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Whittingham: Some kind of hero

If you're planning to watch today's downtown parade honoring the Utah football team, be sure to check out coach Kyle Whittingham.

He'll be the guy with the air of one who, like Indiana Jones, has faced some pretty dangerous hazards and lived to tell. You know, careening boulders, poison darts and slithering snakes, not to mention vicious blitzes and jarring sweeps.

And don't forget the sharp critics.

He's weathered them all.

He'll also be proof positive the line between leading the parade and being run out of town on a rail is precariously thin. That's because with a different bounce here or there, the multimillionaire coach instead could be cleaning out his office.

Rather than banking huge paychecks, he could be cashing his last one.

"This profession does have a lot of twists and turns and can change quickly," said Whittingham. "It's 'What have you done for us lately?'"

In his case he's done, a lot. Tuesday, he was named national coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association. That after a 13-0 season, capped by a drubbing of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Whittingham flew home long enough to change clothes, then was back out for an appearance on "Jim Rome is Burning." Next came recruiting and a stop at the national coaches' convention.

Now there's the parade, which isn't exactly his style.

"I'm happy for my players," he said somewhat sheepishly. "They deserve this."

The amazing thing about the Utes' season is that few saw it coming — including the Utes. They knew they had leadership and speed, as well as some decent momentum, but it's not like they were supposed to go undefeated. They were picked to finish second in the Mountain West Conference.

Going into 2008, Whittingham's record was 24-14 overall, but just 14-10 in conference play. In his previous three years he had never finished higher than third.

To exacerbate matters, he had lost to every MWC team at least once.

But after a 27-0 loss to UNLV in 2007, the Utes went on to win 21 of their next 22 games. Somehow. Nine times they won when the outcome was still in doubt inside two minutes. Against Oregon State they had to score a touchdown, two-point conversion and field goal in the final 1:29.

They didn't roll over people, they mostly just out-willed them.

They also got some help. TCU, for example, missed two fourth-quarter field goals in this year's game.

"After that (2007) UNLV game, everyone committed themselves, then and there," said Whittingham.

Had a few things gone differently, there certainly wouldn't have been a parade today. The Utes could have ended up 7-5 overall, 5-3 in the Mountain West, tied for fourth going into bowl season. That would have given Whittingham two third-place finishes and two fourth-place finishes in his career as a head coach.

In place of a 37-14 overall record, it would have been 31-19, with the Utes headed to an obscure bowl against a fairly unsuccessful opponent.

Instead, they ended up starring in Alabama's worst nightmare.

So in lieu of scrambling to defend himself, this week, Whittingham gets to be king of earth for a day. Rather than being bought out of his contract, he now has a new five-year deal worth $6 million.

Old Whittingham image: methodical and unimaginative. New Whittingham image: innovative and bold. Old Whittingham image: BYU's Bronco Mendenhall is a better motivator, more secure. New Whittingham image: slogans are silly; in-your-face football is what works.

So you couldn't really blame him if he looks a little smug and self satisfied today. He's earned it.

When you've dodged the dangers he has, and you're holding the Sugar Bowl trophy like it's some sort of priceless artifact, it's hard not to imagine you're some kind of adventure hero.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com