A year after Ty Jordan’s death, Utah football’s Kyle Whittingam is still navigating ‘the most difficult thing’ he’s faced as a coach

The Utes’ head coach says it’s ‘critical that we keep his memory alive’ as Utah prepares for the Rose Bowl and beyond

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham becomes emotional as he watches a tribute on the big screen to his former running back Ty Jordan during Utah’s game against the Weber State Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

After a torrential downpour, after a rainbow, after the University of Utah honored Ty Jordan with a school-produced logo at Rice-Eccles Stadium’s Portal 22, Kyle Whittingham’s voice boomed.

On Sept. 2, between the third and fourth quarters of a season-opening win over Weber State, a video tribute in honor of Jordan began with the 17th-year Utes head coach narrating. Fans turned their eyes to the video board, fixated on highlights of Jordan’s too-short time in Salt Lake City.

Fans were not allowed inside Rice-Eccles Stadium to watch Jordan during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, so as they watched the video board, Whittingham’s voice did not so much as ask them, but rather implored them, instead of a silent reflection, to let out the cheers Jordan was never able to embrace.

A “moment of loudness.”

There have been more of those moments this season, thousands and thousands roaring together for Jordan, who died on the evening of Dec. 25, 2020, the victim of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound near his home in Denton, Texas.

As the 1-year anniversary of Jordan’s death arrives this weekend, there is one voice that has helped unite the Utes during their most difficult season.

“It’s absolutely the most difficult thing I’ve encountered as a football coach, not even close,” Whittingham said recently. “It’s just gut-wrenching, and no, there is no blueprint to handle it.”

“We’ll never get over it”

After a day of big runs, it was a short jog back from the locker room that Utah athletics director Mark Harlan still thinks about often.

Jordan was just minutes removed from rushing for 152 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries on a snowy, cold late morning and early afternoon at Colorado’s Folsom Field, and waiting to do a post-game interview when he realized he’d forgotten his phone. Jordan had a few minutes to spare, so he ran back to the locker room to retrieve it.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah running back Ty Jordan (22) runs for a touchdown, in PAC-12 football acton between Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

“He runs back in and says, ‘Look at this. I have over 150 messages, this is great,’” Harlan recalled recently. “He was so excited. He sat down, he smiled. I re-watch that interview quite a bit because of the moment right before.

“It was an incredible day for the football program, beating Colorado on the road and watching Ty have that kind of joy.”

Harlan considers himself one of the lucky ones. He was one of the few actually allowed to watch, up close and personal, Jordan’s radical ascension last fall during Utah’s COVID-impacted, truncated 2020 season.

Harlan reflects fondly upon Jordan, but then deftly transitions into an overarching point on what the last year has been for his football program.

Harlan also considers himself fortunate to have had Whittingham, the picture of stability in a coaching profession that is often ruthless and quick to replace, to navigate this through such a trying 2021 season.

The Utes were still processing Jordan’s death when their grief was compounded on Sept. 26 when Jordan’s close friend, and high school and college teammate, Aaron Lowe was killed outside a house party in Sugar House.

Between two deaths and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the past year has been unfathomable at the University of Utah.

Much of the attention in terms of the grieving process over the last year has focused on Jordan’s teammates. How those days and weeks following Jordan’s death affected Whittingham and others around the team has largely remained inside the Eccles Football Center.

“The one thing I really focused on … was just to keep an eye on not only the students, but a really close eye on the coaches as well,” Harlan said. “What they were going through, 17 hours a day, keeping the players in the right frame of mind with their grief. Well, they too had grief, and they too were struggling. We thought not only about the students, but all of the support staff, coaches, everybody involved with football. It was going to take everybody to help us get through this.”

Harlan admits to moments with Whittingham, which have remained private, where they were able to express their own feelings about Jordan and Lowe.

“He had a major impact on our program,” Whittingham said of Jordan. “The way that he carried himself, his passion for the game, passion for life, for that matter, was infectious. He always had a smile on his face. All of the comments, the things that were said about Ty at his funeral were 100% accurate in terms of having a smile that would light up a room. His personality, all of those things that were talked about.”

Through it all, including the weeks and months that followed Lowe’s death as Utah marched to its first Rose Bowl, the perception outside the Eccles Football Center is that Whittingham, 62, has been a rock.

“I think when it’s all said and done, what I’m most impressed with with Kyle is just the way he listens, then takes that information and puts it into action,” Harlan said. “That’s an important aspect for any leader because it tells the folks you’re around that you value them and you care. Because of that, we’ve seen the response by the team to celebrate these lives, which has come through within that program. Certainly, he’s had to manage his own grief, but his ability to help others has been profound.”

Whittingham and Harlan were part of a Utah contingent in Texas on Jan. 6 for Jordan’s memorial service at AT&T Stadium. Nearly a year later, there is no doubt that pain and grief still lingers.

“The only thing that heals in situations like this is time,” Whittingham said. “You go through the services, and you do the things that you do, but there is no substitute for just time. We’ll get through it, but we’ll never get over it. It’s something that will be with us forever, but we’ll get through it.”

“It’s been so gratifying, so authentic …”

In the face of unspeakable tragedy one year ago, there is some comfort to be gained in, not only how the athletic department went about honoring Jordan, but how Utah’s passionate, fervent fanbase has latched on to all of it.

The aforementioned logo at Portal 22 inside Rice-Eccles Stadium is the No. 22 inverted to form a heart, with the letters “LLTJ” inside for “Long Live Ty Jordan.”

The video tribute with Whittingham as the narrator has been a constant at home games, complete with the “moment of loudness.”

Lowe wore the No. 22 this season, so after his death, that logo was altered to include “TJ” and “AL” inside the inverted 22. #LLTJ and #LLAL have become social media rallying cries. Opposing teams have left pregame flowers at the 22-yard line in honor of both players. The moment of loudness has been a constant, at home and on the road.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utes pause to honor Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe between 3rd and 4th quarters, in PAC-12 action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon Ducks. At Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

When Utah hosted Arizona State on Oct. 16, a night game and the first home contest following Lowe’s death, the ‘moment of loudness,’ was accompanied by the capacity-plus crowd collectively turning on their cell phone flashlights, creating a scene straight out of the original Woodstock.

On Oct. 30, Utah retired the No. 22, while Pac-12 teams that were hosting games painted their 22-yard hash marks red in honor of Jordan and Lowe.

The moment of loudness took place at the Pac-12 championship during the third break of the second quarter. When the break between the third and fourth quarter arrived, a pro-Utah crowd turned on their cell phone flashlights anyway.

“It’s been so gratifying, so authentic, and more than noted here,” Harlan said. “It’s appreciated. I think about the things the fans have done, and I know how much our guys appreciate it. I think the ‘moment of loudness,’ and to see how the fans have joined in on that, even at the Pac-12 championship game where the Pac-12 graciously ran the video, to see our fans still turn on their flashlights, between the third and fourth quarters, that was a shake-your-head moment.

“We’re all in this together, the players, the coaches, the fanbase. I think that’s what’s made this journey, as tragic as it’s been, also incredibly rewarding for so many. I’m very gracious to the fan base.”

Full details are pending, but Harlan told The Tribune that the ‘moment of loudness’ will take place at the Rose Bowl. His understanding is that a mutual conversion occurred to get that done, but either way, Harlan also noted that it is not unlike the Rose Bowl to allow each team to have a moment during the game.

Whichever part of the game it does take place, what is shaping up to be another pro-Utes crowd in Pasadena will surely turn their cell phone flashlights on between the third and fourth quarters.

Every year, pictures of the sunset at the Rose Bowl, complete with dusk settling in around the San Gabriel Mountains, go viral. Now consider the scene when those photos go viral with roughly 60,000 cell phone flashlights inside the stadium.

That will be a moment in time, a moment for all-time for the University of Utah, a moment of appreciation for two lost teammates in the middle of a landmark experience for the football program.

“I think it’s very important,” Whittingham said. “The steps we’ve taken, the job the administration has done to help with this. The retirement of the jersey, the portal at the stadium, it’s just, in my opinion, critical that we keep his memory alive.”