When the BYU women’s head coaching job opened for the first time in two decades with the retirement of Jeff Judkins last month, Amber Whiting started thinking about the possibilities.

“It kept coming back in my head,” she recalled.

During that time, she attended a tournament and talked to former BYU men’s assistant coach Chris Burgess and something stirred within her. Whiting, who was the head coach at Burley High School in Idaho, decided to pursue the vacancy at her alma mater. 

“I was like, ‘I want to do this so bad,’” she said. 

But then reality seemed to get in the way. This could be a little complicated. Family is everything to Whiting and she knew she couldn’t move forward without the full support of her husband and children. 

Daughter Amari, who is one of the highest-rated prospects in the country and is committed to Oregon, has been playing for her at Burley High and getting ready for her senior season. Son Jace, who recently returned home from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Finland, is poised to start his college career at Boise State.

“This isn’t the right timing for me,” she thought. “Let’s be honest.”

But Whiting’s husband, Trent, who also played at BYU, offered her all the encouragement, and perspective, that she needed. 

“Amber,” he said, “you’ve always put your kids first. You’ve always put your family first. Bet on yourself for once. Do what you want to do for once.”

She sought her kids’ approval as well. Jace was immediately on board and Amari was apprehensive at first but eventually, “she came around to it,” Amber said. 

And once Amber Whiting began the extensive interviewing process, athletic director Tom Holmoe discovered he had found the right coach for the program. He knew about Whiting, but the more he talked to her, the more impressed he became with her and her vision for the program.

Holmoe extended the job offer to her and the announcement was made Wednesday that Whiting will step in for Judkins, who coached the Cougars for the past 21 seasons, won 456 games and made 10 NCAA Tournament appearances.

On Friday, Whiting participated in an introductory news conference via Zoom with the local media. She was in South Carolina, where she’s coaching an AAU team.

“I think we have a great group of strong players. Jeff started something with winning all the time and being ranked. I want to build on that,” Whiting said. “It’s not like you need to reinvent the wheel. I just want to keep the momentum with that. I want to get some good recruits in here. But it’s going to start with the core that we have. I think we have a good core. If we crank it up, we can do some good things.”

The issue of experience

Looking at Whiting’s resume, what immediately jumps out is the fact she has zero college coaching experience. She has coached AAU and club teams for years in addition to the last four seasons at Burley High. 

Amber Whiting’s former players at Burley High say she is ready to make the big jump to BYU

But she’s taking over a program at BYU that won 26 games and earned a regular-season West Coast Conference championship last season. And the Cougars are joining the Big 12 in 2022-23

This could be viewed as a risky hire, given that there are plenty of examples of high school coaches that haven’t succeeded at the college level after making the jump.  

Whiting’s lack of college coaching experience is something she and Holmoe discussed extensively. Holmoe concluded that what Whiting lacked in experience, she more than compensated for in other areas. 

“As we looked at all the candidates, there were some that had better experience than Amber did. But as you look at all the attributes that I feel are essential to this game, she could check all of the boxes,” Holmoe said. “You gain experience in different ways now. This is a 24-7, 365 job now. You have to have a very good understanding of Xs and Os. You have to be able to have that basketball acumen. But you also have to be able to be … very good in a lot of areas. How do you know that she’s going to do that at the college level? I really don’t. She hasn’t done it at the college level. There are some that have failed. But there are also a lot of them that have made it big. … Experience? Sometimes you get a chance and sometimes you don’t. She’s got a chance and we’re counting on it.”

The way Whiting sees it, she has more experience than it appears. Not only did she play in college, but she also spent 12 years with Trent in Italy, where he played professional basketball. And she was heavily involved in her husband’s basketball career, watching game film and studying game plans with him. 

“I’ve seen it and been around it my whole entire life and I played and I coached AAU for 10 years. I feel that basketball is basketball,” she said. “Yes, this is a different level. Yes, it’s a higher level. But I’m excited for that opportunity to be able to coach better players. I feel like every great coach has an opportunity to start somewhere, right? And this one is mine. I just want to give it everything I have.”

In her first season as the head coach at Burley High, the Bobcats won five games. The team took off from there, culminating with a 25-win season and an Idaho state championship in 2022. 

Through coaching her daughter Amari, Whiting has faced tough defensive challenges from opposing teams. She’s learned from those experiences.

“I got every defense thrown at me that you could ever imagine. Box-and-one, triangle-and-two, I had an I formation thrown at us. Everything under the sun,” she said. “I’ve had to come into every single game prepared. That’s the biggest thing. Watching game film, hours upon hours, that has helped me a lot.”

Whiting said she has a track record in player development, and that will help her as she prepares to lead the Cougars into the Big 12.

“Putting confidence in your players is huge. I think that I bring that to the table,” she said. “I’ve had to be prepared for everything this last year.”

Holmoe, who has an impressive track record himself when it comes to hiring head coaches, believes he’s found another gem in Whiting.

“The time is right. I might not have done this a week from tomorrow or last month,” he said. “She came into this situation at the perfect time.”

Defensive-minded approach

What is Whiting’s coaching philosophy? What does she want her teams to be known for? She didn’t hesitate.

“Defense. I am a defense-first coach. Every single one of my practice plans for as long as I can remember, if we’re going two hours, the first hour is defense. I like to play where refs are almost uncomfortable reffing us,” Whiting said. “I like to play where teams hate playing us because of what we do and what we bring. I’m very disciplined on my rules on defense and my calls. Defense creates offense. It travels. If you’re having a bad shooting night, your defense is always going to be there. You can always rely on it. Defense wins championships. That’s the goal. That’s where I start. Trent’s big on, ‘You’ve got to be able to score.’ I’m like, ‘Great, but if you can’t stop people from scoring, it means nothing.’ That’s my first and foremost philosophy.”

Family matters

The Whitings are a close-knit and competitive family. Jace heads to Boise State on June 10. Amari is preparing for her senior year. At first, Amari’s plan was to return to Burley for her final year of high school. 

But those plans could be changing because the priority is to stay together as much as possible as a family. 

“We’ve got to figure out what fit is going to be the best for her in Provo or the surrounding area so she feels good,” Amber said. “We realize that as a family, this is going to be the best thing for us to do.”

While Amari was looking forward to being coached by her mom for her senior year, Amber has helped her see a different perspective. 

“I just told her, last year, you won every award under the sun. We won the state championship,” she said. “What else could we have done? We took your junior year and wrapped it up with a bow. I feel like for her, to have a new coach, that’s a good challenge for her. It will make her grow and push her.”

Amber related that this week Amari found a BYU shirt from her mom’s closet for Amber to wear in South Carolina. 

“That in itself was supporting me,” Amber said. “I appreciate that.”

‘This is going to be a huge undertaking’

Amid the whirlwind of activity and change in her life, Whiting is putting together her staff and becoming acquainted with her players. She’s talked to Judkins’ former assistants and they are out recruiting this weekend. 

On Thursday, Whiting held a Zoom meeting with the players on the roster and then she texted each of them. 

“I have meetings set up with them individually throughout the next couple of days. I want to get to know them on a personal basis, not just show up in a gym with them,” Whiting said. “Staff is my priority but getting my girls to stay, you’ve got to recruit them because they didn’t commit to me. They’re my No. 1 priority right now.”

On Friday morning, Whiting had a conversation with Judkins about his former assistants and players. 

“It was really insightful for me,” she said. “He was excited and he gave me some good advice.” 

What is Whiting looking for in her staff?

“Circle of trust. Who I can trust. We’re all going to buy into this and do this together,” she said. “Recruiting, we’re going to divide it up and be organized. I want a staff that if you’re good at this, I’m going to amplify that. I hope the girls can trust us from the beginning and buy in.”

After following her heart, which led her to pursuing, and accepting, the BYU women’s basketball head coaching job, Whiting is now immersed in the process of building a team for next season.

“This process was super humbling. But I am so excited for this,” she said. “I was grateful that they looked at me for who I was and are trusting me with this because this is going to be a huge undertaking. I’m just excited for the opportunity to get after it and to get into the gym with the girls.”