BY JOHN YOUNGREN
PHOTO BY MICHAEL SCHOENFELD
|On a reasonably sunny day during what turns out
to be an unseasonably rainy spring things are humming inside the University
of Utah’s Dee Glen Smith Athletic Center, where new head football
coach Kyle Whittingham takes a call from his boss, Chris Hill MEd’74
PhD’82, Utah’s athletic director. They discuss the budget for
modernizing the offices at the Smith Athletic Center, headquarters for the
Utah football team and its coaches. It’s the type of call that Whittingham
has had to become accustomed to, now that he’s the head guy.
Whittingham has been a coach, in one form or another, for some 20 years. He’s recruited, developed defensive schemes, and overseen major components of some storied, winning programs. But he’s never been the head coach before. And he’s never been the one who has to take calls regarding budgets and boosters and operational matters from the AD, Hill.“It’s definitely a different role,” Whittingham says from behind his new desk, in his slightly darkened new office. “It’s still football, but rather than thinking heavily about the Xs and Os, I’m more involved with PR and administrative responsibilities and so forth. Every day is a learning experience.” In fact, he’s already taken on his new job with aplomb, “co-head coaching” (with then departing head coach Urban Meyer) the Utes to their 35-7 drubbing of Pittsburgh in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last January, the capper to an incredible 12-0 season, undeniably the best in Utah’s history. The Utes finished the 2004-05 season with a No. 4 ranking by the Associated Press and a No. 5 ranking in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll, and as the first non-Bowl Championship Series team to both play in and then win a BCS game.
“It was a pretty good time to be a Ute,” Whittingham says. “But who’s not going to be happy when you’re 12-0?”
Whittingham, for one, was happy to be a Utah man—and, as it turned out, one for the long term, after Meyer’s departure. Both the U and Whittingham’s alma mater Brigham Young University, then undergoing a coaching search of its own, became engaged in a highly publicized battle to woo Whittingham for a top coaching spot. Though he’d been a Utah assistant for 11 years (during which time the Utes compiled an 86-41 record), Whittingham, who starred for the Cougars in the early ’80s and became a graduate assistant coach under the legendary LaVell Edwards MS’60 in 1985-86, was courted heavily by BYU.
But ultimately he elected to stay with Utah.
“It was a gut-wrenching decision,” Whittingham says. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through in my life.”Since then, it’s all been a blur, and he’s been too busy to think about anything other than crafting a winning team for ’05/’06. “I’ve always lived by the words, ‘Don’t look back.’ Don’t second-guess yourself,” he says.
If he sounds committed, it’s because he has to be. The Utes have their work cut out for them in 2005, and Whittingham will be the first to tell you that. The team lost 15 starters from last year’s squad (though the NCAA granted senior wide receiver Travis LaTendresse a medical hardship waiver for an additional year of eligibility—a pleasant surprise).
The Utes lost five first-team all-conference players, including the No. 1 NFL pick, quarterback Alex Smith BS’04, the 2004 National Player of the Year who decided to leave Utah following his junior season.
“We’re trying to get a feel for what we have coming back,” Whittingham says. “There’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve, but that’s college football.
Change is part of the game. And our goal is to win a Mountain West Conference (MWC) championship.That’s not going to be any different this year.
”Utah’s spring football camp helped Whittingham feel somewhat better about his team, which spent its spring workout schedule shoring up the talent around its offensive and defensive lines, both considered strengths for the season ahead.
Eleven overall starters return from last year, but the Utes will undoubtedly have some challenges, especially with their receivers (they lost all-conference receivers Steve Savoy and Paris Warren) and at quarterback, where a pack of youngsters—including sophomore Brian Johnson (who played sparingly behind Smith last year), walk-on Danny Southwick, and scholarship newcomers Brett Ratliff and Kevin Dunn—are scrambling for position.
Johnson is the No. 1 quarterback heading into the fall, only somewhat by default: “Brian picked up a lot of Alex’s positive attributes, primarily his demeanor in the huddle, the ability to take charge, and good decision making,” Whittingham says. “[Johnson] is an accurate passer, his arm strength is good, and we expect it to improve as he gets older.”
Running back, led by senior Quinton Ganther, is fairly deep and relatively solid for the Utes, as is their tight-end position. Defensively, the team is going through a transition at linebacker—where they’ll be relying a great deal on senior Spencer Toone—and in the secondary, where Morgan Scalley BA’04’s departure after an all-MWC season will be felt, though Whittingham is saying good things about returnees Eric Weddle and Ryan Smith.
Special teams are a bit of a free-for-all; the Utes’ punting and kicking situation (Dan Beardall and Bryan Borreson are among contenders for either or both positions) probably won’t be settled for some time.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Whittingham says, as he faces a Utah schedule that includes the home opener Sept. 2 on ESPN against Arizona (three of Utah’s first four games of the 2005 season will be televised live by ESPN or ESPN2).
So what can fans expect, in terms of style, from the new coach? Whittingham says you can look at the defensive teams he’s coached (he was the longest-tenured defensive coordinator in the MWC, developing 10 future NFL players during that time) and a couple of the men he’s coached for.
From BYU coach Edwards, Whittingham is hoping to master “the delegation skills—and the ability to make the grind [of a season] not so much of a grind”; from former Utah coach Ron McBride, Whittingham’s leader when he came to Utah, he’s hoping to adopt “the way [McBride] handled people. He had a great relationship with the players,” says Whittingham.
But in the end, of course, it’s Whittingham in the big chair—or the hot seat.
“To be a head football coach, you’ve got to be yourself,” Whittingham observes. “You can learn from people, and take the best qualities of each, but when it comes down to it, it’s got to be about who you are.”
—John Youngren BA’88 works in advertising for Love Communications
in Salt Lake City and has written many previous articles for Continuum.
T h e O t h e r F o o t b a l l
With the state’s sports community already abuzz about the successful inaugural season of Réal Salt Lake—Utah’s new Major League Soccer franchise, playing its games at the U’s Rice-Eccles Stadium—it only seems natural that some of that fever would carry over to the other soccer squad on the hill, the U’s women’s team.
Heading into the 2005 season, scheduled to begin in late August, the Utes were highly optimistic, which is what 10 returning starters and two straight Mountain West Conference (MWC) Tournament championships will do for you. The Utes went 13-6-3 overall in 2004, advancing to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament.
“The 2005 Utes will be a fun team to watch,” says head coach Rich Manning, who has a 42-12-8 (.742) record in his three years at Utah. “We have a talented group of players on our roster.”
The Utes are strong from top to bottom. Even their recruiting class was rated No. 37 in the nation by Soccer Buzz magazine, and will be led by a quartet of returning stars, including senior forward Kim Lloyd (second-team all-MWC in ’04), junior forward Amanda Feigt (first-team all-MWC), junior goalkeeper Ashley Mason (six shutouts last season), and sophomore forward Kiley Jones (second-team all-MWC).
Utah, which opens its home schedule Sept. 3 against Utah Valley State College, will also play four night games this season—another first. The Ute soccer field was equipped with lights during the off season, and the team is expecting even more of its enthusiastic fans to be able to attend during evening games.
“We have set high goals and want to prove ourselves,” Manning says. “We are chomping at the bit to get out and play.”
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