It was only early October, but Utah coach Kyle Whittingham didn’t downplay how difficult this season has been for him.
“It’s been the most challenging year of my coaching career, hands down, without any question,” he said.
At the time, the Utes had a mediocre 2-2 record and the team was struggling to find its identity.
But the biggest challenge Whittingham referred to was much more profound than football.
So it’s rather remarkable that in mid-November, Utah is No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings and sits in first place in the Pac-12 South Division heading into a showdown Saturday (5:30 p.m. MST, ABC) against No. 3 Oregon.
The Utes have won six of their last seven games and are one victory away from clinching the Pac-12 South title for the third time in four seasons.
Whittingham, who turns 62 next week, should, hands down, be the Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2021. Maybe National Coach of the Year.
And, amid it all, Whittingham is on the cusp of becoming the winningest coach in program history. With a 38-29 victory at Arizona last Saturday, he tied the legendary Ike Armstrong with 141 career wins. Whittingham is 141-69 in 17 seasons at Utah and his next victory will make him the all-time wins leader.
“It’s unbelievable,” wide receiver Britain Covey said of that milestone. “We want to get that for him. I think that’s given us a little bit extra motivation for this week. I’m excited. He’s going to act like it’s not a big deal. But I know how much it means to him because I know how much this program means to him.”
Whittingham deflects the attention surrounding the career victory mark, instead crediting his players and assistant coaches for their roles in all of those wins.
- Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham flashes the “U” at fans after the game against the Stanford Cardinal in Stanford, Calif. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham works the sideline during the game against the Stanford Cardinal in Stanford, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham walks on the field as players warm up before the game against the Stanford Cardinal in Stanford, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham looks at the scoreboard near the end of the game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
- Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham celebrates a touchdown in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
- Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham greets a fan as the team arrives for a game against BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham applauds during the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
- Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham celebrates with fans following their NCAA college football game against UCLA Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
- Utah coach Kyle Whittingham reacts to a call during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Weber State on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
- Utah coach Kyle Whittingham watches from the sideline during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
“We’re fortunate to have had so many great players come through here,” he said. “It’s a product of, from when I took over, to right now, all the talent that’s come through here and all of the outstanding assistant coaches. I’m proud to be a part of it. That’s a team (accomplishment).”
Later, the coach joked, “They say that every year that goes by, 10% more of the fan base hates you. I don’t think there’s anyone left that likes me. But I’ve been blessed.”
Maintaining focus amid adversity
When the Utes were dealing with the worst news possible, the death of another one of their players, Whittingham, his staff and the university community rallied together.
Before Lowe’s death, there had already been plenty of challenges through the first month of the season.
The Utes lost to rival BYU for the first time since 2009; they lost a triple-overtime heartbreaker at San Diego State the following week. Days after that setback to SDSU, starting quarterback Charlie Brewer left the program.
“These kids have been through so much, obviously with ALowe and even going back to Ty,” said offensive line coach Jim Harding. “These kids are unfazed by what’s going on on the field. A lot of credit goes to coach Whitt just in terms of, we’ve got to keep plodding through whatever is thrown our way. That’s what this group has done.”
Simply by being himself, by being genuine, Whittingham helped navigate his team through turbulent times, according to Covey.
“The best thing that he did was level with us and say that he didn’t know what to say and what to do. It helped us,” Covey said. “There is only a certain type of people that you want to hear from in those situations. Someone telling you what to do is not the type of person you want to hear from.
“You want someone that will empathize with you and let you feel it. The fact that he admitted to us that he didn’t know what to do and he felt a lot of different emotions. It showed us that, yeah, he’s our coach but he’s also just a member of this team, feeling the exact same things. Yeah, he’s a mentor, but he’s also just a peer in this.”
From a distance, Arizona State coach Herm Edwards was impressed with the way Whittingham held his team together through trying circumstances.
“I can’t speak for them or their situation but I have been in situations like this as a former player with teammates,” he said. “It brings a different side to it. I think it brings a lot of reflection,” he said. “I think they’ve done a great job through this. … Coach (Whittingham) has done a good job of being a voice, speaking to young men. That’s important. I think they have handled it well.”
Playing for Whitt
Utah players say they enjoy playing for Whittingham because of his transparency and concern for them.
“It’s easy to play for a guy like coach Whitt. He cares. His feelings and what he portrays is genuine. It’s not a front. He doesn’t say anything fake,” said wide receiver Solomon Enis. “He’s a great guy and it’s easy to play for someone like that. He motivates you and rallies everyone together. Everyone buys into it. It makes it a lot easier.”
Tight end Brant Kuithe said Whittingham trusts his players and puts them in position to reach their potential.
“For the most part, he lets the players run the program. As he always says, we need to put in 22% better. In the back of our minds, each game that we go in, we know that there are people that we are playing for — Ty and ALowe,” he said. “The best thing about it is, if you don’t have anything to play for, play for them. It’s great to have that mindset of, ‘Hey, if they were here, they would love to play.’ They can’t, so we’re doing it for them.”
Establishing the ‘Utah Culture’
At the heart of the culture that Whittingham established at Utah is bringing in talented, and sometimes unsung, players that are willing to listen to direction, work hard, and then move forward together in unity.
“It speaks to the assistant coaches recruiting the right guys. It speaks to our players that are in the program accepting the new guys and the new guys becoming us, not us becoming them,” Whittingham said. “That’s something that we talk about all the time. The new guys have bought into the fact that they need this team more than the team needs them. That’s got to be the attitude of every player and coach in the program. If you have everyone pulling the same direction … that’s what we’re looking for.”
Whittingham is known for his resilience and toughness, traits that tend to be reflected in his teams, especially this year’s edition.
Covey is grateful for what Whittingham has done to shape the program.
“What can’t you say about coach Whitt? He is Utah football. A lot of teams are personified in the coach. That’s what Utah football is and has been. I think I know coach Whitt better than any player that’s ever played for him, other than guys that coach with him now like coach (Morgan) Scalley.
“As a player, I know him and his style and his personality better than anybody. Sometimes you get to know someone, and the more you get to know them, the less impressed you are with them. But that’s not how it is with coach Whitt. The more I get to know him, and who he is on and off the field, and everything it’s taken to build this program, the more impressed I am. The more admiration I have for him, just in how he commands respect because of who he is, because of his integrity.”
Linebackers coach Colton Swan said a lot of Utah’s culture is based on competition established by Whittingham and his coaching staff.
“It’s a culture here. This is what we’re known for. You look at the amount of star recruits. You’re not pulling a ton of five-star recruits, right? Our culture is what makes Utah good,” he said. “That’s what we rely on. That, at the end of the day, is what we’re pushing for as coaches. It’s that culture, that toughness, that grit, the willingness to be great and outwork everybody.”
How does star linebacker Devin Lloyd characterize Utah football?
“I would say, this is a tough team that plays entertaining football. It’s always going to be a battle anytime you watch us,” he said. “For those that really don’t know our style of play, you need to eliminate the stigma of West Coast/East Coast football. If you enjoy quality football, you need to watch Utah football.”
Whittingham, who was hired as the Utes’ head coach in December 2004, is the second-longest tenured coach in the FBS, second only to Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.
The program’s success since that time can be tied to its stability under Whittingham. Most programs don’t have that stability. Arizona, for example, has had five different head coaches since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
“Continuity and a stable coaching environment, as long as the coaches are doing their job, is a healthy and positive thing,” Whittingham said. “It’s important for a program if you can get that. Sometimes, you have to make a change. But if you have stability in the coaching staff and continuity, that certainly helps your chances of being successful.”
When Whittingham joined Utah’s coaching staff way back in 1994 as a defensive line coach, and even when he was hired as the head coach a decade later, he had no idea that he’d wind up as the school’s winningest coach.
“I have nothing but gratitude for my time at the U. It’s been a lot longer than I ever thought it would be,” he said. “When I took over, I thought, three or four years and I’ll try something else. Obviously, I was way off on that.”
Yes, Whittingham was wrong about that — and Utah football couldn’t be happier that he was.