Gordon Monson: Win or lose, Kyle Whittingham is a good bet to remain as coach of the Utes for awhile

As the Utah coach approaches 64, he’s still learning, evolving and having plenty of fun.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham makes an appearance on ESPN’s College GameDay college football show on the university campus in Salt Lake City, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

When Oregon managed to Scoregon — OK, apologies for that — against Kyle Whittingham’s Utes midway through the third quarter on Saturday, jacking its lead to 35-6, the longtime Utah coach squinted through pained eyes into the distance, at nothing in particular, just out into space it seemed. His team was in the midst of getting thrashed by the aforementioned count on its home field.

Later, a frustrated Whittingham said the lopsided final numbers weren’t the full measure of the actual double dose of ineptitude and agony in and of the game. No. “It was worse than what the score indicated.”

Man, oh man.

He made no excuses, confirmed what anyone and everyone who watched already knew. The Utes got rolled. The unusual crushing was exacerbated by the brutal truth that the four threads of Whittingham’s coaching emphasis — physicality, stiff defense, a strong run game and not turning the ball over — had been shredded by the Ducks, made to look silly.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coach Kyle Whittingham as the Utah Utes host the Oregon Ducks, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

As is his way, Whittingham also stared straight into the teeth of adversity and shook a fist at it, saying it was a friend as much as a foe because it reveals character, adding further: “Sometimes you get knocked on your butt in life. You’ve got to pick yourself up and come back. … Good teams respond and we will respond.”

Somewhere in the mix of all that happened on Saturday, a song and a thought came to mind concerning the most significant, most influential coach Utah football has ever had.

”Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64 …”

Even in defeat, Whittingham, perhaps more than any other coach in college football, could appreciate both Paul McCartney’s lyrics (with an assist from John Lennon) and the duo’s enormous musical talents, on this particular occasion their iconic classic song about growing old.

A classic rock aficionado, Whittingham has three more games to coach, three more weeks to attack, before his 64th birthday arrives on Nov. 21. And he’s not really thinking much about that at this time on account of there being those games to play, games to battle through, work to do. But in quiet stretches, the coach does think about both his age and his station in life, what to do with the rest of his existence not just on God’s green turf, but on God’s green earth.

It’s a big, broad world out there, and Whittingham knows it. The man has lots to live for five, six, seven freeway exits past Bear Bryant’s game, the game to which he has devoted all of his professional acumen and energies.

You’d think Whittingham would be spent by now. He thought he’d be spent, what with so many prizes already taken, minutes of exultation, too many losses absorbed, minutes of competitive anguish. Somebody once said, “Losing hurts worse than winning feels good,” and that’s probably true for KW.

He has whispered to confidants for a fistful of years now that he will not use up all but a few final years and seasons of his time grinding away late hours in his office, manufacturing game plans, worrying about players, guiding the Utah football program. One thought that has bubbled up and remained behind the process in his mind and the whistle in his mouth is the knowledge that his hero, his father Fred, passed away at the age of 64, having crammed a whole lot of living into those years, but missing out on what might have come next.

Fred’s son has yet a sound mind and good health, thankfully.

But just as Whittingham learned most of what he knows about coaching from his father, a distinguished and respected football mentor, he also learned that anyone who has as much to look forward to as one as fortunate as he, needs to do more than look forward to it, he needs to actualize it — days spent with family and friends, on a golf course overlooking the Pacific, on his earphones rocking out to tunes from the ‘60s and ‘70s, on the floor wrestling around with his grandkids.

Whittingham has softly talked about all of that with a few of those close to him, more during this offseason immediately past than ever before. It’s in his brain.

There is, however, a but. A big but. A big, big, big but.

The salt-and-pepper in his still thick shock of hair, the gray in the stubble on his chin belies four very important things: 1) He is better at his job now than he’s ever been; 2) Generally speaking, Utah football, despite the showing against Oregon, is as good as it’s ever been; 3) He’s actually enjoying himself, except for the disappointing hours burnt on Saturday, because … well, winning more than losing is fun; and 4) He’s being paid more than he ever dreamed of making.

Whittingham is a rare bird of a coach. He’s never stopped learning, which is quite an accomplishment for an extremely confident individual who’s always known he was smart, but who got smarter by keeping his view open to the realities around him.

When he was overbearing in his early years as a head coach, frying out his players and his assistants as seasons wore on with his intensity, he backed off. When he spun the wheel on offensive coordinators, replacing them just about every season, he dialed in on finding the right guy to run the show and left him to do exactly that. He let loose of the wheel in the form of delegation. He no longer squeezed the throats of his quarterbacks, freaking them out not just over any and all turnovers, but the mere risk of them.

He, bit by bit, mastered the task of being the program’s proper CEO. He also figured out how to deal with the media, no small task for a program attempting to make a name for itself, to ascend and, in fact, ascending toward the country’s elite teams. Reporters around the country love the guy.

Utah football speaks loudly now. Two consecutive Pac-12 championships, regular participation in the league’s title game, two Rose Bowls, relatively high national rankings, and a coming jump to the Big 12, a conference the Utes have a chance to conquer right away, if they stay the course, if they shed the injury bug that has plagued them this season.

Outside of Saturday’s snarl, Whittingham grins more now than he ever has. He compliments his team after games, both wins and losses. He’s proud of his players, and on the rare occasions when he’s not, he’s honest about that, too, as demonstrated here. And he’s OK, even when it hurts, because tomorrow is another day, the sun will rise.

“We’ll pick ourselves up,” he said.

Utah has battled through adversity over the past number of seasons, revealing said character en route to overcoming early defeat, overcoming tragedy, fighting through injuries. Come what may, Whittingham has almost a regal bearing about him, assured that his team will bounce back, when bouncing is put upon it, as it is now. And winning remains an absolute gas for a dude as competitive as he is.

Whittingham is known for his personal frugality, even as his salary has ballooned to new dimensions, proportions that, bonuses included, have reached into the $7 million range. And who doesn’t like having paychecks arrive at your bank account by way of a Brinks two-ton?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham greets players at Rice Eccles Stadium after the team’s players were given pickup trucks by the Crimson Collective name, image and likeness organization in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

The Utes are now 6-2, commencing on yet another climb, all without their most valuable player, quarterback Cam Rising. Few thought if Rising ended up sitting out the 2023 season that Utah would be as good as they are.

Which is to say, Whittingham is one of the best football coaches in the country. That may seem weird to say, at least to some, after a 29-point defeat at home, when his offense and defense were dominated.

But the whole of it — the plus and the minus, the up and the down — caused me to think about how long Whittingham will keep at it. He could make like coaching’s version of Barry Sanders and walk away in his prime. It’s tempting. But with everything the coach has going for him, including a shot next season, if Rising returns and his team heals, of doing what he’s never done — qualify for a playoff spot, coming next in an expanded format, that’s enough for him to stick around a while longer.

Based on conversations with Whittingham himself and others, based on additional dashes of observation, I believe the coach will stick around for another season or two after this one. Do I know it as fact? No, not even Whittingham knows with exactness at this point what he will do. But that’s a good bet, a good way to bet.

A loss here and there makes it an even better bet, not a worse one — on account of the fact that the coach doesn’t shrink away from hardship.

Do the Utes still need Whittingham, do they still feed him when he’s 64?

Yes and yes, and the same will be true when he’s 66, but by then, it won’t matter. He’ll likely exit the building, character both revealed and intact. The man still has a whole lot of great life to live, not on the turf, but on the earth.

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