Once a consideration at ASU, Whittingham feels at home in Utah
Kyle Whittingham has been at Utah for so long that he wonders if people look at him sideways.
“It certainly is not the norm for a college football coach,” Whittingham said, chuckling. “It’s an anomaly of sorts to be able to be in the same place for as long as I have and it’s really been a blessing.”
Nobody knows how close Whittingham came to leaving Salt Lake City four years ago, but sometime after the Dennis Erickson firing, before the June Jones fiasco, and long before Todd Graham was hired, ASU officials and Whittingham chatted about the possibility of him becoming the next Sun Devils football coach. A source in each program confirmed this.
Whittingham’s reputation as a no-nonsense, detail-oriented, fundamentals-based coach was attractive to the Sun Devils in the wake of Erickson’s perceived shortcomings in those areas.
The conversation never advanced to the point of serious consideration, and it is an odd twist of fate that Erickson now serves as an assistant head coach under Whittingham, but as No. 4 Utah (5-0) prepares to host ASU on Saturday with College Football Playoff aspirations, it’s intriguing to wonder how different ASU’s program would look under the soft-spoken but highly driven Whittingham.
On the one hand, he’s taken a team farther than any ASU coach has since Bruce Snyder had the 1996 team within seconds of an undefeated season and a potential claim to the national title.
Utah went 13-0 in 2008 and defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to finish as the nation’s lone undefeated team. The Utes still finished second to Florida (13-1) in the final AP poll at a time when the system was even more flawed than it is now.
On the other hand, Whittingham found himself under the microscope in 2012 and 2013 when he recorded back-to-back 5-7 seasons in his second and third years in the Pac-12. Some critics wondered if his defensive pedigree (he was the Utes’ defensive coordinator from 1995-2004) was a hindrance in the offense-happy Pac-12.
There is also Graham’s personality to consider. The Sun Devils were at a low point in their marketing efforts when Erickson’s 2011 team collapsed down the stretch and all manner of rumors — founded and unfounded — started flying.
Graham’s salesman’s approach and exhaustive community appearances were exactly what ASU needed to restore the faith of the boosters and fan base. Whittingham’s low-key personality may not have meshed with ASU’s needs at the time.
Rumors of Whittingham leaving surfaced again earlier this year and they will likely surface again this offseason if the Utes keep up this pace while other programs (USC for example) have openings.
Every college football coach in the country will tell you he is perfectly content in his current post, but when Whittingham says it with the weight of 22 straight years at his back, you want to believe he actually means it; that he isn’t eyeing the next opportunity; that he has found happiness and recognizes that it, too, is the goal.
“First of all, it’s home,” he said of Utah. “I grew up a big portion of my life in the state. I moved up here from California in eighth grade and so I’ve been in the intermountain area essentially ever since.
“Almost my entire family is here. I love to ski, I love the outdoors. It just fits me. This environment, this place fits me.”