Some recruits are asking the one question Kyle Whittingham hasn’t answered

The coach’s uncertain future has led to a number of highly rated recruits looking elsewhere.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coach Kyle Whittingham as the Utah Utes host the Florida Gators in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. Family ties run deep within the Utah football program. “Now we’re recruiting (kids) of players I coached,” Whittingham said. “That really shows how old I’m getting. But I view that as a positive and I hope it continues.”

For all the big-name offers and lavish campus visits, Ephraim Asiata always knew his recruitment would come down to two schools.

The four-star prospect from Herriman High School was wrestling between Utah and BYU, rival schools to the north and south of his home. Like so many in-state recruits before him, there was family history to consider. His father, Matt Asiata, became a star running back at Utah. His whole family walked the hallways on the hill. Ephraim thought he’d follow them there, too.

But one thought kept nagging at the 17-year-old.

What if Kyle Whittingham retires?

The head coach who has ruled over Utah for 20 years once said publicly he wouldn’t coach past age 65. Although he has been less committed about that in recent years, Whittingham will celebrate his 65th birthday in November.

“I heard he was going to retire soon,” Ephraim Asiata said. “That played a big part in the decision.”

So even as his legendary Ute father laughed through the pain, Ephraim, the No. 14 composite player in the state, picked rival BYU.

And he wouldn’t be the only one.

While there’s no doubt about Whittingham’s talents and successes, his uncertain future has led some recruits to look elsewhere.

A tectonic shift

For the last decade, Whittingham and the Utes have had the clear upper hand in recruiting. As BYU drifted around in independence, Whittingham built a Pac-12 power that had an easy recruiting pitch: The Utes won often, put plenty of players in the NFL, and in a world where the ground always seems to be shifting, Utah had arguably the country’s most rock-solid foundation.

It translated to Whittingham signing 12, top-five prospects in the state dating back to 2019. BYU, on the other hand, hadn’t signed a single top-three composite Utah prospect since 2017.

But this year, the Utes put together the country’s 59th recruiting class. BYU, despite its struggles in its first Big 12 season, had the nation’s No. 46 recruiting class — the Cougars’ best under head coach Kalani Sitake.

BYU’s creep back into the conversation for Utah’s top players began when the No. 7 player in the state — Cedar Valley’s Devoux Tuataga — chose BYU over Utah. Asiata followed. Then the No. 7 player — Kinilau Fonohema — picked BYU at the last second thanks to a strong push by defensive coordinator Jay Hill.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ephraim Asiata, a top 15 player in Utah, is surrounded by friends and family in West Jordan on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, as he signs his letter of commitment to play football for BYU.

It all crescendoed when the No. 3 player in the state, Faletau Satuala, picked BYU over Utah in front of a national television audience. Satuala told The Salt Lake Tribune that he thought he was going to Utah up until two days before his announcement. But Hill and the defensive coaching staff convinced him to switch, with a key part of the Cougars’ pitch being stability.

“I mean the biggest thing was Jay Hill and Kalani Sitake always reaching out to me, showing me so much love and letting me know they were going to be there,” he said, “letting me know BYU was the best place for me.”

Whittingham and Utah still locked up three of the top five players in the state, including the No. 1 prospect Isaiah Garcia. For at least some recruits, Utah didn’t have an answer to the concern they were having about Whittingham not being around for the longhaul. In the end, this year marked the first time BYU had a higher-ranked class than Utah since 2014.

And if the 2024 class was thinking about it, so was the 2025 class.

The No. 2 prospect in the state next year, Corner Canyon’s Jerome Myles, said age has to be considered by recruits.

“That’s probably one of the biggest factors I look for. Are the coaches going to stay? Are they just there for a little bit? Are they getting older or what?” he said in February.

Myles, who had long been considered a near-lock for the Utes, announced last month that he had committed to Ole Miss and head coach Lane Kiffin.

Legends of the long haul

When Nick Saban retired unexpectedly in January, he lamented how hard it became to give people commitments. Whether that was recruits, incoming assistant coaches or donors, the Alabama head coach found himself struggling to be truthful.

“I actually thought in hiring coaches, recruiting players, that my age started to become a little bit of an issue,” Saban said on ESPN. “People wanted assurances that I would be here for three years, five years, whatever, and it got harder and harder for me to be honest about it.”

Saban is 72, seven years older than Whittingham. But Utah’s head coach fueled his retirement speculation several years ago when he said on ESPN radio in 2021 that he could, “just about guarantee I won’t be coaching at 65.”

(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.

At the time, Whittingham was coming off a draining season in the wake of the death of his player Aaron Lowe. The coach’s thoughts had turned to family, and his father who had died at the age of 64.

In the years since Whittingham made that proclamation, he has hedged that bet a bit. He told The Athletic last year that, “as long as I’m passionate and enjoying what I’m doing,” he’d continue coaching. But even then he cautioned he doesn’t want to stick around coaching for too long.

With his 65th birthday in November, every recruiting class from here on out will have that information to sift through unless Whittingham says publicly he intends to stay longer.

Privately, recruits told The Tribune that Utah has emphasized coaching stability as part of its recruiting pitch as well. Whenever Whittingham retires, there is a likely succession plan in place that will could promote defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley to head coach.

But even with that familiarity, it would still mean change.

Taani Makasini, a 2025 recruit out of Provo being recruiting by BYU and Utah, admitted that much.

“I think [stability] is important,” he said. “I don’t want to go somewhere and the person that recruited me isn’t there anymore. I’m going there to learn from him. I’m not going there to learn from whoever they’re gonna hire next.

“So I think it is important, but I feel like Utah and BYU have both had a long history of stability with Kalani having been there for a little while. And then Kyle Whittingham obviously being there for a very long time, but the rest of his coaching staff has also been there for a while [if he retires]. It’s a good place for both schools.”

Other recruiting factors

Going into 2024, Whittingham will be the fifth-oldest head coach in college football. North Carolina’s Mack Brown, 72, will be the oldest and the only one older than 70.

Before spring practice even started, ESPN put Whittingham on its coaches on the hot seat. Not because he is losing, but because of his age.

Still, there are arguments out there that Whittingham’s age won’t be a factor in recruiting even if he does stay.

In the era of name, image and likeness money, players can follow their best offer even if the coach leaves. Utah being more competitive in the NIL space might be a bigger factor than a coach staying.

The one-time free transfer rule also helps. Players are more likely to take a chance on a program with a head coach in limbo. If he leaves, they can leave too.

But it is a risky proposition, especially as hundreds of players each year go into the portal and don’t find a new home.

Either way, the reality is that other schools will use Whittingham’s age against him on the recruiting trail. That goes for in-state recruits and beyond.

In a state that so often sees prospects choosing between BYU and Utah, the seismograph might show how coaching stability moves the tectonic plates.