When Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was hired as an assistant in 1994 by then-coach Ron McBride, it would have been impossible to project what Whittingham and the program would accomplish over the next 25-plus seasons.

Among other things, the Utes moved from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West Conference and then to the Pac-12. 

“We have a program that’s got some momentum now, a great deal of pride, a great deal of talent on the roster, excellent coaches. That’s what you strive for, to be an outstanding program.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

Utah has now won back-to-back Pac-12 championships and will play in its second consecutive Rose Bowl.

The No. 8 Utes will battle No. 11 Penn State Jan. 2 in Pasadena.

Of course, a lot of sacrifices, struggles and work went into reaching this lofty pinnacle.

The one common denominator through it all? Whittingham, who ascended from defensive coordinator to head coach of the program prior to the 2005 season

“It’s an anomaly to be at a school as long as I have. That just doesn’t happen in this day and age. I’m very grateful and blessed to have been at the University of Utah for as long as I have,” he said. “It’s close to 30 years as an assistant coach and head coach. Most coaches in that time frame would have been at 10 or 12 different places. Feel very fortunate. Love the university. Love the community, love the state of Utah. It’s a good fit for me and my family.”

After putting together back-to-back championship seasons, many are wondering if Utah — particularly with USC and UCLA set to bolt for the Big Ten in 2024 — is the new face of the Pac-12. 

And Whittingham is gaining more and more respect around the country. He’s not only one of the best coaches in college football, he might be one of the most underrated coaches. 

“As far as the success we’ve been able to have, I don’t really care one bit about what conversation I’m in, I’m not in. That’s not what’s important. This job, you got to win to keep your job,” he said. “But it’s all about relationships, building those relationships with your players and coaching staff, even coaches from other teams. That’s what it really is all about. Again, if you don’t win enough, you won’t be around long enough to build relationships. I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I have no opinion on should I be in whatever conversation.”

Just as he’s done for many years, Whittingham is simply focused on moving the program forward. 

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Whittingham has said that he wouldn’t coach at the age of 65. He turned 63 in November. In 2020, he signed a contract extension through December 2027. The agreement extended his deal by four years and he would be 68 if he were to finish out the contract. 

Last summer, Whittingham received a significant pay raise. 

When it comes to winning another Pac-12 crown, Whittingham credited his staff and the players. A standard is being set. 

“Well, I think it speaks to just that: our program. I think we’ve got a very good football program. That’s what you want. You don’t want to have a good team every now and then,” Whittingham said. “You want to have a good program.

“I think that’s the point we’re at right now. We have a program that’s got some momentum now, a great deal of pride, a great deal of talent on the roster, excellent coaches. That’s what you strive for, to be an outstanding program. Thanks to the hard work of our assistant coaches and players, we’re closing in on that.”

But Whittingham hasn’t forgotten the adversity the program faced in 2011 when Utah jumped from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. The Utes dealt with significant growing pains while finishing 5-7 in 2012 and 2013.

Now, Utah has won at least 10 games in three of the last four seasons (the Utes played only five games in the COVID-19 2020 campaign). 

“When we first went into the Pac-12, we knew it was going to be a big challenge. We had things we had to accomplish facility-wise, budget-wise, recruiting-wise,” Whittingham said. “There were a lot of challenges. That was like spanning the Grand Canyon, going from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. That was not an easy job.

“We had, early on, pretty good front 22. First 22 guys, we were pretty good at the line of scrimmage. But I think it was the third and fourth year, either the second and third or third and fourth year in the Pac-12, somewhere in that neighborhood, where we had that dip. We were still in the process of getting everything up to speed. It was a process. 

“We appreciate the administration of the university being understanding and standing by us, not cleaning house. A lot of schools probably would have cleaned house after a couple of 5-7 years,” Whittingham added. “Grateful we had the opportunity to continue to build and grow with the help of the administration and facilities, all the things that you need to compete at the Power Five level falling into place. We think we’re in a good spot right now.”

Yes, it’s been quite an amazing ride for Whittingham. And, right now, with another Rose Bowl to prepare for, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down at all.

Asked to put everything that’s happened over the past 28 years in perspective, Whittingham acknowledged that back in 1994 he couldn’t have foreseen taking the Utes to the Rose Bowl. 

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham walks off the field with his family after beating the SUU Thunderbirds in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

“Where we were back in 1994 as opposed to where we are now, is a stark contrast,” he said. “Not that we weren’t good, because we were a good football team. But we were in the WAC back then. To say that we could have foreseen the way the program would evolve and the heights that our players would be able to reach, that was something that I don’t think anyone could have forecasted.”

Whittingham has applied the same work ethic and helped instill the same fiery competitive spirit into the program. He credits and attributes the heights the Utes have reached to those around him and the no-nonsense approach that have become the fabric of Utah football. 

“We’re where we’re at because of our players. We have really good players. Our assistant coaches have done a great job of recruiting the right players into this program, taking those players and developing them. We just have a blue-collar mentality and attitude around here that you bring our lunchpail to work every day and get after it, take no shortcuts,” he said. “Prepare Monday through Friday. That’s really what the program has been built on ever since coach McBride, who was the original head coach to hire me and I was fortunate enough to be able to come to the university because of that.

“Then, of course, Urban Meyer for a couple of years I had the opportunity to work with him. He really started that ball rolling in that direction. We’ve been able to continue to get a little bit better each year. College football is all about players. It’s not about coaches or anything else. It’s about the players. They’re the reason for everything. We’ve got a great group of players.”

And Utah has a great coach as well. 


Rose Bowl Game 

No. 8 Utah (10-3) vs. No. 11 Penn State (10-2)

Jan. 2, 3 p.m. MST

Rose Bowl

Pasadena, California

TV: ESPN

Radio: ESPN 700