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If Confucius was right, could Kyle Whittingham be close to hanging up his whistle?

Speculation is mounting about the coach’s future. After successful run at the U. and challenging but successful season in 2021, could the legendary Utah coach be mulling retirement?

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Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham walks the sideline as Utah and Oregon play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham walks the sideline as Utah and Oregon play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Chris Petersen walked away from all of it. The Saturday Night Lights, the millions of dollars, the adulation, the competition — all of it. He got out of coaching football for a living, and it wasn’t because he didn’t win games. In 14 years as a head coach at Boise State and Washington, he averaged 1012 wins per season, and his teams went to bowl games every year, finishing in the top 15 of the national polls 13 times. But in 2017, he abruptly and famously resigned. He was 55.

Bob Stoops, who was even more successful during his 18 years as the head coach at Oklahoma, retired two years later. He was 56.

The modern Division I coaching job is such a grind that these coaches walked away in the prime of their careers. Coaching years should be measured the same as dog years. That means Petersen and Stoops coached for, oh, 300-400 years. Head football coaches are worshipped, coddled, overpaid and given way too much importance in our culture, but there’s no denying the profession can be crushing.

At his final news conference as a coach, Petersen quoted Confucius, a former head coach from China (or something like that): “A man has two lives to live, and the second one begins when he realizes he only has one.” Petersen finished the thought by saying, “That thing has been ringing in my ear.”

It’s been ringing in the ear of Urban Meyer, too, but he keeps pushing the snooze button. Meyer is only 57, but he’s already retired three times, just flat out worn out by the job. After Meyer retired the first time, he returned to the sideline two years later, this time at Ohio State. His daughter wrote a contract for her father in which he agreed to make family first,  never work more than nine hours a day and turn off his cellphone at night. Anyone think he’s held up his end of the deal? He’s now an NFL head coach.

As Sports Illustrated noted, these coaches quit at ages when many coaches’ careers are just taking off. Nick Saban was 55 when he became the head coach at Alabama, and he’s won six titles since then, and counting. Tom Osborne won his first national title at Nebraska at 57; Bobby Bowden was 65 when he won his first national championship at Florida State.

The demands and pressures of the job, which have increased exponentially as college football has become big business, have worn out even the best and toughest coaches. It’s becoming a younger man’s job. How many more times will we see coaches coaching into their 70s a la Joe Paterno, Bowden and now Saban?

The average age of the 16 D-I coaches who were hired during the 2021 offseason was 46.2; if you don’t count 65-year-old Terry Bowden, who has nine years on the next oldest coach, it’s 44.9. Only five of the 16 coaches were over 50 and four of them were between 34-40.

In 2020, USA Today reported that about 75% of all coaching staffs average 45 years of age. The newspaper also noted the following: at least eight of those staffs didn’t have a single coach over 50; 26 FBS programs averaged under 40 years; 14 of the 21 coaches hired in 2020 were under the age of 45 and just one over the age of 60.

All of which brings us to Kyle Whittingham. He has spent 36 of his 62 years as a football coach, 18 of them as Utah’s head coach, same as Stoops. There is speculation — rumors — that he is going to retire after the season. If he were asked, Whittingham, an insular, self-contained man, would not tip his hand. He’s all business and he wouldn’t do anything to distract his team. But it wouldn’t be surprising if he walked away from the job.

His career is pretty much complete, although that is not necessarily a reason to retire. He’s the winningest coach in Utah history. He not only has taken the team to 14 bowl games, he’s won 11 of them, including the Sugar Bowl over Alabama to complete an unbeaten season (and likely would have put Utah in the national playoff if there had been such a thing then).

On Saturday night he clinched his 16th winning season in what might be one of his best coaching jobs ever. The Utes are 8-3 with three games remaining (including a bowl) and ranked 16th after a nearly disastrous start to the season. If one of the measures of a coach is the ability to change a team’s downward trajectory on the fly, then this season is validation of his skills. The Utes lost two of their first three games and their lone win was over small-school Weber State.

Whittingham has had only two losing seasons as a head coach, which occurred during the school’s second and third seasons in the Pac-12. The Utes have qualified for their fourth Pac-12 championship game, their third in four years. They have finished in the top 21 of the national polls four times in six years.

Ron McBride lifted the Utes out of a half-century of mediocrity, Urban Meyer lifted them to the national rankings in two brief seasons, and Whittingham lifted them to the Pac-12 and a regular top-20 program. 

Last fall the school awarded Whittingham a contract extension through 2027 that pays $4 million a year.

So, Whittingham has received money, fame and accolades (national Coach of the Year) while satisfying the coach’s urge to compete at a high level. But at a certain point, is all that enough anymore?

He has never seemed to enjoy many of the trappings of the job, and he comes off much of the time as if the job is a joyless slog. He doesn’t like being in the spotlight. “You know those guys who say they don’t like attention but really do?” he once said in his office. “Well, I really don’t.”

He says the current season has easily been the most difficult of his career, the nadir being the second violent death in nine months of one of his players, this following the pandemic season.

A year ago, when he signed a contract extension, it was revealed that the contract contained several contingencies that would pave the way for retirement. The contract allows him to retire and serve as a “special assistant to the athletics director” for as many as eight seasons and still draw one-eighth of his salary based on whether he retires before 2025 or between 2025 to 2027, or after 2027. If nothing else, such stipulations indicate that he is at least mulling retirement.

The sentiment of the Confucius quote might be ringing in his ear. He loves to travel (especially to New York City). He loves old rock. When he traveled to Paris, he might have visited the Jardin de Tuileries or the Musee D’Orsay, but the place he spent hours was the Jim Morrison gravesite. He’d probably like to exercise more — he rides his bike everywhere — and he fusses about his weight. Then there are the grandchildren. There are other things a coach can do at the age of 62.