Right now, that’s a lot of games. That coach won a lot of games. We’re just trying to do our best to get to the Pac-12 championship game. – Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Kyle Whittingham won’t take the bait. Although he signed a contract extension that puts him in position to become the winningest coach in University of Utah football history, his focus is only on this week’s season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“I’m just concerned about North Dakota,” Whittingham said in dismissing thoughts about eventually surpassing Ike Armstrong’s school-record of 141 career victories. “I don’t concern myself with that stuff. Tunnel vision, I think, is critical for a coach to stay focused on the next challenge. That’s it. That’s my mentality.”
Whittingham signed a contract extension over the summer that extends through the 2021 season. His 104-50 record in 12-plus seasons as Utah’s head coach is second only to Armstrong, meaning he’ll need to average 7.6 wins over the next five seasons to get the record. The Utes have won 28 games over the past three seasons alone.
“If it happened ... I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for that,” Whittingham said. “Right now, that’s a lot of games. That coach won a lot of games. We’re just trying to do our best to get to the Pac-12 championship game.”
Whittingham knows a little bit about Armstrong, who was Utah’s head coach from 1925-49. The late Joseph B. Wirthlin, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who passed away in 2008, played for him and shared some stories with Whittingham.
Wirthlin noted that Armstrong was a “tough guy, hard-nosed and a disciplinarian.” Wirthlin told Whittingham that he loved playing for him.
Whittingham said he wished he could have met Armstrong.
“Heck of a football coach from what I understand,” Whittingham said.
At Pac-12 media days over the summer, a couple of Whittingham’s friends in the conference were shown a picture of Armstrong and asked if he looked tougher than the current Utah coach.
Oregon State coach Gary Andersen laughed as he chose Armstrong, who was decked out in what appeared to be a heavy uniform of sorts complete with football socks and cleats.
“He looked like a pretty tough dude,” Andersen said.
Andersen made it clear he wouldn’t pose for a photo like Armstrong did.
“Nor would I wear a uniform to practice,” he said. “But that’s the way they did it back in the day I suppose.”
As far as Whittingham eventually eclipsing Armstrong, Andersen believes it would be meaningful.
“I think he’d be foolish to say that there’s no care factor there in Kyle’s mind for that,” Andersen said. “But he would never admit saying that, ‘Yeah, this is my goal is to be the winningest coach at Utah.'
“But I think it’s pretty cool if he can get to that opportunity,” Andersen added. “It shows a lot of hard work on his part.”
Andersen noted how Whittingham transitioned the program into the Pac-12 as an example
“We all go through a lot, right? We all go through a lot, back and forth. But I hope he gets it,” Andersen continued. “If he wants it, I hope he gets it. If he doesn’t, then I hope he doesn’t.”
Washington State coach Mike Leach looked at Armstrong’s picture and gave a different take on who might be tougher. He didn’t choose either one of the two winningest coaches in Utah history, opting instead to declare Whittingham’s late father, Fred, as the toughest guy to ever coach for the Utes.
“That’s a no-brainer,” Kyle said. “I don’t think anybody would debate that.”
Fred Whittingham, who died in 2003, played in the NFL and then had a lengthy coaching career. He was Utah’s defensive coordinator from 1992-94 and linebackers coach from 1998-2000.
Utah football most coaching victories
Ike Armstrong (1925-49) — 141-55-15
Kyle Whittingham (2005-present) — 104-50
Ron McBride (1990-2002) — 88-63
Jack Curtice (1950-57) — 45-32-4
Ray Nagel (1958-65) — 42-39-1