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Every year about this time, Kyle Whittingham hears the same questions: How much longer? Is he done? Is he going to continue to coach the Utah football team?
Apparently, this is required journalism once a coach dives into his 60s.
So I guess I have to fulfill this requirement. Anyway, my boss thought so. I caught up with Whittingham just after he got off a plane. His phone battery was running dry — this probably happens a lot during the recruiting season — and he had to pull to the side of the road to charge up before we could talk.
“Right now I’ve got a lot of energy. I have a lot of excitement about the job. As long as I get up in the morning and am excited about it ... We’re going into the Big 12. It’s a new challenge.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
“Right now I’ve got a lot of energy,” he said. “I have a lot of excitement about the job. As long as I get up in the morning and am excited about it ... We’re going into the Big 12. It’s a new challenge.” He laughs at this point and says, “This is the third or fourth time we have another opportunity to go into a new league.”
I’ve known Whittingham since he was an all-conference linebacker at BYU and I have to note that he truly sounded enthusiastic and charged up about coaching, and this was after completing another trip on an airline, which is enough to damper anyone’s mood. Maybe it’s because it’s the offseason and he’s more relaxed. Maybe it’s because he’s got a new mountain to climb.
He was a defensive coordinator at Utah when the school was in the Western Athletic Conference. He was still the team’s defensive coordinator when Utah moved to the Mountain West Conference. He was the head coach when the school moved to the Pac-12 Conference. In the fall he will take the Utes into the Big 12 in his 31st season at Utah, 20th as head coach.
The move to the Big 12 figures to be easier than the move to the Pac-12, with the departure of Texas and Oklahoma. In the Pac-12, the Utes had to face USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington, the mainstays of the league. In storybook fashion, the Utes rose to the occasion after a so-so start, winning four division championships and two league championships, which resulted in two Rose Bowl appearances in 13 years. It was quite a run.
Who could’ve imagined these things 20 years ago?
“It’s been a good experience,” says Whittingham.
Whittingham, whose contract runs through the 2027 season, has had only one head coaching job and he has made the most of it, enduring two decades in a profession in which the average tenure is 3.8 years. He is tied for the second-longest tenured coach in the country, trailing only Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (24 years). He is the winningest coach in school history and has two Pac-12 titles, and by all rights he should be able to claim one national championship.
In 2008, Utah was the only unbeaten FBS team in the nation and defeated four teams that finished in the final poll — No. 6 Alabama (in the Sugar Bowl), No. 7 TCU, No. 18 Oregon State and No. 25 BYU. The Utes also defeated Michigan in the season opener. Utah finished No. 2 in the final poll behind 13-1 Florida — coached by Whittingham’s predecessor, Urban Meyer — but another major poll — Anderson & Hester — named Utah as the national champion. There was no playoff in that era to settle the matter.
At 64, Whittingham is the fifth-oldest head coach in the FBS. In the college and professional ranks, older coaches are stepping down or being shown the door. Nick Saban retired from Alabama last week at the age of 72. Pete Carroll, 72, was fired by the Seattle Seahawks. Bill Belichick, 71, parted ways with the New England Patriots.
It’s never easy to plot an exit, but Saban did so on his terms, with his teams still contending for national titles.
Closer to home, LaVell Edwards, the legendary BYU coach who also made good with his first and only head coaching job, retired in 2000 at the age of 70 after 29 seasons on the job. He had won a national championship and 20 conference championships, earned 22 bowl berths, and his players won all the major individual awards — the Heisman, Outland, Doak Walker, Sammy Baugh, Davey O’Brien.
Patti Edwards, his widow, tells this story. One day she and her husband were talking about the new indoor practice facility that BYU built after Edwards’ retirement.
“Can you imagine what we would’ve done if we had had that indoor facility,” she said. Turning to face her, Edwards folded his arms and calmly said, “What more could we have done?” There was silence.
It’s difficult to know when enough is enough, but if Whittingham quit tomorrow he could say the same. There isn’t much more he could have done.