Whittingham's latest gamble biggest yet

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

He may sink or swim based on his hiring of Dave Christensen.

A little over a year ago, I wrote this article discussing Kyle Whittingham's hiring of Brian Johnson and how it would ultimately define his career as Utah's head coach. A few months later, and that gamble clearly hadn't paid off for Whittingham - he went out and hired Dennis Erickson to be his co-offensive coordinator.

Erickson lasted all of a year in that position. Last week, Whittingham demoted him to running backs coach and brought on board Dave Christensen, the former head coach of the Wyoming Cowboys.

Even though Whittingham tried to walk back that Johnson hire in 2013, it still is impacting our program today - as the lack of consistency since the 2011 season has devastated the Utes and given them two-straight losing seasons. In many ways, because of this, you could make the claim that the hire will ultimately be Whittingham's undoing.

But it isn't yet. Whittingham will still be given another year to prove the last two were a fluke, and, sensing the potential of his seat growing warmer, he's taken the steps necessary, it would seem, to potentially improve his situation. Let's be honest, Whittingham isn't making this move because Christensen is a can't miss prospect as offensive coordinator. He's doing it because he sees his window of opportunity closing and, whether fans want to admit it or not, this may be his last, best hope of keeping it open.

Christensen, who also was an offensive coordinator at Toledo and then Missouri under Gary Pinkel, brings a fairly solid resume to the table. He developed Chase Daniel and was part of, at the time, the best Tigers team in program history - one that went 12-2, with their only losses coming to Oklahoma.

And yet, as much as Christensen made a name for himself as Missouri's offensive coordinator, he has seen minimal success beyond the reach of Pinkel's shadow. His only stints as offensive coordinator have come directly under Pinkel, joining his Toledo staff and then following him to Columbia when he accepted the job to coach Missouri. I don't know if he's a product of Pinkel's success or if he's capable of creating his own.

But it's clear Whittingham has bet his career on Christensen. The fact he ditched Erickson after only one season, which, while questionable, is not something I am going to debate right now, indicates as much. It's a gamble, much like the Johnson one two years ago, that could prove a failure and if it does, almost certainly Whittingham will fail along with it.

The question that remains is whether or not it was the right move. I know some will suggest Erickson's advanced age played a role in this move, but I disagree. I think Erickson's age is irrelevant in a situation that almost entirely is year-to-year. Yes, Christensen is a far more long-term solution for the program than Erickson, who will be 67 this March, but we're not working long-term - Whittingham is most definitely in win now mode. What may await him two or three years from now means little if he can't make it beyond 2014.

If that's the case, it does come down to whether or not Erickson was getting it done as Utah's offensive coordinator. Like I said, I don't want to get into debating that because the overall point here is that, again, a change in coordinators is putting Whittingham on the spot. If it works out, and Christensen can successfully navigate this offense, Whittingham will be vindicated. If it doesn't, if the gamble fails, surely Whittingham's position as Utah's head coach will be threatened.

The problem, I guess, is that it seems no matter what Whittingham does, success almost certainly does not follow. In 2010, after an abysmal ending to the season, he demoted Aaron Roderick, who was calling the plays for a Utah team, that, at one point, had a top-five offense in the country. He was replaced by Norm Chow, who promptly led Utah to the shallowest eight-wins in the country - with the Utes only salvaging the season against a down Pac-12, BYU and Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Chow did win, though, and won with Jon Hays as quarterback, so, he does deserve some credit. But, as mentioned, the conference was fairly weak that year, and even then, the Utes face-planted offensively against Colorado and blew their chance at winning a very watered down Pac-12 South.

Chow abruptly left for Hawaii and, instead of going outside the program and bringing in someone like Dirk Koetter, the former Arizona State head coach who was a candidate for the OC position, Whittingham promoted from within - giving Brian Johnson the job even though he had been a quarterback coach all of a year and wasn't even 30 yet. The justification of the decision was that Johnson, the former Utah quarterback, would be a long-term solution and was unlikely to bolt after even the most marginal of successes.

It made sense because that's exactly what Chow did. He revived his career just enough with his time in Salt Lake to grab that coveted head coaching position, and it was unlikely, after another 8-5 season, that Johnson would find similar offers.

The problem with that thinking, of course, was that Johnson had zero track record as a play caller. He was limited in his experience, which meant there was a strong possibility of failure. It was a huge gamble because, at the time, the Utes were still trying to build momentum and, you could argue, it absolutely killed that momentum. Utah's 2012 season was the worst of the Kyle Whittingham era - as they struggled through an ineffective offense and questionable play calling. So bad was it that Whittingham didn't even give Johnson a second chance to prove his worth - he went out and hired Dennis Erickson.

Sure, Johnson was the co-offensive coordinator with Erickson, but it was clear who ran the show. Erickson was supposed to bring stability and experience to the situation. After one year, it's apparent Whittingham does not think it happened, and, sensing 2014 could be his swan song, he brought in another coordinator to salvage his regime.

Whether this works out better than his last two hires remains to be seen. But I can't help but feel this is reminiscent of the end of the Ron McBride era at Utah. He went through four offensive coordinators in his final few years with the Utes - demoting Fred Graves in '97, firing Tommy Lee in 2000, watching as Rob Spence came, and then left, before he finally settled on Craig Ver Steeg, who remained for two years until McBride was fired himself after the 2002 season.

Hopefully this ends differently. But it's clear Whittingham senses the walls closing in on him and this hire of Christensen just may be his last gasp of hope before he too is fired.

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