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About Utah: Job offers fulfill dreams of 2 Whittinghams

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PROVO — Nancy Whittingham sits in her home just south of Rock Canyon, still a bit bewildered by the events of the past week.

For the better part of her life, she has watched the males around her try to become head football coaches. Her husband, Fred, who died last year at the age of 64, toiled as an assistant coach for 30 years in college and the NFL. Their oldest son, Kyle, 45, was likewise an assistant with stops at BYU, Eastern Utah, Idaho State and, for the past 11 years, at the University of Utah.

Then, boom!, in one whirlwind weekend Kyle was offered the head jobs at the two biggest football programs in the state — BYU and Utah.

In the long and storied blue-red rivalry, no one can ever remember both schools landing on the same coaches' doorstep at the same time, waving money and long-term deals like confetti.

It's like the Republicans and the Democrats begging you to be their candidate.

"No matter what you do," says Nancy, "you're going to make a lot of people mad or sad."

Nancy agonized right along with Kyle as he had to decide between two deeply held loyalties. Should he take over the program he grew up with and where he was an all-league linebacker, playing for his father? Or should he take over the program where he has helped produce one of America's top college football teams in 2004?

And he wouldn't be taking the job just for himself, he would also be taking it for his late great father, the man responsible for getting him into this grand dilemma in the first place. After a 10-season playing career in the NFL, Fred Whittingham moved to Provo in 1973, where he and Nancy bought the house just south of Rock Canyon and Fred joined LaVell Edwards' new coaching staff at BYU.

Life could have remained relatively uncomplicated if Fred had stayed put, but he didn't. In 1981 — Kyle's senior year at BYU — the elder Whittingham took a job offer from the Los Angeles Rams, where he stayed eight seasons until John Robinson was fired along with all his assistants. Fred and Nancy moved back to their home just south of Rock Canyon — they never did sell it — and Fred looked around for work. The BYU staff, in the midst of the uncommon prosperity of the Edwards era, had no openings. But Ron McBride at Utah did. So Fred became a Ute.

Two years later, Fred talked McBride into bringing Kyle to Utah from Idaho State.

According to the Whittingham family version of that hire, McBride expressed concern about hiring a coach's own son. "Why should we do it?" he asked.

"Because he's the best coach in the country," Fred answered.

Nancy tells this story with glee. In so many ways, it's been such a rough time; and in so many ways, it's been such a grand time. Fred's death in October of 2003 was a blindside hit. He was in the hospital for back surgery — necessitated because of so many blows playing football — and died from a rogue blood clot.

"It was football that gave him life," Nancy muses, "and I guess it was football that killed him."

But if the original coach is gone, his protg is carrying onward and upward, and Nancy has no doubt the father would agree with the Sophie's Choice the son made this week.

"He would have told him it was his decision to make and he would have supported him," she says.

Appropriately, that decision was made in the house just south of Rock Canyon, where Kyle huddled this past Tuesday night with his mother and his brothers and announced to them all his call — Utah over BYU. And just like that, the Whittinghams had a head coach in the clan.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.