We are doing a two part series on the case for Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham to be on the hot seat and the case against that. Neel Limaye wrote the case for why Whittingham should be on the hot seat. While I respect Limaye’s opinion, I have to disagree that Whittingham should be on the hot seat.
To me, Whittingham’s biggest failure as a head coach at Utah in the Pac-12 is the November slump each year. I think we can partially attribute this to injuries that pile up as the season drags on. It also took Utah several years to fill the program with Pac-12 recruits to build the depth necessary to get through a Pac-12 schedule, which they just did not have in 2011-2013. It is true that Utah missed a bowl game in 2012 and 2013, but Whittingham followed that up with three straight seasons finishing ranked in the AP Top 25. Utah is also one of only five programs, along with Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, and Ohio State, to appear in each College Football Playoff Committee ranking in 2014-2016. Once Whittingham filled the program with Pac-12 recruits, he has made Utah one of the most consistent teams in the country. When we evaluate Whittingham in a slightly down year (I say slightly because Utah still has a winning record), do not forget the sustained success he has had in the previous three seasons.
Should we punish Whittingham for one rebuilding year after three good seasons?
It is also important to remember that many fans and members of the media expected this to be a rebuilding year for the Utes prior to the start of the season. I think the 4-0 start got the hopes up of fans and made them forget just how much Utah lost from last season. Utah returned the fewest starters of any team in the Pac-12. They also sent 16 players from last year’s team to the NFL, including eight players getting drafted in the 2017 NFL Draft. Utah lost four starters on the offensive line, including first round pick Garett Bolles. Utah lost running back Joe Williams, who set a school record with 332 rushing yards in a game against UCLA. Three of Utah’s top four receivers: wide receiver Tim Patrick, wide receiver Cory Butler-Byrd, and tight end Evan Moeai, are all gone as well. Utah lost almost 54% of their receiving yards and over 56% of their rushing yards from last season. Utah is also breaking in a new offensive system this season with offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. I know Utah changes offensive coordinators almost every year, but consider this: in year two under Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding as co-offensive coordinators, Utah improved to 430.7 yards per game compared to 363.0 yards per game in year one. This gives me hope that the offense can take a big step forward in 2018 in year two under Taylor, especially considering how much the team will return seven starters (barring any players leaving early) compared to only four (if you consider that Tyler Huntley is starting at quarterback instead of Troy Williams) in 2016.
The defense also had to replace four out of five starters in the secondary, which advanced stats say is the most important group to return experience to on defense. They also lost both starting defensive ends in Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu, who combined for 23.5 sacks last season and ranked first (Dimick with 14.5) and tied for fourth (Taumoepenu with 9.0) in the Pac-12 for sacks last season. Overall, players that graduated from Utah from last season recorded 27 of Utah’s 43 sacks, nearly 63%.
Overall, Utah was 115 in returning production heading into the 2017 season according to our colleague Bill Connelly. Utah ranked 124 out of 129 in returning defensive production and 81 in returning offensive production (though that number assumed Williams started, so it is effectively lower since Huntley is the starter when healthy). Michigan lost a comparable amount of production and recruits at a much higher level than Utah, and yet they are sitting at 5-2 with a blowout loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions and a home loss to the rival Michigan State Spartans. They needed overtime to beat the Indiana Hoosiers. Michigan’s season is strongly paralleling Utah’s. Losing as much talent as the Utes and Wolverines did off the 2016 squads was bound to catchup with both teams. North Carolina is a program that recruits at a similar, though slightly higher, level compared to Utah. The Tar Heels also won the same number of games as Utah in the past two seasons (UNC when 11-3 in 2015 and 8-5 last year). UNC also lost a similar amount of production from last season. They are 1-7 this year, though injuries have been a factor in that. Another program that lost a similar amount of talent and recruits better than Utah in Nebraska, who is 3-4. There are teams that lost a lot of production that are having good seasons this year (Miami, Michigan State, and West Virginia at the Power Five level), so it is not impossible, but there are certainly more examples of teams taking a step back after losing a comparable amount of talent as Utah lost than teams making huge improvements.
What these numbers should tell you is that this is a rebuilding year for Utah. This is a young team, so we have seen some consequences of that. The young players are flashing huge potential but are not always consistent, which is to be expected. These true freshmen and sophomores that Utah is playing all over the field will help set up the Utah in 2018 and 2019 to possibly be special years. One last thing to keep in mind, Whittingham has taken Utah from unranked in the preseason AP Poll to ranked in the final one four times in the last 10 years. Only one other program achieved the same feat: the Cincinnati Bear Cats.
Utah is set up to win soon, like next year.
Utah is set up to win in 2018 and beyond with the young talent they have brought in. If Utah keeps their schemes the same, we could see a similar improvement from year one to year two with Taylor that we saw previously with Roderick and Harding. What would that mean? Over 480 yards per game, which is near the top of the Pac-12. Combine that kind of offensive production with a defense that returns the entire secondary (provided no players leave early) and plenty of young talent up front, and it could be a big year for Utah next year.
Think about all the freshmen and sophomores that are starting or playing a lot of minutes for Utah this year. On offense, Huntley, the starting quarterback is a sophomore. The two main running backs, Zack Moss and Devontae Henry-Cole, are both sophomores. At wide receiver, Samson Nacua is a redshirt freshman, Demari Simpkins is a true sophomore, Siaosi Wilson is a redshirt sophomore, and Bryan Thompson is playing as a true freshman. The offensive line features redshirt sophomore Darrin Paulo at right tackle. Jordan Agasiva is a junior, but he came from the junior college ranks, so this is his first year in the program. On defense, Leki Fotu, Bradlee Anae, and Maxs Tupai all play or start and were part of Utah’s 2016 recruiting class. True sophomore Donavan Thompson has played meaningful minutes at linebacker. The secondary is where we really see young players making the biggest contributions. Two true freshmen start: Javelin Guidry at nickel and Jaylon Johnson outside. Julian Blackmon is also a starting corner as a true sophomore. The secondary also features two junior college players in Corrion Ballard and Marquise Blair (who did not get to Utah until fall camp) who are both in their first year at Utah.
Oh and do not forget, running back Armand Shyne and wide receiver Britain Covey will be back next year to help out the Utah offense.
How easy is it to replace a coach?
I get the “grass is always greener” feelings some fans have and the desire to find the next Urban Meyer. The problem is it is not easy to find the next great up-and-comer. Replacing a coach can turn around a program quickly (i.e. Utah hiring Urban Meyer and Auburn hiring Gus Malzahn taking them from 3-9 to No. 2 in the nation in year one), but this is more often the exception and not the rule. Blue blood programs like Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and USC, who have significant advantages in hiring coaches compared to a program like Utah. Those programs have a better recruiting base, more money, and more tradition, so they can attract higher profile coaches that Utah will ever be able to get.
Football is an evolving game, so what worked in the past might not always work in the future. Coaches need to be willing to adapt to the changing landscape of football and the constantly evolving schemes. Sometimes the game has passed by coaches who had success previously but could not adapt. If a program has stagnated, it can be time to make the difficult decision to let go of a coach who did a lot for a program but is not having success in the present. Utah athletic director Dr. Chris Hill made the tough decision to fire Ron McBride and hire Urban Meyer. This move launched Utah to where they are now with the success Meyer and Whittingham have subsequently had at Utah. Whittingham however is not like McBride. He has had recent success at Utah (as recent as last season), and he has shown a willingness to adapt. Utah plays much more nickel defense than in the past to combat the spread offenses so common in college football these days. He also realizes the need to have a more potent passing offense rather than just relying on defense and special teams to win the field position battle and controlling the clock on offense running the football. The move to hire Taylor has not turned Utah into an offensive juggernaut, but it shows a willingness on the part of Whittingham to make a bold move to help the program move forward.
Here are a few examples of blue blood programs struggling to replace a good or great head coach.
After the retirement of Lou Holtz from Notre Dame, they fired the next three coaches they hired (Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis). This shows that one of the most historic programs in college football history is hit or miss in hiring coaches in this day and age.
In the Pac-12, look at what the USC Trojans have dealt with when it comes to hiring coaches: both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian did not work out despite ties to the USC glory days in the 2000s with Pete Carroll.
Nebraska is a perfect example of caution firing a coach with a proven track record of winning. Bo Pelini won 9 games or more in every season in Lincoln. He won a division title four times in seven years (three times in three years in the Big XII and once in four years in the Big Ten), yet he was fired. His firing was partially off the field behavior and a lack of winning “the games that matter.” Nebraska replaced Pelini with Mike Reilly, the former Oregon State Beavers head coach. Reilly had a losing record in his first season at Nebraska. He did happen to win nine games in year two, but his Cornhuskers are sitting at 3-4 this year. Reilly’s seat is getting pretty warm already in only year three. Pelini took Youngstown State to the FCS Championship game last year in only his secondary year coaching the Penguins, so he is proving he can still coach.
Last, let’s look at the Michigan Wolverines. The Wolverines were a traditional power running program under Lloyd Carr (and pretty much every coach before him). Michigan made the decision to hire Rich Rodriguez after Carr retired. Rodriguez is an innovator of the spread option offense at the West Virginia Mountaineers, where he had huge success prior to going to Michigan. Rich Rod brought his spread system to Michigan and did not have a single bown win there in three years, only making a bowl game in his final season. Rodriguez’s teams did record a better record in each season as he got more players into the program to run his scheme, but he did not turn things around fast enough. Michigan then switched back to a pro-style coach in Brady Hoke. Hoke had to run a more multiple system at first because Rodriguez recruited for his spread offense. Hoke won a Sugar Bowl in his first season at Michigan in 2011. Hoke however could not replicate that success in 2012-2014 and was fired. Hoke is an example of a coach who could be thought of as a next Meyer type. He had a 12-1 record at Ball State in 2008, winning the Mid-American Conference. He also had a 9-4 season with San Diego State Aztecs in a loaded Mountain West Conference in 2010 prior to going to Michigan.
Another issue with hiring a hot new up-and-comer is that they have no loyalty to a program. Utah owes Urban Meyer a lot for helping to put Utah on the map, but he bolted after two years for a bigger program. There is no guarantee that “the next Urban Meyer” would stay at Utah just because the Utes are now in the Pac-12.
I am not saying that a new coach from the Group of Five ranks could not come in and turn Utah into a national championship contender overnight. What I am saying is that the odds of that are slim. The Power Five programs that have had fast turnarounds have typically hired coaches that have previous Power Five coaching experience at least at the coordinator level, have some ties to the program and/or run a similar scheme as the previous coaching staff, and the school typically had multiple great recruiting classes prior to hiring the new coach. Again, let’s use Michigan as our example with Rodriguez and current head coach Jim Harbaugh. Rodriguez had no ties to Michigan prior to coaching there, while Harbaugh played at Michigan. Rodriguez ran a wildly different offense, while Harbaugh brought a pro-style smash mouth offense to the Wolverines that looked oh so familiar to the program. Michigan recruited at a very high level prior to each coach being hired, so that was one constant, but the scheme change under Rodriguez mitigated some of that talent because those players were recruited for a different style of offense and did not all necessarily fit the spread option. Both coaches were also proven Power Five coaches (Rodriguez at West Virginia and Harbaugh at Stanford and in the NFL). For Michigan, Rodriguez struggled in year one and two while Harbaugh thrived because Harbaugh ran the right scheme and is familiar with the Michigan program.
I am not saying that hiring a new coach is always a bad idea. In some cases, a change is absolutely necessary and can lift up a program. What I am trying to say that sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for to get rid of a coach who has had a lot of success for a program and who has shown loyalty to a program.