Kyle Whittingham has staked his future on Brian Johnson. Was it a mistake?
Utah's revolving door of offensive coordinators the past four years has left the program dizzied and now on the brink of the school's first losing season since 2002. Regardless of your thoughts toward Kyle Whittingham, no one can suggest he's handled the coordinator position all that well since Andy Ludwig booked it out of town after the Utes' 2008 perfect season.
In fact, you could make the case that Whittingham's handling has bordered on negligence and it's a big reason, four years after going undefeated, Utah is knocking on the door of a losing campaign. All the momentum that was supposed to come from the Sugar Bowl victory and then the invite to the Pac-12 seems to have been blunted by coaching missteps at every turn.
Now, to be fair, that happens in college football. There are mulligan hires that just don't pan out and good coaches have to suck it up and move on hoping to rectify the situation with the next hire. But when it becomes a pattern and you find yourself going through coordinators on a near-yearly basis, then the concern rises and blame grows. Whittingham's replacing Ludwig with Dave Schramm could be forgiven if it proved to be an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it hasn't and because of increasingly erratic behavior when it came to the coordinator spot, he's now left in the position where the success of his career is almost universally tied to an untested, inexperienced 25 year old former quarterback.
That's a pretty risky move for Whittingham, who has erred on the side of caution in the past. Which made it all the more perplexing when he made the announcement earlier this year. With how badly things had gone at the position, it did seem surprising that Whittingham was content handing everything over to a guy whose role had been limited to only two years as a position coach.
Because there has been so much turnover, because Utah is working on their third coordinator in three seasons, Whittingham is basically letting it all ride on Johnson. That's the scary thing about this whole situation because I think we all agree that the uncertainty here has not only hurt the offense, but it's damaged stability and Utah can't afford starting over once more.
So, we have to let it play out and hope that in the long term Johnson was the right hire and Whittingham is vindicated for taking a huge chance on such an unknown quantity.
That means we just have to patiently wait for things to play out and hope for the best. If it doesn't, if Johnson proves overwhelmed by this job, then the damage done by his hiring might be too much for Whittingham to overcome and then, sadly, we have the real possibility of talking about replacing him as Utah's head coach. Fortunately, I'm not near the point of thinking that possible - but it's hard not at least entertain the thought when things go as south as they did this past weekend.
The hope is that these growing pains are worth it and then next season, and the season after that, Johnson will rise up to what we all expect and want from him. But no one can say that has happened this season and maybe it's unfair to even expect it since this is his first time calling plays. Still, we are a BCS program now and that means we have to start looking and acting like one. That type of hire flies in the Mountain West when it's not baptism by fire - but it doesn't work in the Pac-12. No Pac-12 team would have made the hire and the closest we have to it is Mike Norvell at ASU - except he cut his teeth as a graduate assistant, a receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator before landing his solo gig with the Sun Devils this season.
But I guess that's all irrelevant. It does no good to rehash the hire of Brian Johnson because it's done and there is no going back on it. Will it prove to be the right move? I don't know, and neither do you. That's a frustrating position to be in because it's no fun waiting to see if things work out for the best.
Whittingham has bet it all on Johnson and he's going to either sink or swim with him. That's the harsh reality with this hire and maybe something Whittingham didn't consider when he made it. If he did, then it's his burden now and I'm sure he realizes what's at stake. For his own sake, and that of the program's, I hope it pans out ... I hope he's proven right.
If not, Brian Johnson might just prove to be Whittingham's Waterloo.