Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's name is new to the discussion of possible replacements for Joe Paterno at Penn State. Before Craig Morgan of CBS Sports reported Saturday that the university had contacted him, few on the outside were connecting him to the Nittany Lions' job.
His track record with the Utes, however, suggests he belongs in the running to take over in Happy Valley. Through eight seasons in Salt Lake City, Whittingham has compiled a 69-25 overall record and a 6-1 bowl record. His resume also boasts a Mountain West conference championship, a Sugar Bowl victory and an undefeated campaign in 2008 with the Utes.
The San Luis Obispo, California native and BYU graduate made coaching stops at his alma mater, Eastern Utah and Idaho State before joining up with the Utes in 1994, and played one season in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams. Now 52, his team is coming off a 7-5 season during its first year in the Pac-12, and though the Salt Lake Tribune is reporting Whittingham is nearing a new deal with Utah, anything remains possible in the unpredictable world of college athletics.
For more insight into Whittingham's career at Utah, we've enlisted the help of Sean from SB Nation's Utah Utes blog Block U. Below are his answers to some of our questions about the coach.
AB: Generally, how do Utah fans feel about the job Kyle Whittingham has done? Is there a consensus, or are there competing opinions?
S: Whittingham had growing pains when he took over the program in ‘05. Urban Meyer did not leave much in the cupboard, and Whittingham had to essentially rebuild much of the offense. Still, the Utes managed a 7-5 season and finished the year with a stunning win over BYU on the road (Utah had lost its starting quarterback a week prior) and then upset a ranked Georgia Tech team in the Emerald Bowl. 2006 was a bit more difficult because Brian Johnson, the quarterback in ‘05, sat out the year and the Utes graduated their leading rusher. With a revolving door at the running back position, the team struggled at key stretches and only managed a rather uneventful 8-5 season. A year later, things started really turning around. Johnson returned, though was injured in the first game and missed the first few weeks, Utah ripped off a seven-game win streak and finished with nine wins and an impressive Poinsettia Bowl victory over Navy. The next year, the Utes went 13-0 and beat Alabama soundly in the Sugar Bowl.
Because of that slow start, some fans, including myself, were slow to come around to him. We saw a lightning-quick climb to the top under Meyer and it felt, in ‘05 and ‘06, things kind of stagnated. A great deal of that was due to rebuilding and once the pieces were in place, and Whittingham grew into the role, fans definitely felt he was the guy for us. He’s a great recruiter, managed to take a team that lost its starting quarterback and was starting a player whose DII school cut football and had them a win away from the Pac-12 title game.
I think the consensus is, almost universal, that Whittingham is a great coach.
AB: What has his team's offensive identity been at Utah?
S: When Whittingham took over for Urban Meyer, he kept a great deal of the spread option intact, though diversified it a bit by adding pro-style elements. Much of that was due to the hiring of Andy Ludwig, who hadn’t run the spread option before. Even so, the offense was mostly spread-oriented in Whittingham’s first season, especially with Brian Johnson, who had been recruited to run the spread option by Meyer, as the Utes’ quarterback. However, toward the end of the ‘05 season, he went down with an injury and throughout the 2006 season, Utah ran a more balanced spread/pro-style hybrid because their starting quarterback, Brett Ratliff, was a pro-style guy. When Johnson returned in ‘07, the offense kept a great deal of the spread option elements, but wasn’t nearly as comparable to what Meyer had established here earlier and, of course, at Florida.
The Utes continued running that hybrid offense for the next few seasons (including ‘08, when they went undefeated), but made a near-wholesale change at the start of the ‘11 season when Whittingham hired Norm Chow. Jordan Wynn, who had been Utah’s quarterback since midway through 2009, wasn’t as mobile as a quarterback probably should be in a spread option and the consensus was that he would be better suited for the West Coast Offense, which Chow has been involved in since his days at BYU.
Early on, the offense struggled as the team adjusted and then flat-lined when Wynn went down with a season-ending injury. The offense didn’t change much, but the production just hasn’t been there since.
There is no doubt in my mind Whittingham would rather run a more pro-style offense than what was established under Meyer. With that said, he’s also a defensive-first guy, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he opts for a more ball controlled offense, though that isn’t necessarily what he’s done at Utah, as the Utes have generally been a fairly produce offensive team under his leadership.
AB: What has his team's defensive philosophy been with the Utes?
S: Utah has had a very aggressive defense for years under Whittingham and it consistently ranks toward the top of the nation in most major categories. He loves to blitz, loves to pressure and throw out wild schemes that completely confuse offenses. That said, it can give you a bit of heartburn, as they do love to bend a bit before finally getting the stop. He is one of the best defensive coaches in the country and that’s a big reason why Meyer put his name out there for Florida when he initially retired back in ‘09. His defenses will always be stout, fast and dominant.
AB: How would you rate Whittingham's quarterback development in Utah and why?
S: Right now, I think the quarterback spot has been the biggest issue with Whittingham. I’m not going to say he’s totally mismanaged the position, but I don’t think he puts as much emphasis on it as an offensive-minded coach would. Still, Brian Johnson had never started a down when Whittingham took over and he finished the winnigest quarterback in Utah football history. Brett Ratliff, who was a junior college transfer, went on to the NFL and Wynn was putting together a solid career until injury took him down.
The biggest beef isn’t the growth of Utah’s quarterbacks, it’s that many fans felt he put all his eggs in one basket this season and it cost the team. The quarterback spot has been a mess because the team was not prepared for Wynn going down, though they should have been. Is that a fatal flaw? Probably not, because the team still managed to bounce back and finish with a respectable record.
Plus, he’s recruited two potentially solid talents – arguably the best quarterback prospect in California, Travis Wilson, and the best player in the state of Utah, Chase Hansen. Both are expected to be here for spring ball, so hopefully he’s learned from his mistake and won’t allow the team to live or die by Wynn, who is injury prone, again.
AB: What is Whittingham's approach to recruiting and how would you rate his efforts?
S: Whittingham has been a very solid recruiter at Utah and has been responsible for the best classes in school history. He loves to recruit speed and that’s what he’s done on the defense the last few years and generally, you’re going to see that his recruiting is stacked with solid defensive prospects. He’s also not afraid to recruit on athletic ability alone, taking high school athletes who played quarterback and moving them around to other positions, on either the offensive or defensive end.
AB: What kind of fit would you see Whittingham being with the Big Ten? How do you think he would fare at that level?
S: I think the Big Ten would suit Whittingham well because of his defensive roots and the conference is more known for strong, aggressive defenses than explosive offenses. I think if you’re going to win big at the BCS level, you do need to kind of lean on your defense, as has been the case with Alabama and LSU recently, and that’s definitely what Penn State would do under Whittingham. I don’t know if Penn State fans want that or if they’d like a coach who has a bit more offensive flavor.
AB: How does Whittingham handle off-field team issues (i.e. academics, legal issues, NCAA rules)?
S: Utah hasn’t had a sniff of scandal under Whittingham and the program consistently performs well in academics. He’s tough and won’t let the players get away with much of anything. But he’s also not a dictator and has been known to give players a second chance, like Nai Fotu, who earlier this year was arrested for DUI. But again, there has been no scandal and hardly any embarrassing matters off the field for the program.
AB: Is Whittingham prepared to become the face of a program in this kind of turmoil?
I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I think he’s matured as a coach and because of that, he’s more equipped today to handle those pressures. Does he want to deal with that mess? Are the fans going to be excited with the hire and give him time to build the team into his own – or are they going to be out for blood from day one? Here in Utah, he has it made. Would he at Penn State?
AB: Any general thoughts about Whittingham and Penn State?
S: Penn State is definitely a storied program that can compete for the national championship far easier than Utah. It also doesn’t hurt his best bud Urban Meyer is coaching at Ohio State. With that said, Whittingham has zero ties to the area, either as a coach or player, and his roots are almost entirely in Utah (he grew up in Provo, Utah, played at BYU, coached at BYU, joined the Utah staff in 1994 and has been here ever since). Hard to convince a coach who’s been with a program for 17 years, helped build it up from nothing to now BCS level, that the grass is greener.