Replacing Ron McBride was never supposed to be easy. The man resuscitated a program that was on life support and fading fast. He created the winning tradition Ute fans cherish today, way back when the PAC-12 was still just the PAC-10, and simply beating BYU was the pinnacle of success. Former athletic director Chris Hill struck gold when he coaxed the relatively unknown Urban Meyer away from Bowling Green in 2003 to lead the next generation of Utah football, but it was clear that the Utes were simply a stepping stone for him as greener pastures (swamps?) came calling after just two seasons on the Hill. It was then that the legacy of Kyle Whittingham began to take shape.
As a stand-out linebacker for BYU who had played for and coached alongside the great LaVell Edwards as a graduate assistant, the Cougars had an interest in bringing Whittingham home at the end of the 2003 season. Kyle had spent nearly a decade perfecting his craft under the likes of McBride and Meyer as Utah’s defensive coordinator and was already tabbed as the heir apparent to Urban, who had promoted him to co-head coach status for the Fiesta Bowl. After days of deliberation, Whittingham declined the job offer from his alma mater, and stuck with the Utes, a decision that likely impacted the entire college football landscape as we now know it.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The first season of the Kyle Whittingham era started with a 3-4 record before rebounding late in the season to clinch an Emerald Bowl invite where his team handed Georgia Tech their worst post-season loss in school history at the time. The slow starts continued in 2006 and 2007 as some began to wonder if Whittingham was really head coach material, but both seasons ultimately ended with winning records, helping justify his status as Utah’s man. It wasn’t until 2008 that the fourth-year coach finally put the pieces together and busted the BCS for a second time, sending the undefeated Utes to the Sugar Bowl to face arguably the best team in the nation, the Alabama Crimson Tide, coached by another living legend in Nick Saban. From the opening kick-off, it was clear; Whittingham was the better coach, with a better plan, and a better team (at least that day) as the Utes shellacked the Tide 31-17 and were hailed by many as the true national champions. A Bear Bryant award soon followed, and double-digit winning seasons became the norm in Salt Lake, even as the Mountain West became highly competitive with TCU and BYU now jockeying for national attention on the heels of their own success. Whittingham’s name was continuously linked to high-profile jobs, including an offer to take over at Tennessee in early 2010, but through it all, Kyle stuck with the Utes and helped them navigate the next chapter of Utah football: Power Five status.
With cable TV contracts paying millions of dollars to conferences and individual schools, an arms race began to wage across the NCAA, eventually leading the PAC-10 to invite the University of Utah into their ranks, bringing an old rival and former Big 12 stalwart Colorado along for the ride. Carrying an 8-4 record into the final week of the Utah’s inaugural PAC-12 season, Coach Whittingham was set to win the newly formed PAC-12 South’s first division title until an upset loss to Colorado derailed those dreams. Back-to-back losing seasons led to renewed questions regarding Whittingham’s ability to coach at a higher level week-in and week-out, and even with a 9-4 record in Utah’s fourth season in the PAC-12, his team failed to slot better than fifth place in the division for the third straight year. 2015 finally saw the Utes claim a share of their first division title and despite some bumps in the road over the course of the next six seasons, one thing started to become clear; the PAC-12 South runs through Salt Lake, and Kyle Whittingham doesn’t give it up easily, now claiming his third PAC-12 South championship in the last four seasons.
Now, as his 17th season comes to a close, the 62-year-old head coach has cemented himself as the undisputed king of Utah football with a record-breaking 142 wins. His personal trophy case is filled with various “Coach of the Year” honors and his teams have claimed nearly a dozen bowl victories. He has helped nearly 100 young men find their way onto NFL rosters, many of which were true diamonds in the rough who weren’t expected to be much at the college level, let alone the pros. The accolades and accomplishments speak for themselves, but they don’t tell the whole story of who Kyle Whittingham truly is.
Family is a common theme around the Utah football team. Every year, recruits comment that the culture of family is ultimately what led them to sign with Utes, a culture that has been carefully cultivated by Whittingham throughout his long tenure at the U, and a culture that has been tested since before the 2021 season kicked off.
Following the tragic passing of PAC-12 Freshman of the year, Ty Jordan at the end of last season, linebacker coach Kiel McDonald commented “we’re a family here, and family looks out for each other”. That sentiment was echoed by Whittingham himself, who spoke at Jordan’s celebration of life. “As the head coach of the football team, you really have 120 adopted sons, you care for them like your sons. We love them, you hurt when they hurt. It’s just a special bond. That’s probably the reason I’ve been in this profession so long is the relationship with these young men. You end up loving them all.” When tragedy struck again less than 12 months later after Aaron Lowe was senselessly murdered at a Salt Lake City house party, Whittingham again rallied around his football family, ensuring those we lost were remembered not just for their contributions on the field, but the impact they left off the field. A weaker man would have thrown in the towel and called the season a bust. Not Kyle. Instead, just like any father would, he strengthened the family ties and they carried on together, stronger than ever.
One would hope this isn’t the final chapter in the book of Whittingham. The second longest-tenured active coach in NCAA football signed an extension through 2027 just last year, but with a Rose Bowl bid on the horizon and a slew of program records under his belt, it’s obvious we’re closer to the end of the Whittingham era than we are the beginning.
For all that he’s done, and all that he will do, thank you.