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Brad Rock: Close to home not a bad thing in Ute hires

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah concluded its search for coordinators and such, this week, by announcing Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding will lead the offense, while John Pease directs the defense.

After a nationwide search, involving hundreds of man-hours and millions of dollars, Kyle Whittingham hired his lunch buddies.

Maybe it wasn’t such an expensive or extensive manhunt, after all.

More likely, Whittingham decided this a month ago, chatting at the soda dispenser. It’s never really been much different for him. The people he fully trusts can be listed on a postcard. So almost without fail, when a job opens, he goes back to those who have who worked with him along the way.

Thus on Monday, Pease — a Ute assistant three previous times — was picked to direct the defense. Justin Ena, who played at BYU and worked at Southern Utah and Weber State, was hired to coach the linebackers. Dennis Erickson, at Utah the past two seasons, became assistant head coach, while veteran assistant Morgan Scalley was picked for recruiting and special teams.

Meanwhile, Harding, last year’s offensive line coach, is the eighth coach to be an offensive coordinator in eight years, while Roderick is on his second tour as Utah’s co-coordinator.

The changes became necessary in December, when Dave Christensen and Kalani Sitake left for Texas A&M and Oregon State, respectively. What has Whittingham been doing since then, buffing his nails? It’s possible he was unable to attract outside candidates. But either way, it’s doubtful he was terribly worried.

He had several candidates right down the hall.

“I’m sure Kyle interviewed some guys outside his circles, and for one reason or another he either didn’t offer, or they didn’t decide to come here,” said former Ute coach Ron McBride. “But I think he made some really good decisions.”

Entering his 11th season as head coach, Whittingham’s record on hiring assistants hasn’t been perfect. The Utes were last in the conference in total offense last year. But they have won two bowl games since joining the Pac-12. Whittingham has defeated BYU six of the last nine times they’ve met.

Combined with a Sugar Bowl win in 2009, that’s good success.

So when it comes to filling vacancies, Whittingham tends to look in the refrigerator, so to speak, before shopping.

Pease, a proven coach at both pro and college levels, is low risk and low maintenance. When he was defensive line coach at Utah before “retiring” in 2010, the Utes led the Mountain West in sacks.

Offense is a more complicated issue, as moving the ball has been a recurring problem. Andy Ludwig left as coordinator after the Sugar Bowl season, triggering a parade of successors that included Dave Schramm, Roderick, Norm Chow, Brian Johnson, Erickson and Christensen. Virtually all had prior ties to Whittingham. But hiring friends isn’t terribly unusual in the business.

“In some cases that’s true, some not,” McBride says. “Some have a little broader scope.”

McBride goes on to label Roderick a smart coach who will do nicely “if they don’t screw around with him too much and don’t question every call he makes.” Harding, McBride says, “has been a big plus for them. He’s probably been a much better coach than they thought they were getting.”

Pease is “one of those guys people attach themselves to,” Erickson a two-time national championship winner and “a really good buffer because of his experience,” Ena “a kid with a huge future,” and Scalley “a high-energy guy with lots of enthusiasm.”

It’s true the appointments aren’t flashy. But neither was Whittingham when he got the job at the end of the 2004 season. Sitake wasn’t a glamorous prospect when hired by the Utes in 2005, but now is. Gary Andersen was hired by Urban Meyer in 2004, but Whittingham promoted him to defensive coordinator the next season. Both Andersen and Sitake came to Utah from Southern Utah.

Johnson, who left after two seasons as a coordinator, is now quarterback coach at Mississippi State — the nation’s No. 8 team in total offense (22nd in passing). Ludwig went on to San Diego State, Cal, Oregon, Fresno State, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt.

Just because someone fails at one place doesn’t mean he’s a poor coach. Chemistry, personnel and timing can be as important as know-how. And just because he parks in the next stall over doesn’t mean there’s someone better out there. An outside guy might even be a pox on the house.

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