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Kyle Whittingham shut out in September, but things are looking up

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Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and players celebrate their 35-7 win over the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — He grew up in locker rooms when his father was playing in the NFL; he was a linebacker and team captain during BYU’s heyday; he played professionally in the USFL back when that was a thing; he’s been head coach during the best run the University of Utah has ever had.

There isn’t much Kyle Whittingham — a national coach of the year winner two different seasons; a man whose former assistants are the current head coaches at Utah State, Weber State and BYU — hasn’t seen when it comes to football.

Except this:

A September without it.

• • •

Not being one who spends a lot of time looking back, the Ute coach had to stop and think for a minute when the question was posed to him: How long has it been since he either didn’t play or coach in a football game in September?

“Oh, man, I don’t know,” he said, “I started playing when I was 9 or 10. So at least 50 years I guess; almost all my life. If you count going to my dad’s games, then all of it.”

Not playing or coaching in the fall?

“It’s weird. Yeah, very weird. This is uncharted territory for sure.

“I wish we were playing; wish we were on the field and in our in-season routine. Then things would seem normal.”

But the coronavirus hijacked normal last March, flattening spring practice on the way to doing likewise when the season was supposed to begin.

He still has a team, but one that’s been hampered all month by social distancing restrictions and strict practice limitations, leaving the coach with enough time on his hands to wonder what he’d have done with his life without football.

“Hopefully something productive,” he muses. Although he says he’s not sure what.

His first ambition was to play the game forever. But nobody does that. Few play much beyond college, and the shelf life for pros is 3.3 years, about the same amount of time Whittingham spent on the rosters of the Denver Gold and New Orleans Breakers of the short-lived United States Football League and the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.

After that, the son of a coach turned to coaching, the most attractive available option.

“Nothing takes the place of playing,” he said. “People from outside might say, ‘What’s the big deal?’ But if you played, you get it. Football is unique, unlike any other sport. It’s the ultimate team sport in my opinion.

“But coaching is the next best thing to playing. You still get that competitive feeling, going out there on Saturdays, competing against the other teams. I guess you could say it’s a natural high. It’s exhilarating.”

As a coach, Whittingham has been getting his football high ever since he signed on as a graduate assistant on LaVell Edwards’ BYU staff in 1985. After two years of that, he spent a year on the staff at Eastern Utah (where they no longer play football), six years on the staff at Idaho State and 11 years as an assistant at Utah before being promoted to the top job in 2005. In his 15 seasons as head coach the Utes have won twice as many games, 131, as they’ve lost, 64.

All of a sudden he’s 60, and never been fired. How many coaches can say that?

It’s not an easy profession, he’ll grant you. It’s high profile, high pressure and time consuming. It takes plenty of support from home.

“There are two types of coaches’ wives,” he says. “Great and ex. Fortunately my wife has been just a rock.”

With the Pac-12 Conference’s announcement last week that games can resume the first week of November, Whittingham breathed a sigh of relief. September and October might be history and COVID-19 might not be cured, but at least it appears football won’t be completely shut out in 2020. October is now the new August. November the new September.

“Things are looking up,” he said.

On the plus side, he said the downtime this September has allowed him to spend more time with his grandkids — he and his wife, Jamie, now have six — and on Sundays he’s been able to kick back and watch the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

Whittingham’s son Alex, a former Ute who played for his dad, is assistant linebacker coach for the Chiefs — with a Super Bowl ring to prove it.

As he crosses his fingers and waits for the start of his 16th season at the U. of U. helm, and 50-somethingth season overall, the Ute coach can take solace in the fact that somebody in the family is coaching in September.