After a 9-4 season, with a dominant Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl win, Utah's reward is uncertainty, confusion, and chaos. Just days after the Utes won another bowl game, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham's eighth (8-1, 88.9 percent), Utes fans got the news that defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake had left Utah for Pac-12 conference mate Oregon State. Then, as Utah fans were celebrating Christmas, the Grinch came and stole their roast beast, as word came that offensive coordinator Dave Christensen was not only leaving the program but was also taking a lesser position (offensive line coach and running game coordinator) at Texas A&M.
Now, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting unnamed sources citing a rift between Utah athletic director Dr. Chris Hill and Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham. If true, this is certainly disturbing for fans after a nine-win season. But one can understand how the loss of Sitake could create a schism for Whittingham, who, if he stays, will now need to replace both coordinators for a team that otherwise had a bright outlook for 2015.
So Utah fans are confused. The Utah football program is uncertain, and chaos rules. Clearly, this was not the offseason that anyone wanted on either side, but the worst part might be what happens outside the program. (We'll get to that.)
Sitake wasn't offered an extension before the season began, which has been a sore spot for the highly regarded defensive coordinator. But after back-to-back 5-7 seasons in the Pac-12, Hill did what he had to do and hold the line on salaries if the coaches turned in another loser and he was forced to fire the staff. (Utah fans saw how brutal the business of college sports can be in the Las Vegas Bowl when the remaining coaches for Colorado State were given their termination papers the morning of the game.) But, while the delay in getting Sitake signed was understandable, the fact that no deal could get done is, at best, concerning, especially when one of the top defensive coordinators in the conference (perhaps the nation) is let go to a conference team Utah will have to face in the coming years.
Utah's offensive coordinator shocked Utes fans by seemingly suddenly packing for College Station, Texas and Texas A&M. Worse, the move wasn't even lateral, as was Sitake's. This left Utah fans to ask "What is going on up on The Hill?!" (Valid question.)
There has been talk this season of friction between Whittingham and his offensive coordinator, which could explain the departure. Some have said losing Christensen is a good thing, and even some within the program have commented that Utah's former offensive coordinator was a tough guy to play for. Maybe that means demanding. Maybe it means something worse, but outside of Idaho State (an FCS team), Fresno State and the Las Vegas Bowl, the Utes didn't light it up on offense. In fact, most diplomatic folks in the media characterized the Utes offense as merely "adequate."
But regardless of what kind of guy Christensen was or wasn't, regardless of the type of offense Utah ran in 2014 or its resulting effectiveness, the real damage is in the number eight. In 2015, Utah would have had the same offensive coordinator for the first time in seven years, instead they start all over... again. Whether Whittingham returns or not, Utah will still field their eighth offensive coordinator in as many years. Is it really so hard to identify the Utes offensive struggles or difficulty developing a quarterback?
Then, to add insult to significant injury, Whittingham began looking around at other opportunities. Michigan and Nebraska were among the possibilities. While the head coach's contract runs through the 2016 season, everyone knows that's only binding upon the school, as the head coach, barring a significant buyout, can leave any time he receives a "better" offer. At issue is the guarantee amount, which would be paid to Whittingham should he be fired. Unless Hill has a Mullen or Anderson in his back pocket ready to roll out in front of the cameras and microphones, it absolutely behooves the athletic director to lock up Whittingham for an extension.
The fact of the matter is that Utah fans had called for Whittingham's head, right or wrong, at the beginning of the season. After his dramatic win in the 2009 Sugar Bowl over Alabama, which led to Utah finishing No. 2 in the AP Poll, Whittingham had generated a great deal of cachet with the Utah fan faithful. However, as the Utes struggled in the Power 5 Pac-12 conference, resulting in two straight losing seasons and a lack of bowl games, that cachet waned. It may not be fair, but "what have you done for me lately" is the rule, not the exception in college sports.
But Utah isn't USC. Utah isn't Alabama. Utah fans don't expect national titles every year, so the nine-win season and bowl win restores a great deal of the lost cachet, and Whittingham is golden for another 2-3 years. If he experiences another downturn (which, ironically, may have been catalyzed by Hill's inability to stabilize the program with contracts), that cachet could erode again. But, for now, Utah can salvage what is left of the warm fuzzies from Las Vegas Bowl with a contract for the head coach Utah has had since 2005. To do otherwise, could spell the end of Hill himself at Utah.
Even with a contract, Whittingham will have to pull two rabbits out of his hat to replace his coordinators and loses all momentum from the Las Vegas Bowl going into spring football and the 2015 season. The only good news is that he still has 16 returning starters after left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi declared for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Interestingly enough, 2016 would be the next season that Utah meets BYU on the football field. Whittingham has a winning record against his former alma mater, yet another vexing matter for Utes fans.
Hearing situation between Whittingham & #Utah AD is awful. Staffers wouldn't be surprised if KW gets forced out & are hoping prez steps in.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) December 28, 2014
That really becomes the biggest question of 2014 for the football program, as well as the Utah athletic department. Some have speculated that if Whittingham, who has two years left on his contract, leaves the Utes, Hill may try to bring in Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen. Mullen, who has led his team to a second place finish in the Southeast Conference West division and a 10-2 record, is still in the midst of his season, preparing for the Capital One Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech. Mullen's 2014 record is his best as the Bulldogs head coach, and the best record for the school since Jackie Sherrill won 10 in 1999. Prior to Sherrill, you have to go back to 1940 for a 10-win Mississippi State team. In 74 years of college football, there have been only three 10-win Bulldogs teams, so... why would Mullen leave Starkville? Furthermore, the SEC is the predator fish, not the feeder, so prying away a top coach seems highly unlikely.
Another name that Utah fans would love would be Gary Anderson. Now, while Arizona State's Todd Graham flipped flopped during an offseason, leaving one job before fully taking over another, Anderson may be too entrenched at Oregon State at this point. Utah's former defensive coordinator may have been an option immediately following the bowl game, but less likely now.
The real damage comes on the recruiting trail. Now that Utah's season is over, the Utes coaching staff should be in the heart of recruiting season. They should be looking to lock down their current list of commitments and make a last push for those outliers and uncommitted stars like four-star linebacker Osa Masina and three-star linebacker Christian Folau. But right now, the staff, whether they stay or not, are fighting the common negative recruiting tactic of saying to a young man "If you sign with Utah, your head coach/position coach won't be there after you sign, or when you graduate." It's something that most lame duck coaches have to deal with, but Utah hasn't been that kind of program since Ron McBride was in his final season in 2002. Twelve years of stability seemingly destroyed in a matter of a few days.
BlockU requested comment from the Utah athletic department but didn't receive a response at the time of this publication. Radio silence wouldn't be unusual in a heated contract negotiation, but the longer the negotiations drag, the wider the reported rift, and the more vocal Utah fans will become, perhaps rightfully so.
Either Whittingham stays and there is bad blood in the halls of the athletic department, or Whittingham goes and fans will fully revolt against athletic director Chris Hill. What's clear is that the program will not be the same after the dust settles.