1)