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The Family Business

The Utah football team has a single word motto "family," and that starts with head coach Kyle Whittingham, who has three relatives on the team and in the front office.

Linebackers Alex and Jason Whittingham know all about the family environment on the Utah football team, being the son and nephew of head coach Kyle.
Linebackers Alex and Jason Whittingham know all about the family environment on the Utah football team, being the son and nephew of head coach Kyle.
University of Utah Athletics

Family is a word the Utes use to describe their football team, but for the Whittinghams, it goes beyond the field and locker room. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham enjoys a reunion of sorts every day at work, with his brother Fred Jr. in the office as the director of player personnel, his nephew Jason (6-2, 247 pounds) as his starting linebacker, and his son Alex (5-10, 205 pounds) also in the linebacking corps. Coach Whittingham said he loves having both players on the team.

"It is a good situation for me," Kyle said. "I am all about family. We have what we call a brotherhood within the program, and to have your own kids experience that and be involved with that is great. It has been a family affair for quite a few years."

Alex, a redshirt freshman, is not the head coach's first child associated with the team. Kyle's other son Tyler played for Utah from 2010-2011, and his daughter Melissa was a cheerleader.

Whittingham said it's difficult to balance coaching and home life, but the team invites families to the football facilities to have dinner with the team.

"It's tough," Kyle admitted. "As a football coach, there are certain sacrifices you have to make to get the job done. It require a lot of hours. There's no way around that, so what we do is to try have as many opportunities for our coaches to spend time with their families as possible."

The family atmosphere created by the head coach and his cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah (who's son also plays linebacker for Utah) is a quality that is not lost on other players or recruits. Many recruits say the family environment is a big part of why they chose Utah.

But even if there is a family atmosphere surrounding the team, it still has to be tough playing for your father/uncle, right?

"It probably not as weird as you'd think it would be," Alex said. "because me and my dad, from the very beginning, have always tried to keep family and football separate. While we're [on the field], he's my coach and I'm his player, and at home we do the family thing, so it's really been more normal than you'd think. It's a good experience. I've liked it a lot."

"It adds a little more pressure when your family member is coaching you, because you have to prove that you belong," Jason added. "I think it adds a little more fun to it, just knowing that you know each other on a better level than he knows any of his other players."

Both players said that football and family life are separate, but Alex said his dad is willing to help with questions or watch film with him.

"I try to avoid talking football with him, because that's all we get all day, every day," Alex laughed. "Around the dinner table, we try to talk about normal things, but if I have questions about things, he'll always be willing to answer it or if I want to watch some film at the house, he'll watch it with me really quick. It's usually my mom that has all the questions about football."

"I'll agree with Alex on that one," Jason said. "It's a little more separate than most people think. We don't usually bring football home with us."

Jason's family is in Provo, Utah, and he doesn't interact with coach Whittingham outside of football practice, but his father (Cary Whittingham, head coach of the Timpview High School football team) will talk with him on the phone if he needs help.

Both players are not only in "the family business" but also at the family position. Alex said the pressure for him to do well has mostly been internal, and he was never pushed into football or playing linebacker (like his father and uncles).

"Football in general was never really pushed on me," Alex said. "It's always been something I've enjoyed, and I never thought of playing any other spot besides linebacker, seeing so many other family members play it throughout the years."

"Ever since I was little, I always knew I was going to play football," said Jason, a junior this season, "but I didn't know I would play linebacker."

As a child, Jason instead dreamed of making the NFL as a running back. But linebacker has been a good position for him, a position he realizes he was born to play, and the 247-pounder was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection last season as a sophomore. In 2013, Jason recorded 81 tackles (34 solo), five tackles for a loss, one forced fumble, one fumbled recovered, and four passes defended. This season, the junior has a good chance to move up to the first or second team in the Pac-12 if the Utes defense is stout.

Being related to the head coach naturally comes with pressure from the other players. So how do Alex and Jason earn the respect of their peers?

"There's a little bit more pressure to keep the team rules off the field and to be busting your butt on the field," Alex said. "There's pressure to set that example, you know. But performance-wise, we're all such a close group of guys that if you're busting your butt and doing what you can to help the team, no matter your skill level, no matter how big you are, then that earns respect."

"I think it's good pressure," Jason added. "It's not bad pressure at all."

The family atmosphere has been successful for the Utes, highlighted by the 2009 Sugar Bowl, and it's a legacy Jason and Alex carry on with pride.