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A closer look at Kyle Whittingham’s remarkable run, and how it all got started

Back in 1994, Ron McBride hired Whittingham to be his defensive line coach. The rest, as they say, is history

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Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham watches the action at Rice-Eccles Stadium during annual Red and White Game in 2022.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham watches the action on the field from behind the offense during the University of Utah’s Red and White game at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 23, 2022. Whittingham got his start at the U. in 1994 when then-head coach Ron McBride hired him as his defensive line coach.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

So it has all worked out for Kyle Whittingham. As he prepares for his 18th season as head football coach at the University of Utah — and his 28th season since he joined the Utes staff — he has proved his mettle as a head coach and then some.

Ron McBride raised Utah out of mediocrity, Urban Meyer raised it another level to a national power and Whittingham raised it another notch to high-level, sustained consistency.

Whittingham and the Utes are rolling. His resume includes an unbeaten season and a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, a national Coach of the Year trophy, a smooth transition into the Pac-12 Conference, a Pac-12 championship and a date in the Rose Bowl, three Pac-12 South Division titles, 15 bowl berths and 11 bowl wins, 48 NFL draft picks, 144 victories.

The Utes are currently ranked No. 7 and No. 8 in the national polls — by far their highest preseason ranking ever. Whittingham has ushered in the greatest era of football in Utah history (Utah has finished in the top 25 of the national rankings 17 times, and eight have come on Whittingham’s watch).

The Utes have McBride to thank for it. He doesn’t get enough credit for the role he played in raising Utah’s game during his time as head coach from 1990-02 and for the inheritance he left behind — those were his players who won 22 of 24 games and earned a No. 4 national ranking under Meyer, and that was his assistant coach who became the winningest coach in school history.

McBride hired Whittingham, who was coaching at Idaho State at the time after making his coaching debut at the College of Eastern Utah. Who knows where he might have gone from those dead-end football schools under different circumstances.

Kyle’s father Fred, the defensive coordinator at Utah who had held the same position at BYU, talked to McBride about his oldest son. McBride, like so many other coaches in the profession, had immense respect for Fred’s coaching acumen — “As a football man, nobody was better,” he says.

If there was a concern about familial bias, McBride heard others speak highly of Kyle. As McBride tells it, “Wayne Howard (the head coach at Utah from 1977-81) called me about him. He said, ‘You ought to look at this kid.’” Tim Davis, a former Idaho State assistant who had joined McBride’s staff at Utah, said the same thing. 

McBride had seen Kyle in action from the sidelines. As an assistant coach at Utah, he had coached against Whittingham when the latter was a middle linebacker at BYU. Anyway, he hired the younger Whittingham as a defensive line coach in 1994. He was so impressed with the young coach that a year later, after Fred had departed to coach the Los Angeles Raiders, he promoted him to defensive coordinator at the age of 35 — a position he held for 10 years.

When Meyer took over as head coach in 2003 — beating out Whittingham for the position — he considered bringing an entirely new coaching staff with him. In an interview with Fox in 2020, Meyer said, “I knew of Kyle Whittingham, I knew his father. In the football world, you have to know about the Whittingham family. I was at Colorado State, so I knew the defensive mentality, the toughness.

“But then I had friends that I trusted in the business say you know you have to move on and start fresh ... you need a fresh start, break clean and bring your own program there. I was ready to do that.”

But after meeting with Whittingham, Meyer decided to retain him. “Kyle is as good of a football coach as I’ve ever been around and I could tell that right away at dinner,” he said. “I get paid to coach the offense and special teams, I’m going to hire the best defensive coach I can get my hands on, and that was Kyle Whittingham.”

Whittingham told Fox, “I was a little bit disappointed because I hadn’t got the job, Chris Hill (the athletic director) that morning had told me that ‘I need you to come over to the hotel and meet the guy we just hired for the head coach,’ so I head over to the hotel and sat down and visited with Urban and we seemed to click right away.

“There seemed to be a lot of common ground between the two of us. We ended up going out to dinner that night with the wives and I would feel very fortunate afterward to be able to be retained,” Whittingham continued. “That’s not the typical course of action and coach Meyer had a great, very good defensive coordinator at Bowling Green. He could very easily have brought him with him and obviously knew of other quality coaches throughout the country.”

In a profession in which the average tenure is less than four years, Whittingham has endured. He and Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State are the second longest tenured coaches at the FBS level behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.

And it all began with McBride, who has watched the career of his former assistant from afar.

“It’s been so much fun to see what Kyle has done,” he says. “He’s done a really good job. He’s organized. He has a plan. He knows where he’s going. He’s a very intelligent football coach. He’s all business. Very serious. There’s no flash to him. He just works, and he’s gotten good people to work for him.”

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University of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has a laugh with former University of Utah coach and Weber State coach Ron McBride as the Utes host the Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Sept. 27, 2008. McBride hired Whittingham to be his defensive line coach in 1994.

Mike Terry, Deseret News