It is not a secret that I have been critical of Kyle Whittingham this past season. I feel, on the whole, the regression of this year's team, coupled with last year's losing season, has forced a great deal of difficult questions that, at the point of this post, still remain unanswered.
I am not as confident in Whittingham today as I was two years ago. I have doubts that he will be able to turn this program into a winner - and therefore reaffirm his status as the greatest coach in program history. These past two seasons, too often filled with struggle, have made me jaded and as much as I want to believe things will only improve, the reality is, uncertainty dominates.
Even so, I believe Whittingham continues to deserve that chance at improvement. He's just done too much at Utah to not allow him the opportunity to figure it out.
Yes, there will be those who believe he should be fired after back-to-back losing seasons, and I'll readily admit that the case they make is much stronger today than it was this time last year. However, it is important the Utes don't overreact to these past two seasons and instead allow things to play out the way they should - by providing enough time for Whittingham to prove his ultimate worth in the Pac-12.
The reason I am against a hasty firing is that I believe most coaches deserve more than two years to right their ship and, whether the dissenters want to believe it or not, the Utes' transition between the Mountain West and the Pac-12 almost entirely feels like the transition between coaching staffs. The way I see it is that there are two Whittinghams - the Mountain West one and now the Pac-12 one. They're two different coaches who had to adapt differently.
Because of that, it would be unfair to not expect the same transition within his coaching methodology. It's no different, really, than when a non-BCS coach makes the jump to the BCS. That jump sometimes results in instant success (Urban Meyer at Florida, Gary Andersen at Wisconsin), but those teams almost always are established at their level. Utah isn't. The Utes are the least established Pac-12 team and one that continues to operate under the infrastructure of a Mountain West squad.
Most coaches, unless they're at a top-level program, will get more than two seasons to turn it around - unless the bad is just so awful that a firing only makes sense (Jon Embree at Colorado last year comes to mind). That hasn't happened yet here. As bad as the losses have been the last two years, the Utes were generally competitive in most of them and that fuels the hope that next year, with more talent and a bit more experience, things will eventually turn around. Utah will start to win more games and, even if only marginally, they'll improve enough to make a bowl game.
The thing is, whether you support Whittingham or not, next year will ultimately help prove his future as Utah's next head coach. Firing him today does nothing except placate a vocal minority of fans who want change. It isn't a certainty the Utes will be able to pull in anyone better and there is no evidence that he won't be worse.
Which is why it's important to let things play out. Either Whittingham will get it done or he won't. He'll either win or lose and eventually, that will define his legacy and future with the program.
It's that uncertainty that actually makes me want to give Whittingham another chance. I'm still not sure he can't turn it around and before the program commits to firing him, they need to be damn well sure he can't.
Because there is no point in letting him go and then hiring another coach who runs into the same problems that have plagued the Utes these past two years.
With that said, Whittingham's seat is not as safe as it once was. It's amazing I am even writing those words because, just two seasons ago, the idea that he would even be in this position seemed impossible. Utah still needs to win, and all the excuses in the world will start to ring hollow if that doesn't happen. With every losing season, not only do the fans start to doubt the program, but so do future recruits - players we need to be successful in the Pac-12.
You can't win without recruits and you can't recruit if you don't win.
It's a nasty conundrum every coach finds themselves in and the truly great figure it out. Whittingham has been lucky, he's never really had to rebuild Utah football. He inherited a team lacking talent due to graduation and NFL declaration, to be sure, but the foundation was there to win - a foundation built by Urban Meyer. Utah was a name when he took over - not a program toiling in mediocrity and needing a jolt of success to even become marginally relevant. That isn't the case anymore. The Utes aren't relevant. They haven't been since 2011 and that's left this coaching staff in unfamiliar territory.
Navigating that territory is what will determine Whittingham's fate. For now, he gets a pass, if only because of the insanely tough increase in opposition. But Utah fans should expect, and demand, that the program do more than it has been the past two years.
No more excuses now. Whittingham has to get things turned around next year or face the consequences.