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Trouble on the Hill

It’s been some two weeks since the drama at the University of Utah hit the news and still there is no resolution, and that's the way it might remain. At this point, all we know is this:

Reports that Utah athletic director Chris Hill and football coach Kyle Whittingham are at odds over contract talks for him and his staff were followed by the departures of three key assistant coaches — and the former contributed to the latter. Hill released a statement giving his side of things, but Whittingham has been silent, which is his style. What’s next? New contracts? A public hug? A reality show? Meanwhile, there has been only wild speculation.

Talk about a strange turn of events. The Utes should be celebrating their victorious season; instead, they’re starring in football’s version of "Downton Abbey." For months there were reports that Whittingham was on the hot seat, but that was before he emphatically answered the challenge with a nationally ranked 9-4 season that ended with a 45-10 bowl victory.

This much is certain: The bad feelings began long before that — before the season even began — and have been festering ever since.

Ute coaches were angry when Hill offered only one-year contracts to his assistants when it was much too late to look for other jobs. Hill could justify the offer by pointing to back-to-back 5-7 seasons, but others could argue that Whittingham's body of work deserved more consideration and patience. During the 2014 season, Hill tried to sweeten the deals for both Whittingham and his assistants, but apparently it wasn’t enough or it was too late.

After the bowl win, three assistants left the school, including both coordinators. Defensive coordinator/ace recruiter Kalani Sitake and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki took the same positions at Oregon State and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen left for Texas A&M to become, ahem, an offensive line coach. You know something is wrong when an offensive coordinator leaves to take a demotion.

The loss of those coaches — especially Sitake — is a severe blow to Whittingham that comes just after he produced his first winning record in the Pac-12. Sitake had been with Whittingham for a decade and had turned down other job offers, including one from then-Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. Christensen was Utah's seventh offensive coordinator in seven years. Now the Utes must start over.

As one person close to the football staff said, “The standard practice since joining the Pac-12 was to roll over the contracts of the assistants for two years, but they were offered one-year deals. It’s not the best situation to have a gun pointed at your head. … Sitake and Tuiaki are both big-time family guys. Family guys want security. They were offered a situation that helped them do that.”

Public sentiment is on Whittingham's side. At a Utah basketball game last week, Hill was booed by the crowd as he presented an award on the court. And this is the guy who has overseen an athletic department whose basketball and football teams are both in the top 20 of the national rankings.

There are some close to the program who suggest there were more issues at play than Hill's contract offers. But it still seems reasonable to wonder why Hill didn't give Whittingham (and his staff) more support long before it became apparent late in the 2014 season that the Utes had righted the ship. Has anyone checked his resume lately?

Whittingham sports an 85-43 record. He has had just two losing seasons, both of which can be blamed on adjusting to life as a new member of a Power-5 conference. Whittingham took over the head coaching job when Urban Meyer left in 2005, and four years later took the Utes to an undefeated season, culminating with a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, after which he was named national coach of the year.

By any measure, Whittingham has succeeded. He has beaten BYU six of nine times. His graduation rates are high. He has taken the Utes to nine bowl games and won eight of them. He made the Utes good enough to be deemed worthy of membership in the Pac-12. Without Whittingham, they are still trying to get into a Power-5 conference.

The Sugar Bowl season notwithstanding, the 2014 season might have been his best coaching job yet. The Utes won nine games and came within four points of winning two more, and they did it without consistent quarterback play and without a good offense. Who would have ever imagined a time when the Utes would beat Michigan, USC, UCLA and Stanford all in the same season. Did anyone even notice?

Twelve of the Utes’ 18 Pac-12 games the last two years have been decided by a touchdown or less — and they won eight of them. This is remarkable when you consider the inherent disadvantage the Utes face. Most Pac-12 rosters are built with recruits from California. Four of the league's schools are in California and four more are on the West Coast. Who do you think gets first dibs for those recruits?

The Utes have to compete with players who were passed over by UCLA, USC, Stanford, Cal and Oregon. They’ve got to survive with players they get on the sale rack and “coach them up,” to use the jargon. California native Devontae Booker, their best running back, couldn’t get into a D-1 school out of high school because of his test scores, so he went the JC route. His predecessor, John White, another Californian, also had to go the JC route. The Utes’ best receiver, Dres Anderson, is the son of former UCLA and NFL star Flipper Anderson. He dreamed of playing for UCLA. Do you think UCLA knew who he was? He was passed over by the California schools. Bottom line: Whittingham has to win with cards from the discard pile. That is never going to change.

Whittingham has managed to meet the challenge, and the only thing that mollifies him at this point is the contract extension he is hoping for. He will return to the Utes next season, despite reports to the contrary, but he'll have to rebuild a staff, thanks in part to things that were beyond his control. Maybe he deserved better treatment from the Utes.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com