SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan arrived this summer with his volume dial set on blast.
“We’re here to win championships,” he said, “and that’s what we’re going to do.”
His directive was that everyone, including himself, would be accountable.
Looks like he’s already reached checkpoint No. 1. Championships? This year in football, middle-of-the-pack would be an upgrade.
Saturday at Washington State, the Utes saw their conference record fall to 0-2, which means their chance to win a Pac-12 South title is evaporating. Their winless start is the worst since 2013, when they finished 2-7 in league play.
As if the slow start weren’t enough, there’s also a long-term consideration: Utah is 28-37 in conference since 2011, but just 2-8 in its last 10 league games. Kyle Whittingham’s team is the only one in the Pac-12 South that has never won a division title.
While message board militants are calling for Whittingham’s dismissal, that won’t immediately happen — nor should it. There are still too many games ahead. But the subject will be relevant if the Utes have a total breakdown.
“There’s not a chance in the world this team will fragment,” Whittingham said on Saturday’s postgame radio show.
Since his forgettable 2013 campaign, Whittingham has produced four respectable seasons and earned four lower-echelon bowl berths. That’s below what Ute fans want, but about where others believe they should be. Pac-12 media picked Utah to finish second in the division this year.
There is plenty of blame to go around regarding Utah’s clunky start. The Utes are 90th nationally in total offense, generating just three points in the second half against Washington State. Penalties, dropped passes and fumbles during the last two weeks have depleted their momentum. Their defense is prone to paralyzing lapses, such as the late-game 89-yard play that doomed them Saturday.
A particularly damning possibility is that Whittingham can’t get the Utes past where they are. Twice they have come within a win of securing the division championship. Many games have been close. But it’s always something.
Utah’s Pac-12 honeymoon has come and gone.
Ron McBride brought Utah out of the dark ages in the 1980s, even teaching the Utes how to beat BYU. After a 5-6 season in 2002, though, his time expired. He was only one year removed from an 8-4 record, but then-A.D. Chris Hill expected more. So Utah hired Urban Meyer.
Apparently Captain America was unavailable.
Meyer won 22 games in two years.
Whittingham has been less spectacular, but consistently good. He is 11-1 in bowl games, the best winning percentage in NCAA history. However, like McBride, he may have reached his ceiling. His big advantage over McBride, in terms of job security, is that Utah football remains a hot ticket. The Utes have sold out 52 consecutive games. Meanwhile, he is under contract until 2021.
Whittingham’s team has been ranked each of the last four years, once as high as No. 3. He recruits NFL-level talent, wins bowl games and packs the house. That would seem to indemnify him from the reaper’s scythe. According to USA Today, a buyout of Whittingham’s contract as of last April was $12.25 million. But the feeling early this season is that the Ute story keeps looping on the monitor.
Asked Monday whether the team is “showing any signs” of getting down on itself, Whittingham said the season is only four games old, and “it’s too early, in my estimation, to have any signs of that show up.”
McBride was shocked when fired, citing a win over BYU in his final game. But that’s no longer the measuring stick for a successful season. Whittingham was the 24th-highest paid coach in the country last year. Reports say he makes more than Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, Arizona State’s Herm Edwards, Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin, Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith, Washington State’s Mike Leach and Cal’s Justin Wilcox. He also earns more than Utah State’s Matt Wells and BYU’s Kalani Sitake combined.
That sort of money doesn’t come without attachments.
A 2-2 start, however uninspiring, isn’t grounds to fire him. But is a terrible season?
That depends on his contract, and whether Utah’s potential is as great as Harlan thinks it is.