Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is The Tribune’s 2022 Utahn of the Year

U.’s winningest football coach has lifted his program during times of tragedy to lead the Utes to back-to-back Rose Bowls — and molded, mentored and modeled how to do it.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kyle Whittingham before the University of Utah hosts USC on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. The longtime head coach has been selected as The Salt Lake Tribune's Utahn of the Year for 2022.

In the run-up to the Rose Bowl, pitting the Utah Utes against Penn State, an inquisitive Philadelphia reporter on the other end of the line had a question to ask, hence his phone call: What’s Kyle Whittingham’s story?

Well. Whew.

It’s the equivalent of a blind man asking what an elephant is.

There’s a whole lot there to feel and find and figure out.

An easy answer to the question is this: He is … Utah, or at least the better of it.

Which is to say, Whittingham works hard. He swings a heavy pick in the salt mine. He has integrity. He is intensely competitive. He lives to win. He does win. He’s driven. He’s smart. He cares about his players. He cares about his fans. He cares about his family. And, most compellingly, at 63, after 37 years of coaching, he has evolved and improved into the best he’s ever been.

That’s why Whittingham is being named The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utahn of the Year for 2022.

He was surprised to hear about the honor coming to him. He shouldn’t have been.

Utah’s run to the Rose Bowl

Whittingham’s Utes started the year playing in the Rose Bowl game Jan. 1, a first for the University of Utah, and they’ll end the year in preparation to play in the Rose Bowl game Jan. 2, 2023, a second for the school. In doing so, the coach has elevated Utah football to the top of the Pac-12. Not just that. He has elevated Utah, as a state, to a level of national consciousness, as a piece of the national conversation beyond the lazy and tired tripe about what those “Mormons” out yonder somewhere in the Wasatch have done in the past, what they’re doing now. College football is a language almost all of America speaks, and Whittingham has made Utah part of the lexicon.

And he’s done it with players from varied backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religious beliefs, beliefs of other kinds, molding those individuals, and all their differences, into a team that not only wins but also treats one another like family.

“That’s the foundation of our culture,” he said. “Family is the bedrock of the program. These players genuinely love each other.”

Imagine if society as a whole followed suit.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kyle Whittingham signals a touchdown as the officials review a play against the Oregon State Beavers on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Whittingham is doing what he can in that regard in some measure, bringing together a sometimes-divided state — in rooting interests, in politics, in religion — unifying in pride the red and, in some cases, the blue. Rival Brigham Young University, the school for which Whittingham played as a linebacker 40 years ago and that wanted to hire him as its head coach in 2004, and its fans have come to respect and appreciate what Whittingham has achieved.

Proof comes in the form of large numbers of fans seen at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, some of whom were — and remain — die-hard Cougar fans, dressed on this occasion head to toe in crimson. No lie.

Miracles do happen, at least for a moment or two.

On just the football side, over a span of 18 years, Whittingham’s Utah teams have won 154 games, making him, as of this season, the winningest football coach in the school’s history. The Utes have been to the Pac-12 championship game four out of the past five seasons, winning the past two, surpassing in recent times football powers such as USC and Oregon, each of which they defeated in nationally televised title games.

“He’s the best football coach in America,” said Utah athletic director Mark Harlan.

Kyle Whittingham’s evolution as a coach

While The Tribune’s Utahn of the Year recognition is not a lifetime achievement award, the ramp-up to the success of 2022 is notable. When Whittingham initially took over Utah football before the 2005 season, he, as most new coaches do, had lessons to absorb. His early teams had their ups and their downs, as did the coach himself.

“Smart guys know in the beginning what dumb guys don’t know until the end,” he said, with a laugh.

On the field, Whittingham’s first teams compiled Mountain West records of 7-5, 8-5, 9-4. The coach was not just intense but also hot-tempered and vengeful at times. An infamous example: When Wyoming coach Joe Glenn had the audacity to predict a win over Utah at a Cowboys’ pregame pep rally, Whittingham heard about it and exacted revenge by calling for an onside kick with the Utes up 43-zip in the third quarter.

Not cool. “My emotions got the best of me,” Whittingham said afterward. Glenn responded by flipping off the Utah coach from across the field.

Whittingham lived and learned, remaining intense, but mellowing and maturing as he went, not just in how he approached opponents but also in managing his own players.

“When I was young and brash, some of the things I did …,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I’m a little more polished now.”

Before shifting to the Pac-12, the Utes rolled up their memorable 13-0 season, punctuated by a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Another climb confronted them in the early Pac-12 years, when Utah suffered through multiple losing seasons.

As Whittingham honed his craft, so did the Utes, gaining better depth through recruiting — “It’s always about the players,” he said — and better results. In the past five seasons, Utah’s record is 43-17, 32-9 in the Pac-12.

Just as impressive, in 2021 and 2022, the Utes lost early games that made them look as though they were en route to disappointment, and each time they fought through the losses to gain double-digit victories and, yeah, Rose Bowl berths.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and Utah football players salute Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan during a break in the action, between Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

This is where football transcends into something more. The adversity Utah faced over that span included the loss to the blast of guns two beloved players — Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe. The way Whittingham handled … no, that’s too crass a term … the way he helped his team heal through those tragedies was sincere, wise, masterful. It wasn’t just the team needing balm; it was the community.

Evidence of that is plain for everyone to see and feel when the Utes honor Jordan and Lowe during games with their Moment of Loudness, paying tribute to their fallen brothers. It’s a beautiful thing.

“I tear up,” said Whittingham. “It’s awesome.”

And that bit of beauty is a glimpse into who Whittingham is, what he prioritizes. He once picked a single adjective to describe his personality: “Boring.” It wasn’t self-deprecation as much as it was a reflection of something highly valued by the coach: “Consistency.”

Harlan used a different descriptive word: “Authentic.”

“He’s real,” Harlan said. “He is who he is. It’s no act. He combines the love for his players with holding those who work for and around him accountable. … His value system is important to him. How he treats people — everybody.”

Is Kyle Whittingham considering retirement?

Bruce Springsteen — Whittingham is a huge classic rock ‘n’ roll aficionado, though not a devout fan of the “Boss” — once wrote a love song, wrote a bunch of love songs, that said, in so many words, “I’m not anything special, you’re OK, too, but together we can make something worth keeping and make it last.”

Whittingham has made something worth keeping and made it last.

Another question, then: How many more seasons will Whittingham coach?

He said he’s not sure.

It’s a complicated matter because, as mentioned, Whittingham’s got the program accelerating forward with higher-rated recruits coming in, with winning seasons — championships — the norm, and with him making more money — $5 million-plus a year — than he can spend. He has a sweet deal with the U. that will reward him with a sort of symbolic job even after he retires, and he has investments that have made him a wealthy man.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kyle Whittingham and his wife, Jamie, leave the field after the University of Utah defeated Southern Utah University, Sept. 10, 2022.

Whittingham always has said he would not coach into his more senior years. His father, Fred, also a coach, a mighty one, died unexpectedly at the too-early age of 64. That tore Whittingham up. When Kyle spoke at his father’s funeral, the first words out of his mouth were: “My dad is my hero.”

Another person Whittingham was close to and fond of was Mike Leach, the wonderful coach who suddenly died this month at age 61. Though he won’t talk much about it, that has to weigh heavily on Whittingham’s head and heart.

“As long as I love it, I’ll keep doing it,” he said, also acknowledging the sacrifices leaned up against missed family time.

Maybe the only thing more important to Whittingham than football is that family. His wife, his kids, his grandchildren, his extended relatives. He has so much to live long for beyond the game into which he’s poured his professional effort and energy.

Nobody would or could rush Whittingham to duck on down that alley — except for Whittingham himself. He’s the rarest of big-time college coaches in that regard. He has it nailed. He can stay as long as he wants and likewise can leave, his legacy set.

“I’ve never seen his energy higher, never seen his passion higher than it is now,” said Harlan. “It’s remarkable.”

This much is sure. Whittingham adheres to the words Paul Simon wrote and sang with Art Garfunkel a half-century ago: “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”

“I count my blessings every day,” he said. “I’ve been beyond blessed.”

Whether he stays as coach at Utah or goes, holds onto them and/or builds more, Kyle Whittingham has created great moments, great memories, great blessings — for himself, for his team, for all of Utah, none greater than those stirred in 2022.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.