campus map campus directory The University of Utah Home Page
Students    Future Students     Faculty & Staff     Alumni & Visitors

About Continuum Advertising Advisory Committee Archives Contact Us Continuum Home Faculty/Staff Subscribe

related websites

Alumni Association Marketing & Communications University of Utah Home



Seasoned To Perfection

Seasoned To Perfection

U OF U Head Football Coach Kyle Whittingham has proved that he can stand the heat in the kitchen just fine.

By John Youngren

The Personal Side of Kyle

Life outside of football? Really no such thing for Kyle Whittingham.

Whittingham grew up in a football family—his father, Fred, who died in 2003, was a hardnosed player and coached in both the pros and college, and was a role model for Kyle in more ways than one.

As the story goes, Kyle was always around his father’s teammates and players growing up. He hung out on the field during practice and in the locker room before games. For the Whittinghams, football and family were virtually the same thing.

“My father was the essence of coaching,” Kyle says. “I think about him every day. His football IQ was off the charts. And I got to play for him and coach for him. It was a great experience.”

Maybe that’s why it’s less than surprising that even today football has a way of finding its way into nearly every aspect of Kyle Whittingham’s life.

Take a look at the guy’s MySpace page. Under interests, he lists “hanging out with family,” “football,” and “recruiting.” He always makes time for his wife, Jamie, and four children, Tyler, Melissa, Alex, and Kylie.

The movies he says he likes (The Natural, Forrest Gump, The Longest Yard, Chariots of Fire, Rocky) also reflect a kind of theme: They’re all stories of perseverance and impossible odds, accomplishment, and long shots.

“I think I’m a pretty driven guy, as are all football coaches,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of time for other things.”

–John Youngren

To appreciate Kyle Whittingham now, it helps if you remember him then—almost five years ago, when he was just preparing to take over as head coach of the University of Utah football team.

Back then, he was a veteran assistant replacing one of the most successful coaches (at least in the short-term category) in U of U history. Urban Meyer had led the Utes to unexpected glories (the Utes’ 35-7 drubbing of Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, the capper to an incredible 12-0 season) before leaving for Florida.

Then, suddenly, it was Whittingham’s turn—he had first “co-head coached” that bowl game with Meyer, and then, he took on everything. And while he had either played for or worked for some of the best football coaches in the state of Utah’s history, he was still untested—all potential, insight, and instinct.

“To be a head football coach, you’ve got to be yourself,” Whittingham said then. “You can learn from people… but when it comes down to it, it’s got to be about who you are.”

Fast-forward, and Whittingham has evolved. The confidence he exudes today demonstrates a maturity that comes with having had the job for a few years—the literal definition of “seasoning.” It comes from being tested during “so-so” seasons and after tough losses. And it follows the successes of the past season or two, highlighted by 2008’s undefeated 13-0 romp, which finished with Utah’s stunning 31-7 upset over fourth-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in early January.

“You know, I still haven’t really had a chance to let it soak in yet, believe it or not,” Whittingham says. “As a coach, your work is never done. [Following the Sugar Bowl,] we jumped right into recruiting, and then it was spring football, and now we’re getting ready for the season. There’s never a dull moment.”

But even Whittingham is willing to take a minute to reflect on his first four years as Utah’s head coach.

“Oh, you learn something new every day,” he says. “You prepare yourself for a head job, but you never really grasp it until you’re in the chair.”

The proverbial coach’s coach (his late father, Fred Whittingham, was both a player and a coach in the NFL and in the collegiate ranks, including a stint with the Utes), Kyle Whittingham had been an assistant coach with the U for 11 years before Meyer’s departure sparked a chain of events that would ultimately lead to his landing the head job. At the time, he was also being recruited by his alma mater BYU, which was then going through a head-coaching search of its own (eventually hiring Bronco Mendenhall). Whittingham had played for the Cougars in the early ’80s and later became a graduate assistant coach under the legendary LaVell Edwards MS’60 at BYU in 1985-86.

Whittingham would later call the decision to stay with Utah “gut-wrenching,” though he promised “no looking back” when taking over the program for the 2005 season. But he’d be forgiven for some hindsight after his first full year at the helm, when the Utes chalked up a lackluster 7-5. The next year went a bit better—8-5 overall—but included a few frustrating losses (or lessons, depending upon how you look at them).

Still, the Utes qualified for bowl games—the Emerald Bowl in 2005, the Armed Forces Bowl in 2006—at the end of both seasons. Counting 2007’s Poinsettia Bowl against Navy (following a strong 9-4 season) and the Sugar Bowl, Whittingham has been to bowls four times in four years and won each of them.

But even he admits that some of what he picked up the first year or two—both bad and good—will serve him well in the long run.

“I really had no idea [before becoming head coach] how little actual coaching you get to do,” he says now. “It’s been the biggest change and the biggest challenge for me personally. It probably took me the first couple of years for that to really sink in. I had to let go. The key is to surround yourself with a quality staff and then allow them to do their jobs.”

He also laughs about how much of the head coaching job entails what he calls “the PR and CEO responsibilities.”

“It’s just a whole different role,” he says. “And it can be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster [listening to criticism in the media]. I try to keep it in perspective. It’s part of the job.”

He is quick to thank Utah’s fans for their support over the years—in good times and bad. “Our fans are just tremendous. I’m so grateful for their passion, their enthusiasm. It was gratifying to win [the Sugar Bowl] just for what it meant for the fans.”

Another lesson Whittingham says he learned didn’t sink in until “about year three.” Famously hands on, he was a true “Xs and Os” coach as an assistant. But as head coach, Whittingham discovered “that the mindset and psyche of the team is so critical on a week-to-week basis. And that really comes back to me as head coach. The team takes on your personality a little bit.”

Of course, all this comes together in a story that, for the 2008-09 season, has a nice bow: Just five days before Utah’s appearance at the Sugar Bowl, the Utes rewarded their coach with a new contract worth $6 million over the next five years. And that was before Whittingham became the first football coach in Utah history to win both The American Football Coaches Association and the Paul “Bear” Bryant National Coach of the Year awards, capping Utah’s 13-0 season with a No. 2 ranking by the Associated Press and a No. 4 ranking in the USA Today coaches’ poll.

Whittingham—who counts Edwards, Meyer, and former U (and current Weber State) coach Ron McBride among his coaching mentors—is now firmly entrenched in the fraternity of head coaches. He talks to Meyer all the time, he says. It’s different from when you’re an assistant coach. “The head coach is much more of a loner.” But with Meyer, he can share.

“Kyle does things the right way,” says Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82, Utah’s athletics director and special assistant to the president. “His players excel not only on the field but in the classroom and the community, and he is an excellent ambassador for our university.”

And this fall Whittingham starts his fifth season, having won 73 percent of his games as head coach and compiling a 37-14 ledger over that time. These days, there’s a tangible optimism around the program, despite the fact that the Utes lost 22 lettermen from 2008, including MWC Offensive Players of the Year at quarterback, three starting receivers, the starting running back, and two starting offensive linemen.

Whittingham is philosophical, having now done this for a season or four. “It’s about keeping expectations realistic,” he says. “This team did a great job last year. The seniors were so disciplined, and that set the tone all season. Now it’s time for the next group to step up. We have to be adaptable and adjust.

“That’s why we say it—we have to take it one game at a time.”

Spoken like a true head coach.

John Youngren BA’88 works in advertising for Love Communications in Salt Lake City and is a regular contributor to Continuum.

Return to Fall 2009 table of contents | Back to top

The U Gets Bronzed

By Linda Marion
Preston Christensen and his son, Will, with Coach Kyle Whittingham holding the bronzed U.
Preston Christensen and his son, Will, with Coach Kyle Whittingham holding the bronzed U.

Preston James Christensen BS’93 played football for a year at Ricks College, then, after a two-year absence, enrolled at the U and offered himself as a walk-on player to Jim Fassel, the U’s head football coach at the time. Christensen describes his experience playing for Fassel as “my year as a walk-on punching bag!” Ron McBride took over as head coach the following year and brought Christensen in as the first “walk-on turned scholarship player-middle linebacker.”

Fred Whittingham, Kyle Whittingham’s father, became defensive coordinator during Christensen’s senior year. “I looked up to him and admired him greatly,” he says.

The experiences Christensen had on the team created “a bond that is hard to explain,” he says. “It’s an indescribable experience to be a college athlete, especially in football!”

Spring forward to 2008: After the U football team’s amazing season, which led to the Sugar Bowl, the team’s victory over fourth-ranked Alabama, and a pitch-perfect 13-0 finish, Christensen and the rest of the Ute fans, he says, “were on a football high that wouldn’t end.”

He describes waking up one morning with a “killer idea.” During the 13-0 season, he had observed that the players and fans—and even Coach Whit—had begun forming the letter U with their thumbs and index fingers. “And I thought how cool it would be to do something to commemorate that gesture—permanently.”

Christensen decided to have the “U” sign cast in bronze, which he would then present to Whittingham. He looked around for a foundry and discovered the Metal Arts Foundry in Lehi, which had cast the bronzes of Jazz players John Stockton and Karl Malone. The foundry suggested he have his own hands forming the U sign cast in bronze.

“The irony,” says Christensen, “is that the owner of the foundry is LaVell Edwards’ nephew. He looks like him, crosses his arms like him, and has the same mannerisms. But they were so dang excited. They told me that they’ve never done anything quite like this bronze. Amazing, coming from the company that makes little bronze cougars for the Cougar Club boosters.”

It took Christensen 10 weeks to complete a process that included finding a craftsperson to cast his hands, proofing the wax several times, and selecting the bronze color.

“It turned out better than I ever could have imagined!” says Christensen, who presented the sculpture to Coach Whittingham on a rainy mid-April day at the finish of a spring practice. “[The coach] just freaked out,” recalls Christensen. “When he grabbed [the bronze] he almost sank to the ground because he hadn’t realized how heavy it was.” The players erupted in cheers, and several of them rushed over to have their photos taken with the coach and the bronzed U. “Whittingham was so pleased,” says Christensen. “He said it would be placed inside the trophy case [in the Dee Glen Smith Center].”

Along the base of the bronze are words that summarize one fabulous year of football: “U is for Unity... Undefeated... Unbelievable... Ute Nation... U is for Utah.” That pretty much says it all.

—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum. Preston James Christensen BS’93 is owner of Traders Edge Network, LLC, in Sandy, Utah.

Return to Fall 2009 table of contents | Back to top