Ever since Urban Meyer came to Salt Lake and shook things up, the Utah football program has performed at a pretty consistent, and successful level. It quickly built itself into one of the best programs in the nation - and in fact, from 2003 to 2010, boasted the 8th best winning percentage in college football. That's a pretty remarkable eight-season run for a team that, at the beginning of the 21st Century, had produced two losing seasons out of three.
When the team achieved its initial success in 2004, going from 5-6 two years prior to undefeated, there was skepticism that they could keep it going - especially when the man who built that brief run skipped town to go coach the Florida Gators. Even though Kyle Whittingham had established one of the best defensive units in college football, he had never been a head coach and it remained to be seen whether or not he was up to the task of handling a potential rising power.
Initially, through growing pains and injury, it didn't look like Whittingham would successfully make that transition, and there was a lot of concern among Utah fans that the program was reverting to its pre-Meyer state. It was a valid concern, especially in 2006, after the Utes finished with another unremarkable five-loss season. Then in 2007, after a horrid start, things started to change and Utah once again looked like the team that Meyer had built during his two-year stint with the program. That would carry over into the best season in Utah football history when the Utes defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and finished the year ranked second nationally.
At that moment, which occurred now just a bit over four years ago, it felt as if everything was in front of the program. It wasn't like 2004 ... this was actually validation of everything Meyer did here. You know, I won't lie, when I was on the football field after the '04 BYU game, and I watched Meyer give his last press conference ever in SLC, I knew that it was possible I would never experience this type of moment again. It kind of put a damper on all the celebration because Meyer looked resigned to the fact he was never going to coach again in that stadium and even though I didn't know for a fact the options weighing on his mind, I left Rice-Eccles convinced it was over and that something as great as what we experienced in 2004 was now looking to be a once in a lifetime type deal.
I felt even more convinced of that during the stretches of struggle in 2005 and 2006. I never wanted to give up on Kyle Whittingham or the coaching staff, but I felt increasingly that the opportunity Meyer brought to the program was slowly wasting away as the team moved further and further from the accomplishment of '04.
That was only a stretch of two years. My confidence grew in '07 when Utah really felt like it had turned a corner under this coaching staff and built itself into the type of program you could realistically see going undefeated again. In fact, it was that '07 season that laid the foundation for 2008 as much as it was the 2003 season that acted as a launching pad for 2004.
Utah entered 2008 a fringe top-25 team that was realistically batted around as a potential threat to bust the BCS. The hype was there and I remember writing back then on this very blog that it was now time for Whittingham to prove his worth by taking Utah to the next level (I didn't necessarily mean the next level was what we got, but that he was a coach who could win the Mountain West - which, at that moment, was far better than it was when Meyer coached here).
My concern back then was that the window of opportunity was closing for the Utes. If not then, then when? The excuses that we used to make ourselves feel better about the team's regression between 2005 and 2007 were not there anymore. The team was experienced, they were healthy, they had a favorable schedule and more importantly, they had a coach who was entering his fourth year. He wasn't a rookie anymore and that meant he had to start building his legacy at Utah because he was entering that crucial point where the program was undeniably being defined by his leadership and his recruiting.
In Ron McBride's fourth season here, the Utes made some huge steps - like defeating BYU down in Provo for the first time in 22 years and playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history. It really set in that things were different under McBride than they had been under Jim Fassel, who, in his fourth season, still wasn't able to get the Utes to the postseason.
We understand that almost every coach and every player has a certain window of opportunity that can close at any moment. McBride's closed in the late 90s and even though we kept bringing him back until 2002, it became painfully obvious what his limitations were and that everything he did in 1994 didn't matter anymore because it ultimately didn't change the direction of the program. Utah football in 1995 wasn't much different than Utah football in 1993, even though, between those two seasons, was the greatest season the program had ever experienced to that point.
That window of opportunity ceased to exist when the team didn't take that next step and use the '94 success to build on something stronger and better than what we eventually got. So, even though McBride stayed for another eight years, he could never again achieve the success he saw briefly for one season. '94 felt like a fluke in retrospect because the Utes couldn't even get back to that success (top-25 finish, ten-win season) until the year after McBride was fired.
Prior to 2008, you could have made the same claim about Whittingham. Each season put a bit more distance between what Meyer accomplished and what Whittingham was accomplishing on his own (at this point, prior to the 2008 season, Whittingham had zero conference titles, zero top-25 finishes, zero ten-win seasons, two losses to BYU ... but they did have three bowl victories) and that meant, again, we found ourselves asking when the program would take the next step or if it would it take it at all.
We got our answer.
But now what?
That window shifted a bit. Whittingham proved capable of one-upping Urban Meyer and the great thing about that was he was here to stay. He didn't take the next best coaching offer the second he won the biggest game in school history. He was going to return, and even though he had to make staff replacements (what successful coach doesn't?), we all hoped that 2008 would act as the springboard we maybe wanted 2004 to be but conceded probably wouldn't because of all the uncertainty surrounding the program.
Then the unthinkable happened and Utah was offered an invitation to play in the Pac-12 just a year and a half after winning the Sugar Bowl. This was the moment where I think most of us felt everything was moving in the right direction for Utah football - at least until the TCU game that year. Ever since, the program has been kind of lost in transition.
Three years, and a losing season later, does it feel as if the program has taken advantage of all the good that has happened since 2003?
I don't know. The fact I can't answer that question in the affirmative is pretty damning considering we're now going into the ninth season of the Whittingham era and it's still not quite clear what the program's potential might be. Granted, some of that, maybe a lot of that, has to do with the fact they left the comfortable confines of the Mountain West for the very grueling Pac-12. But we made that jump because we believed the potential in the Pac-12 was far greater than the potential in the Mountain West. That potential hasn't changed, even though maybe our expectations have been soured by struggle.
But it's those struggles that brings me back to that window of opportunity. Kyle Whittingham doesn't have an infinite amount of losing seasons before he eventually gets it right in the Pac-12. Like McBride, if this program can't turn into something that resembles a competitive, consistent winner in this conference, he will face pressure and there will be a time where his job security will be addressed if things don't get better. Fortunately, he is above reproach at the moment. But it doesn't change the questions I have about the future of this program - namely whether or not we can take advantage of our position or if we're going to be handicapped by it.
The biggest concern at the moment is that Utah football is still trying to find its place under this coaching staff in the Pac-12. They don't have a history in this league to look back on for potential success, so, everything they do is new and the more they struggle, the more perception begins to harden that Utah football is just not up to the snuff in this league. Once that sets in, it can become poisonous for a coaching staff and all you have to do is look at the coaches who've succeeded in their careers, but eventually floundered at a current Pac-12 program. It wasn't that long ago that Jeff Tedford was the highest paid state employee in California and considered one of the best coaches in the country. But once the difficulties set in, and his window slowly closed, there was no turning back and he was eventually shown the door at the end of last season.
Because of this, generally every coach in college football operates under a shelf life. Some obviously have a longer shelf life than others - but once they expire, once the downturn begins, it's that much harder to pull back and succeed. This does not mean Whittingham won't do this, but I do think it shows that his window is not as large as it was four years ago and that means he's going to have to do it soon or there won't be that turn around.
Almost everyone agreed that Mike Riley had to prove last season that his two consecutive losing campaigns in 2010 and 2011 were flukes and not indicative of a rotting program. He came through. Had he struggled to a third-straight losing season, and his job security is probably nonexistent. I don't know if the Beavers would have fired him, but he certainly would be entering this season on the hot seat at the minimum.
Like I said, Whittingham is not on the hot seat and another losing season probably won't put him there, either. That doesn't mean he has unlimited chances to get things turned back around, though. He is working against a clock, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, and that clock could have two or three more seasons left in its tick. But what I do know is that the faster we get it turned around and the faster we re-achieve respectability, the better off the program will be and that window of opportunity will expand.
So, while I do believe that window of opportunity is closing for Whittingham, there is still time to throw it back open and prolong his legacy with the Utes. But as was the case heading into the 2008 season, there will be a time where we'll once again ask 'if not now, then when?' and once that question is asked, Whittingham better answer it positively or we might just concede the window has closed and it's been rusted shut.