The Case For Kyle
He wins. He's done it before. He did it this season. Bowl games in 8 of 10 seasons, including a 2008 Sugar Bowl season and 9 wins in 2014 against arguably the toughest schedule in the country. You know what you're getting in Kyle Whittingham. He's going to work hard, and expect the same hard work, hours, and dedication from his staff and players. Whittingham knows that the Utes are at a talent disadvantage against most teams in the Pac-12. That means extra game preparation and time spent out-scheming his opponents is required. If it takes 120 hours a week, that's what Kyle is willing to do to get that W on Saturday.
Competitiveness. Pin Kyle Whittingham against a wall and he responds, pretty much every time. The drive that Whittingham shows to win on the field is top-notch. You have to respect how competitive the man is and how much he wants to win.
Whittingham has always done a good job of finding diamonds in the rough. Whether that's in recruiting (and a lot of credit goes to his staff) or in coaching (turns nobodies into somebodies) his teams and program have generally exceeded expectations based on coaching and player personnel. He's been tremendous at coaching people up in all areas.
With Kyle Whittingham you're going to get consistency. You may never, and probably won't ever, get back to the days of consistent 10 win seasons. That said, 3-9 years under his watch aren't happening. Rock bottom for Utah football with Whittingham isn't that low. He'll generally win you anywhere from 5 to 8 games per season with the occasional big year mixed in, and that will more often than not mean bowl appearances.
Whittingham has been a 'Utah Man' for 20 years, transitioning from his days as a linebacker at BYU to someone that bleeds that crimson red as much as anyone I've come across. Everything about him is red and Utah. His old bike that he rides to and from practice is even red. Good luck finding anyone that has meant as much or personifies what Utah football is as much as Kyle Whittingham.
The Case Against Kyle
I was having a conversation last spring about the NBA and was speaking with someone that covers the league for a living. I wondered aloud why Lionel Hollins didn't have a job and which team would snatch him up considering what he did for the Memphis Grizzlies. In his five seasons, Hollins' teams had improved their winning percentage each season culminating in a conference finals appearance in 2013. He was promptly fired. What this expert told me is that Hollins had a ceiling to him and was a builder, but wasn't ever going to lead Memphis to a title. Hollins had great success and built something, a strong foundation built on teaching toughness and great defense. In that though, the team had hit their ceiling under Hollins. It was going to take a new coach to take that next step, so Memphis removed Hollins and brought in Dave Joerger to take their team to the next level. Is Utah in the same boat under Kyle Whittingham?
Whittingham was the perfect coach for the Utes in the Mountain West Conference. He instilled discipline in his teams and got the most out of a lot of kids that had a chip on their shoulder for not being recruited by BCS-level schools. A lot of these kids were afterthoughts for other schools. Unlike the recruits that end up at the likes of USC, Texas, or Alabama, they haven't been told how great they are since their freshmen year of high school by everyone they come across. Whittingham could out-scheme and out-coach pretty much everyone the Utes crossed paths with in the Mountain West. The only coaches that could come close to matching his abilities were Gary Patterson and Bronco Mendenhall. The only two teams that Whittingham really ever lost to once in awhile were TCU and BYU. Utah is now playing the equivalent (and then some) of TCU and BYU each week in the Pac-12. I'm not saying Whittingham-led teams can't knock off the rest of the conference. They can and they have. They will continue to do so. The question though is whether or not they can continue to do it at a consistent level.
This job may to be too big for Whittingham. Running a Mountain West-level program is difficult. Running a Pac-12 level program, and one where the fan base expects to be competing for conference championships in the near future, is a completely different animal. There are a whole new set of challenges in the Pac-12 with increased media coverage, an expanded recruiting base, increased fan and booster expectations, increased stress and internal politics, higher level players, increased egos, and more and more fans criticizing each and every mistake. In this day and age of message boards, twitter, and instant news, an old-school coach like Kyle Whittingham is learning to face these new challenges on the fly which distracts from what he excels at.
Now on to the current mess involving other coaches. It's no secret now that assistants haven't exactly loved working for Whittingham recently. Whether that's been the case over his entire 10 years or if this is a new Pac-12 issue is unknown to me, but many members of the 2014 staff were unhappy enough to look for other opportunities or to have already left for jobs that, on paper, are lateral moves at best. The reputation has now leaked out and has turned into a national story (albeit a small one). Whittingham is going to have a tough time bringing in high quality coaches to fill out a staff. That's ok if you're in the Mountain West, but leaning on former players or inexperienced coaches that he's familiar with just won't cut it in the Pac-12, especially on the recruiting trail where it's often about relationships and who you know. Good teams have good coaches from top to bottom. Under Whittingham, bringing in high-level coaches will be difficult.
In the court of public opinion, and that can win out sometimes, Whittingham and Chris Hill are tied to each other now. Approval ratings for both have dropped and until a resolution of some kind is put in place they will continue to be low. What is most important to Whittingham? What is most important to Hill? If keeping their jobs is the most important thing to both (as opposed to the betterment of the program) then they'll need to work this all out together. Now I'm not saying that Whittingham and Hill keeping their jobs is not the best thing for the program, I'm just trying to look at a scenario in which the possibility exists that both men put themselves ahead of their employer. Whittingham being fired is a black eye for Hill (from a fan perspective) that he may not be able to overcome unless an exciting, proven coach can he brought in. As silly as it may sound, Hill has to weigh the pulse of the fan base. They're a part of this and if the public sentiment is that Hill is to blame or if he doesn't satisfy the fans with the proper coach, calls for his head will become louder and louder. Long-term, the best course of action for the betterment of the program may be to let Kyle Whittingham go, find an AD to step in for Hill at the end of the 2015 calendar year and let both Hill and the new AD find another coach together. Short term, the best course of action is to give Whittingham and his staff extensions (for the purpose of security), let Whittingham's pool of money for assistants increase so he can bring in some high-end coordinators, but also let Hill have input on who comes in, who stays from the current staff, and who goes. So the question is whether or not Utah wants to be consistent and generally win 5 to 8 games each season with bowl games 3 out of every 4 years, or if the aim is higher for the program, although the bottom may be much lower under someone else? The grass can be greener on the other side, but it isn't every time. That's the risk you take. There's really no right or wrong answer right now. Only time will tell as to whether or not the right choice was made, when they do in fact make it.
The Case For and Against Kyle Whittingham
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