The longest tenured head football coach in the Pac 12. A bowl game wizard, going 10-1 in season-closing play. The David to Alabama’s Goliath. Kyle Whittingham has done many good things in his time as the head coach of the University of Utah. But after Saturday’s 30-10 drubbing at home by a mediocre Arizona State squad, I think it’s time to talk about what many of us have been thinking for a while- it’s time to turn up the heat on Coach Whitt.
In order to make this a coherent, unemotional plea, I’m going to break this down into two distinct Whittingham eras: Pre-Pac 12 and Pac 12. Also, for purposes of this analysis, let’s disregard the giant contract extension that Coach Whittingham just signed. Finally, I’m guessing this column may spark some emotional reaction, so I want to disclaim that the views expressed herein are mine only, and should not be attributed to Shane, Alex, or Brittany.
Pre-Pac 12 Whittingham
We all remember 2004, when a young Urban Meyer and future Pro Bowler Alex Smith took a Mountain West upstart to the promised land- a Fiesta Bowl win and an undefeated season. Utah became the official BCS Buster, and Coach Meyer took his talents to Gainesville. Enter Kyle Whittingham, a known commodity in Utah- a linebacker at BYU, defensive coordinator at the College of Eastern Utah, and eventually, the defensive coordinator at the University of Utah.
In 2005, during his first year as the Utah head coach, Whitt started the season 3-4, dropping key out-of-conference games to TCU and North Carolina. North Carolina ended up winning a grand total of 5 games that season. He closed the season strong, winning 4 out of 5 of his final games, including an impressive bowl game victory against Calvin Johnson and Georgia Tech (remember that game? Eric Weddle was pretty much snapping the ball to himself at QB where he’d throw it to himself as receiver. He also shut down Megatron on the defensive side of the ball). The Utes finished 7-5.
In 2006, Utah went 8-5, but lost to Pac 12 opponent UCLA 31-10 on the road, and was shellacked “ASU-style” by Boise State at home (36-3). Whitt also dropped a home game to TDS that year, 33-31. We did, as always, go to and win a bowl game: Tulsa, in the Armed Forces Bowl.
In 2007, the Utes saw another uptick, winning 9 games and losing 4. However, the season started ugly (1-3), with our only win coming via miracle against UCLA (Tommy Grady had the luckiest day of his life). Whitt eventually cleaned things up, rattling off seven wins in a row before losing, yet again, to BYU. The Utes ended up defeating Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl by a score of 35-32.
Ah, 2008, the Golden Year. This was truly Whitt’s finest hour as head coach, as he defeated the likes of Michigan (which only won 3 games that year), Oregon State, TCU, a ranked BYU team, and finally Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. So many close calls during this season (think Oregon State, a game we probably should have lost), but Whitt truly catapulted Utah onto the national scene with his coaching this year. For that, we should be forever grateful.
In 2009, coming off its big bowl win over Alabama, Utah started the season ranked 19th. The team looked impressive in non-conference play, beating Utah State, San Jose State, and Louisville. Oregon did, however, defeat the Utes that year. While the Utes finished 10-3, Whitt dropped a huge game to TCU at home, 55-28. To add insult to injury, the Utes lost again to BYU, this time in overtime. We closed the year with a bowl win over 8-4 Cal.
In 2010, Utah repeated its 10-3 performance, while climbing all the way to #6 in the rankings before being crushed by TCU, 47-7 (remember when you spent hours prepping for College GameDay, just to be let down by the end of the first quarter? I bet you do). Whittingham dropped another game on the road to Notre Dame, eked out a win over BYU, and was subsequently demolished by Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The Takeaway: These were the most formative years in Utah football history. Our fan base was no longer satisfied as long as we ended the season with a win over our in-state rival. We were hungry for more- wanted more consequential out-of-conference matchups and to play for a P5 conference (which we got). Surely these seasons, especially the 2008 season, changed recruiting at the University of Utah and formed the basis for our transition into the Pac 12. Whitt won bowl games over Georgia Tech, Tulsa, Navy, Alabama, and Cal. However, it is important to note that Whittingham underperformed against our “peer” schools during these seasons, going 0-2 against Boise State, 3-3 against BYU, and 3-3 against TCU (the last two losses against TCU were brutal, and should carry greater weight than the wins). Overall, Whitt should be praised for these seasons.
Pac 12 Whittingham
A new era began in 2011, as the Utes embarked on their Pac 12 journey. Whitt started that season off 3-4, with all four losses coming to conference opponents. He was able to right the ship, winning four conference games in a row. Somehow, someway, Utah was in a position to win the Pac 12 South- all Whitt had to do was defeat a 2-win Colorado team. Spoiler alert- he lost. The Utes did get to a bowl game in 2011, defeating Georgia Tech in overtime.
In 2012, the Utes saw a major downturn, winning only 5 games. Out of conference, Whitt beat Northern Colorado and BYU, but dropped a game to Utah State. In conference, Utah beat Cal, Washington State, and Colorado- teams that combined for a total of seven wins on the year.
In 2013, the Utes matched their prior season’s record of 5-7, winning all of its out-of-conference games (Weber State, Utah State, and TDS). The Utes won only 2 conference games that year, an impressive win against Ty Montgomery and Stanford, and a close one against Colorado.
In 2014, the tide seemed to turn, as Utah won an impressive nine games, including wins over Michigan (only won five games that season), No. 8 UCLA, and No. 20 USC. However, Whitt had his annual November letdown (this year it’s happening in October), losing a very important home game to Arizona, 42-10. The Utes went to their second bowl game as members of the Pac 12, beating a mediocre Colorado State team, 45-10.
In 2015, Utah had arguably its best season in the Pac 12. Whitt beat Michigan (and spoiled Jim Harbaugh’s first game), crushed Oregon on the road, and climbed all the way to #3 in the national rankings. But yet again, he fell apart in November, losing two in a row to Arizona (a team that had four wins), and UCLA. He was able to salvage the season with a bowl win over BYU (though many would argue that he did his best to give that game away).
In 2016, Utah had another seemingly strong season, finishing 9-4. However, Whitt was unable to finish close games against Cal and Oregon, and also failed to win either of his games against ranked opponents- Washington and Colorado. He settled for the Foster Farms Bowl, and was able to squeeze a win out against perennial football juggernaut, Indiana.
The Takeaway: Yes, the recruiting needed time to catch up. Yes, it’s “only” been 6 seasons. But one thing seems clear- Whittingham isn’t “the closer” that we were used to in the Mountain West. He’s consistently shown his tendency to buckle in big moments (2011 Colorado, 2014 Arizona, 2015 Arizona, 2016 Cal and Oregon). Utah is the only team in the Pac 12 South that hasn’t played for a Pac 12 title. Who has Whitt beat in bowl games? 2011 Georgia Tech (unranked), 2014 Colorado State (unranked), 2015 BYU (unranked), and 2016 Indiana (unranked). While he’s 4-0 in bowl games in the Pac 12, he also failed to get to a bowl game in 2012 and 2013. While these have been growing years for the program, the growth seems stagnant. Utah’s recruiting base has grown in California and Texas and Florida, but Whitt consistently loses in-state recruits (think Porter Gustin, Luke Falk, and more recently, Jay Tufele).
So here we are in 2017. 1-3 in the Pac 12, with a brutal stretch ahead of us. Is Whitt really the guy to pull us out of this? I think not, but maybe you do. Either way, it will be interesting to see how the team bounces back this season, and how many wins it can muster.
In my opinion, it’s time to turn up the heat on Whittingham’s seat. It’s time for Dr. Chris Hill to start thinking big- and I’m not talking about bringing in someone from the Utah coaching merry-go-round (please, God, no more talk of Gary Andersen or Kalani Sitake)- I’m talking about the search for the next Urban Meyer, someone that can take us to the next level. It’s not about winning the Carl’s Junior Mediocrity Bowl against Obscure State University just so we can say “hey look, we win a lot of bowl games.” It’s time for the fans not to just desire, but to demand, that we play the likes of Oklahoma, Michigan, and Clemson in the postseason. To be extremely clear, this isn’t a knock on Whittingham. He’s done so much for this program, including the heavy lifting of bringing our name into a national conversation. But if we ever want to become the conversation, not just part of it, it won’t be Whittingham that gets us there.