The growth of Kyle Whittingham

Back in 2007, I wrote how I felt Kyle Whittingham was a 70/30 coach - a coach who wins a majority of his games, but, for whatever reason, lacks overall consistency. 

At that point in his career with the Utes, Whittingham was 18-13 as a head coach, a mark that wasn't terrible, but far from the ninety-one percent of games won under Urban Meyer and more close to the overall numbers of Ron McBride, who, while good at Utah, consistently underperformed. 

In fact, Whittingham's winning percentage two and a half seasons in was almost identical to that of McBride. For a program that had tasted greatness in 2003 and 2004, it was hard to accept such a dramatic slide in such a short period of time. 

In the two years Meyer was Utah's coach, he went 22-2 and yet, midway through his third season, Whittingham had yet to even hit 20-wins. 

He was more McBride back then than Meyer and, rightfully or not, a good portion of the fan base was becoming restless with the overall situation. It didn't help that, a few weeks earlier, Whittingham's Utes had bottomed out against UNLV and even a solid win over Louisville did little to ease doubts - though, as I mentioned in that '07 post, there was room for optimism. 

Whittingham's problems early in his career weren't necessarily losing to tough and talented teams. He did, in fact, lead the Utes to two improbable victories at the end of his first season over a streaking BYU program that had taken off under a first year head coach and then, in the bowl game, against a ranked Georgia Tech team. 

Even in year two, where the ups and downs were more prominent, he still managed an impressive victory over TCU (one of their only two losses that season) and came within seconds of shocking, for the second straight year, the Cougars.

That loss was about as close as you could ever get to a moral victory and proved to Ute fans that, even with all the difficult defeats, there was potential with the coaching staff. After all, Whittingham was still growing into the job and while Bronco Mendenhall was performing far better at a quicker rate, not all situations were comparable or even the same. 

When the 2007 Utes started 1-3, it appeared the Whittingham era was burying itself quite rapidly. Even though Whittingham was in year three, he was still being dogged by the problems that plagued the teams in his first two seasons and throughout the entirety of McBride's stay here. The last thing Utah fans wanted was to return to the inconsistent play of the 90s. We were supposed to be beyond that. If Meyer's two years taught the program anything, it's that we could win - even dominate. 

But in the first two and a half seasons of Whittingham's career here, that didn't seem likely. It's hard to put a positive spin on 18-13 and 1-3, especially after an undefeated season and BCS bowl win.

Utah faltered badly at times in Whittingham's first three seasons because, regardless of momentum or overall talent-level, they seemed to always stub their toe at the worst possible time. That's what consistently kept Whittingham's Utes from being a truly solid team his first few seasons here. 

Fortunately, after the debacle at UNLV in '07, Whittingham matured as a coach and the Utes did something every good team must do if they're bound for greatness: win against the lesser opponents. 

It sounds easy, right? It should be - but obviously it's not because it was those losses that nearly cost Whittingham his job (okay, I'm speculating here, I don't have a clue how close Whittingham came to losing his job after the UNLV game, though I've got to suspect Chris Hill was close to hitting the panic button, but wanted to wait things out). 

You see, the big difference between a coach like Bronco and Whittingham pre-2008 were those games. Up until last season, the Cougars were remarkably consistent at beating lesser opponents (even in ugly wins) and it helped pad their overall record and give them confidence heading into important games. 

In 2005, though, both Utah and BYU lost to San Diego State. The Utes lost to them at home, in a close contest that came down to the final minutes. The Cougars, down at San Diego, were barely in the game, losing 31-10. 

Bronco, after that loss, was 1-3. Whittingham, after his loss to the Aztecs, was 3-4.

The big difference is that BYU would bounce back and win five of their final six, before dropping their game to Utah and then losing to Cal in the Las Vegas Bowl. 

Likewise, the Utes bounced back after their loss to San Diego State, winning four of their final five. That lone loss, though, came at home to a New Mexico program that, had it not been for that win, would have finished the season with a losing record.

Even ignoring the loss of Brian Johnson in that game, that loss to the Lobos was still unacceptable. It was at home - the Utes held a decent lead at the half and had strong momentum heading into the contest, having tossed around the Wyoming Cowboys 43-13 a week before.

A win there, regardless of what happens to Johnson, and they enter the Holy War on a three game winning streak and already guaranteed a third consecutive bowl game.

But that's not what happened. Instead, the Utes needed one of the biggest shockers in the rivalry's recent history just to give themselves a shot at playing in the postseason.

I don't know if anyone really remembers how close they came to finishing with a losing record. Had that happened, what path does Whittingham take as a head coach? Does he come back from that? 

Moot point, obviously, but it shows you just how important that New Mexico game was and, when the Utes really needed a win against a lesser foe, they lost.

Sure, it's the Lobos and they were a pain in Utah's butt up until Mike Locksley leveled the program worse than we did Dresden during World War II - but it didn't excuse that loss. 

Even before Johnson's injury, the Utes were going down in flames, so that doesn't play into the excuse. 

We forgot about those struggles against average teams that year because of how '05 ended. Yet, the same issue reared its ugly head a year later, with a lopsided loss to an average Wyoming team and then a disaster of a performance again against New Mexico. 

The Wyoming game might be the most perplexing because the Utes were coming off an impressive win over a solid TCU team in Salt Lake City. The Cowboys, even though they had yet to bottom out under Joe Glenn, were not a good team that year, or at least not a team that should be capable of defeating Utah 31-15 - in a game that was actually worse than the final score indicated.

Of Whittingham's 13 losses heading into the midway point of the 2007 season, six came against teams that didn't finish the season with a winning record. Think about that for a second - almost 50% of his defeats came against programs that, even with a win over Utah, couldn't finish above .500. That number is even worse when you consider New Mexico from '05 and UCLA from '06 - two teams that finished only a game above .500. 

Eight losses were to teams that one could classify as mediocre at best. 

That's staggering. That's what kept Whittingham from being an elite coach early in his career. 

Then that changed in 2007. Since losing to UNLV that season, Whittingham is 23-0 against programs with a non-winning record.

His seven losses over that same span have come against BYU (11-2), Oregon (10-3), TCU (12-1), BYU (11-2), TCU (13-0), Notre Dame (8-5) and Boise State (12-1).  

Those teams had a combined record of 69-14. Those aren't bad losses. Sure, some were embarrassing, but outside Notre Dame, every team Utah lost to finished ranked and three played in BCS bowls (Oregon & TCU in '09, TCU in '10). 

Not too shabby. 

So Whittingham finally became that coach I was talking about in my post from a few years ago. I didn't say he needed to be perfect or win 70% of his games (though, now that's actually worse than his overall winning percentage at Utah), I just meant he needed to keep consistent throughout a 12-game schedule.

Prior to 2007, that wasn't the case. Utah would win a game, drop a game and repeat that for the remainder of the season. In fact, '07 was the first year Whittingham really put together a decent winning streak (7). Prior to that, he had won only three games straight (twice, in '06). 

It's allowed him to go from the coach who was 18-13 to 39-7 in three and a half seasons. 

Of course, now comes a different challenge. Whittingham proved, over time, that he could consistently win, but that consistency was built on the backs of a lot of easy competition.

What kept Utah from being elite from 2005-'07 was not their challenging schedule - they were doing well enough in the big games. It was the New Mexicos and Wyomings of the world. 

That's changed. Utah's not going to overpower almost every opponent now because they're far superior. 

I guess that's the next big challenge for Whittingham. He's got to now steer this program in an entirely different direction. Instead of not losing to inferior foes, he's going to have to figure out how to beat BCS-level programs week in and week out. It's not an easy task and the reward for such success is greater than anything Utah could have ever imagined. 

But that's the risk of playing Big Time Football, I guess. 

Whittingham is a very good coach who grew into his job. It was slower than some of us wanted to accept, but the payoff was pretty damn spectacular.

But now comes a different task and that task is not a guarantee. Even great coaches can falter when the competition is stacked, so it'll be interesting to see how Whittingham eases into this new set of challenges.

Hopefully the learning curve isn't too steep.

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