Let’s face it: Utah’s win over No. 4-ranked USC on a neutral field — a 47-24 drubbing — in the Pac-12 championship game and a second consecutive Rose Bowl berth cement Kyle Whittingham’s bonafides as an elite college football coach.

There was a time early on when he seemed to be a caretaker after the departure of Urban Meyer, who in two short years turned Utah into a juggernaut. But that was 18 years ago and Whittingham, in his first and only head coaching job, has equalled and surpassed what Meyer did at Utah and a more sustained effort that covers nearly two decades. He also did it, as you’ll see, under the most difficult of circumstances.

Lavell Edwards celebrates a win in the 1980 Holiday Bowl against SMU. Kyle Whittingham, the current Utes coach, can be seen in the foreground. | Mark Philbrick/BYU, Mark Philbrick/BYU

As noted here previously, if college football had had a 12-team College Football Playoff in place two decades ago, Whittingham would’ve taken the Utes to the playoffs five times — in 2004, 2008, 2019, 2021 and 2022. At the end of those regular seasons, Utah was ranked Nos. 5, 6, 5, 11 and 8, respectively, in the polls. 

The 2004 squad, it should be noted, was really Meyer’s team, but officially he and Whittingham are listed as co-coach as decided by the school after Meyer had announced he was leaving for Florida. The rest of the teams were all Whittingham’s, and under his watch the Utes have become a major player in college football.

It completes a remarkable turnaround for a program that had an overall record of .500 for 50 years prior to the ’90s, when Ron McBride raised the level of talent and performance and then handed it off to Meyer, who passed it to Whittingham.

By now Whittingham’s accomplishments are such that he is approaching the rarefied air occupied by — dare we say it? — the great LaVell Edwards, who ranks 27th among the winningest coaches ever (and all but one of the coaches ahead of him coached longer). Edwards coached much longer than Whittingham, but if you prorate their accomplishments, they are closer than most would imagine (see table).

There are plenty of similarities and connections between Edwards and Whittingham. Both were products of Provo high schools (they even lived in the same east-bench neighborhood). Both were college linebackers. Both served as head coaches at just one school and both endured in a business where coaches last an average of 3.8 years.

By the numbers

A comparison of the head coaching careers of Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and former BYU great LaVell Edwards.

Whittingham — Edwards

Years: 18 — 29

Won-lost: 154-73 — 257-101-3

Win percentage: .678 — .716

Conference titles: 3 — 19

Top-25 finishes: 10 — 12

Bowl record: 11-4 — 7-14-1

Vs. ranked opposition: 23-24 — 19-30

National championships: 0 — 1

National coaching awards*: 3 — 4

NFL draft picks**: 48 — 85

* Edwards and Whittingham both won the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award, in 1984 and 2019, respectively. They also both won the American Coaches Football Association Coach of the Year Award in 1984 and 2008, respectively. Edwards received the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award in 1984 and the Amos Alonzo Staff Award in 2003. Whittingham won the Bear Bryant Award in 2008.

** The NFL draft was changed from 12 rounds to seven rounds in 1993, years before Whittingham became a head coach. For the sake of comparison, Edwards had 58 players drafted in the first seven rounds.

Whittingham, 63, is the second-longest tenured coach at the same school in the nation, at 18 years. Edwards coached 29 years, all at BYU. One of his best players was Whittingham, who anchored the defense at middle linebacker in the ’80s and was team captain (he was voted Defensive Player of the Year in the Western Athletic Conference in 1981). Whittingham’s father, Fred, a former NFL linebacker, was Edwards’ defensive coordinator.

Whittingham flinches when told of the comparison to Edwards, saying he doesn’t belong in the same category as his college coach. It should be noted that when contacted about this story and told of its theme, Whittingham balked.

“I don’t want to be quoted if the story is about me. I don’t want to sound like I’m agreeing with you or that I’m tooting my own horn.” Duly noted. This was not Whittingham’s idea. (Whittingham once said, years ago, “You know how some coaches say they don’t like attention, but they really do? Well, I really don’t like attention. I don’t like the focus to be on me.”)

Where were we? Oh, Whittingham. He has overseen by far the greatest era in Utah’s 130-year history of football, and as former Utah assistant coach Gary Andersen notes, he has accomplished it while facing more challenges than any of his predecessors (and almost any coach you can name), and it’s not even close.

“Kyle, his staff and the administration have done an amazing job of navigating the ever-changing landscape and challenges of college athletics over the years — adjusting to the Pac-12, NIL and transfer rules are just a few examples,” says Andersen, who coached the defense in three different stints with the Utes. “Being back on (the Utah) staff in 2018 I was able to see firsthand the amazing progress the Utes had made in all areas navigating the move into the Pac-12.”

By 2010 — his sixth year on the job — Whittingham had the Utes rolling. They had won 33 of 36 games over a three-year span, including a dominating Sugar Bowl win over Alabama and national rankings of Nos. 2, 18 and 23, respectively.

Then everything changed. The Utes left the Mountain West Conference to join the Pac-12.

“It was like getting a new job,” says Whittingham. “It presented some big challenges, no doubt. It was like spanning the Grand Canyon. But I was elated. It was the logical next step. It was deserved. It was going to be good not only for the football program but the university. It was win, win, win all around.

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“But I knew there were going to be growing pains. We were going to have to catch up on budget and recruiting and depth and facilities. … It was invigorating and energizing. I always welcome a challenge. That is how I viewed it.”

The Utes, as expected, took a step back with the step up to the Pac-12. They had a losing conference record their first three years in the league. Since then the Utes have won four division championships, two conference championships and earned two Rose Bowl berths, finishing in the top 25 six out of nine years. By comparison, Colorado, which joined the league the same year as Utah, has had only one winning season.

And then along came NIL and the transfer portal to turn the game on its head. Suddenly, the combination of those two rules made it necessary to find NIL money and to exploit the transfer portal like the competition. There were other hurdles for the Utes to navigate. There was COVID-19, which wiped out much of the 2020 season, but, as Whittingham notes, everybody had to deal with that.

There were the gun-related deaths of two Utah football players nine months apart in 2020-21 (they lost another player, star recruit Gaius Vaenuku, in a car accident in 2013). And there was a quarterback change early last season and the loss of their all-conference running back late this season.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and USC head coach Lincoln Riley shake hands before playing in the Pac-12 championship game.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and USC coach Lincoln Riley shake hands before playing in the Pac-12 championship at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

There were other especially difficult challenges, such as transfer-monster USC. When Lincoln Riley traded the head coaching job at Oklahoma last year for the head coaching job at USC this year, 20 players transferred there with him via the portal, many of them from Oklahoma. It transformed USC overnight. USC went from 4-8 last season to 11-2 this season. Suddenly, Utah had another formidable rival in the league.

The Utes started the 2021 and 2022 seasons slowly, but Whittingham and his staff adjusted on the fly, which is a measure of good coaching. They lost three of their first seven games in 2021 and pulled it together in the homestretch, beating No. 4 Oregon in the regular season and then beating Oregon (ranked No. 10 by then) again in the conference championship. The Utes nearly beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl while playing with a backup quarterback in the fourth quarter, losing a thriller 48-45.

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This season the Utes lost two of their first six games and pulled it together again when it mattered, beating the No. 7 Trojans at midseason and then beating them again (ranked No. 4 by then) in the conference championship game. They did it without their leading rusher, Tavion Thomas, a first-team all-conference running back in 2021, who has been sidelined by an injury.

The Utes will meet No. 11 Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

“It was certainly one of the more rewarding seasons,” says Whittingham.

There was one other challenge he had to navigate years ago. He was 45 years old when he was named head coach, having spent the previous 20 years as an assistant. “It’s a huge adjustment,” he says. “I don’t care how ready you feel you are. You can sit in staff meetings and say to yourself this is how I would do things if I were head coach. But until you’re in the chair, you don’t appreciate the magnitude and gravity of the position. I had to go through two or three cycles of it before I felt like I got a handle on it.”

Maybe that’s why he was more hands-on when it came to Xs and Os earlier in his tenure. He had been a tremendous defensive coordinator and he kept his hand in it at times, but he has let defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley run with the job. “Scalley has developed into a tremendous defensive coordinator,” says Whittingham. “I’m in the room only as a resource. Scalley put the whole game plan together for the (Pac-12) championship game (Utah beat USC 47-24).”

Where Whittingham once went through offensive coordinators like office temps, he has found a fit in Andy Ludwig, who returned to the job in 2019 after leaving the staff following the 2008 season. Both of his stints have lasted four years, by far the most of any OC under Whittingham. “Andy has complete autonomy,” says Whittingham.

The defense gets star billing at Utah — the Utes led the Pac-12 in just about every defensive category — but this year’s offense ranked eighth nationally in scoring.

Whittingham used to oversee special teams as a head coach, but he has turned that over to Sharrieff Shah, who, like Scalley, played for the Utes. Utah ranked near the top of the league in special teams, as well. “Sharrieff does a tremendous job,” says Whittingham.

So the 63-year-old Whittingham is hitting his stride, having risen up to the challenge of the Pac-12 and remaking Utah into one of the country’s name programs. He has not coached long enough to break into the list of the top 100 winningest coaches, most of whom coached 25 to 35 years, but so far Whittingham has a better winning percentage than 40% of them.

Now you’re probably wondering how long he’ll continue to coach. The retirement question is raised frequently, so let’s ask the coach himself.

“It’s a treadmill that you never get off,” says Whittingham of the grind. “You better love it. I’m very energized right now. I love being around the coaches and players. Right now it’s just go year by year. As long as I’m feeling the drive and the juice and the desire to come to work and attack, I’m good.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham celebrates Utes victory over Stanford in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.
Utah Utes coach Kyle Whittingham motions to Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) at the end of the game against Stanford Cardinal in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News