Retirement? Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham says he’s ‘having as good a time right now’ as ever

The 62-year-old head coach’s contract currently runs through the end of the 2027 season

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham as the University of Utah hosts Washington State, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

There has been some speculation about Kyle Whittingham’s future, as the end of his 17th season as the University of Utah’s head coach approaches.

Rose Bowl or not, could he retire at season’s end?

As Whittingham readies to lead the University of Utah into its third Pac-12 championship game in as many non-COVID seasons on Friday night against Oregon (6 p.m., ABC), he attempted to throw some cold water on the whole thing.

“I’m having as good a time right now as I’ve ever had, so I’m not even contemplating that right now,” Whittingham said Monday morning towards the end of his normal start-of-the-week news conference at the Eccles Football Center.

Whittingham turned 62 years old on Nov. 21. He has previously said publicly that he does not intend to coach past the age of 65. He has also said that this season has been the hardest of his career, largely due to Aaron Lowe’s death on Sept. 26. Lowe’s death came nine months after Ty Jordan’s death, which came days after the truncated 2020 season, contested under adverse conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, came to a close.

The toll that two player deaths, plus steering his program through the pandemic, has taken on Whittingham is untold.

Whittingham may not be contemplating retirement at the moment, but this season is not yet over. Does he contemplate retirement if Utah gets to the Rose Bowl? Wins the Rose Bowl? If the Utes win a Rose Bowl, Whittingham, already the most-accomplished head coach in school history, would have nothing left to prove.

Then, there is his contract to consider. On Nov. 4, 2020, Utah announced a contract extension for Whittingham, keeping him on the sidelines through 2027.

In addition to new salary escalators, the contract amendment, obtained at the time by The Salt Lake Tribune, included a previously agreed upon role as “special assistant to the athletics director” whenever Whititngham retires.

If Whittingham coaches all the way through the end of the contract on Dec. 31, 2027, his role as special assistant to the AD would last for six years and pay him one-sixth of his total compensation. Retirement between Jan. 1, 2025, and Dec. 30, 2027, triggers seven years and one-seventh of total compensation, while retiring on or after Dec. 31, 2024, means eight years and one-eighth of total compensation.

Might Covey return in 2022?

Redshirt junior wide receiver/return specialist Britain Covey was one of 19 players to participate in pregame senior day festivities on Friday before Utah played Colorado.

Covey said earlier in the week that while he planned to walk, he had not made up his mind on what to do with his one remaining season of eligibility.

Whittingham did not sound optimistic Covey would return, but he didn’t shut the door, either.

“We’re going to hate to see him go,” Whittingham said. “I guess there is a glimmer of a chance he may come back, but not much.”

Whittingham went on to say Monday that he believes Covey, 24, has enough left in the tank to compete at a high level in 2022, if he does indeed opt for one more season.

After a rash of injury-related issues marred his 2019 and 2020 seasons, Covey has shown flashes of the Freshman All-America recipient in 2015, sitting at 44 catches for 408 yards and two touchdowns, while playing in all 12 games. He remains one of the Pac-12′s most-electric returners, specifically on punts, where he has two returns for touchdowns, including a 78-yarder to close the first half vs. Oregon on Nov. 20.

Covey is currently No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 3 nationally in punt return average at 16.0 yards per return.

Whittingham weighs in on Peter Costelli transferring

Former four-star recruit Peter Costelli, the jewel of Whittingham’s 2021 recruiting class, opted to hit the NCAA Transfer Portal on Nov. 23.

The move may have come as a surprise given the timing, in the middle of a season with the Pac-12 championship game looming, but the current state of Utah’s quarterbacks room made it no surprise it all.

Assuming no one else transfers or declares for the NFL draft, Cam Rising should be entrenched as Whittingham’s starter in 2022 as a redshirt junior, while Ja’Quinden Jackson would be in good shape to be No. 2 as a third-year freshman.

“Peter’s a great kid,” Whittingham said. “Had not been in the program very long, would have loved to had him stay and show what he could do, but he decided moving on was in his best interest.

“We certainly thank him for his time here. He’s a hard worker, was completely dedicated to the program. He just felt it was in his best interest to move on, so we wish him well.”

What is the situation at left guard?

Whittingham ceased even entertaining injury questions earlier this month, but one personnel factor to consider heading into Friday night is who plays left guard.

Keaton Bills returned from a three-week absence to start vs. Colorado, only to get rolled up on during the first half. Johnny Maea relieved Bills, but that was short-lived as true freshman Michael Mokofisi took over. Mokofisi was in there for the entire second half, so if Bills cannot go Friday night, Mokofisi figures to step into a high-stakes spot for the first time in his young career.

“Outstanding,” Whittingham said when asked how he thought Mokofisi played against the Buffaloes. “For a true freshman in every sense of the word, his first year in the program, a true freshman, he played outstanding. He wasn’t perfect, made a few errors, but he’s physical, he’s smart, and it was great to see him play at the level he did because he did some really good things.”