Over the years I've been pretty hard on Kyle Whittingham. In fact, I probably have been one of his harshest critics and that showed at times last season. However, I need to give credit to Whittingham for keeping Utah afloat, because I really thought it'd be easy for a coach to step in and win here. But after looking at a few programs that lost their coaches once they reached the pinnacle of success, I've realized just how good Utah has had it.
Sure, it always could be better. Chris Petersen at Boise State stepped in for Dan Hawkins and guided the Broncos to an incredible 13-0 season, one that ended with an amazing victory against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. For your first head coaching gig, it doesn't get much better than that. But on the opposite side of this, maintaining the success isn't always easy.
In reality, Kyle Whittingham's situation doesn't really mirror any of the recent coaches who had to take over a football program fresh off success. Urban Meyer might have taken the Utes to new heights, but he left the program with a very inexperienced offense and the growing pains were obviously too much to have a dominant season with and the Utes took a step backwards, finishing 7-5. Even with those first year struggles, the season wasn't really a disaster. Utah may have been favored to win the Mountain West, but they weren't a pre-season top-25 team and there were a ton of question marks entering the season, a few of which included the coaching staff.
Compare that to what has happened at Louisville. The Cardinals were fresh off a Big East championship, a dominant win in the Orange Bowl over Wake Forest and had replaced Bobby Petrino with Steve Kragthorpe, who had a successful stint at Tulsa. The choice wasn't the homerun many Cardinal fans were looking for, but on paper, it seemed like a solid hire. Kragthorpe had been a head coach before and won with a program that had struggled over the years prior to his arrival, but even with all of that, he's flopped so far at Louisville. Ute fans saw this firsthand when Utah walked into Papa John's Stadium and won there last season. Kragthorpe inherited a program that won 82% of its games the four seasons prior and in a year and two games later, they're barely at .500.
The big difference between Utah in '05 and Louisville last year, though, was that the Cardinals were expected to not only contend for the Big East, but possibly the national championship as a dark horse. After an impressive opening season win against Murray State, they won 73-10, Louisville had to fend off Middle Tennesse State and then lost two games in a row for the first time since 2003. Because of this, Kragthorpe had to fire his defensive coordinator and may be lucky if he's asked back for a third year. The fact he blew through top-10 talent the way he did is pretty damning and you've got to wonder what Kyle's first year would have been like had Alex Smith decided to not enter the NFL draft. I doubt the Utes would have gone 7-5.
Louisville's conference brother, West Virginia, went through a similar shakeup last season. The Mountaineers rolled through the 2007 season and were on the brink of a championship game berth when they inexplicably lost to Pittsburgh at home in their season finale. That was followed by a string of events that probably left West Virginia fans gasping for breath. Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan, the Mountaineers had trouble finding someone willing to take the job and in the middle of all of this, their program won a huge game against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Not guided by Rich Rodriguez, mind you, but offensive assistant Bill Stewart. After the emotional win, Stewart was offered the job and accepted.
Good move? Well that's still debatable, but what we do know is that Stewart had failed at Virginia Military Institute, only managing 8 wins in four years. But it's VMI, who succeeds there? Well, come to find out, no one. Since Stewart left, three coaches have roamed the sidelines and all have losing records. Can't really fault him for not winning there. But what really hurts Stewart is what happened Saturday. The Mountaineers, ranked in the top-10, lost to unranked East Carolina. Actually, lost is putting it mildly, as they were completely throttled. Now they're barely hanging onto their ranking and probably blew any chance of playing for the national championship. Of course, does it really matter if it happens two games in or twelve like last year?
Stewart still has ten games to prove himself and he very well could turn things around. But sometimes you can tell when a coach is a failure in waiting and that's the vibe I'm getting with Stewart. When your quarter back is Pat White, there is no excuse for having an offense that only scores three points on a Conference USA team. But we'll see. Like with Whittingham after his first two games in 2005, anything can happen. And, as we came to find out, it often did.
I said this season would be the biggest of Whittingham's career and maybe he still hasn't proven he's capable of being a great coach. But regardless of what happens the rest of the season, he's kept Utah football relevant. The same can't be said for Steve Kragthorpe at Louisville and maybe Stewart at West Virginia. These are two coaches who inherited teams far more talented than Utah in 2005 and have sputtered badly. For all his faults, Kyle Whittingham never allowed the bottom to fall out. He didn't turn out to be Utah's version of Ron Zook and it's clear he isn't going to be our version of Steve Kragthorpe, either. Maybe Utah won't dominate under him, maybe they will, but at least he's kept them competitive and given us hope that there are still great days ahead. Right now, that feeling is probably hard to come by in Morgantown and Louisville.