It is a question that nobody has seemed to ponder — simply because current Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has led the Utes to the Sugar Bowl, and ultimately the BCS, and to many that gives Whit a pass.
Never mind that it was current Utah State head coach Gary Andersen’s defense that helped get Utah to New Orleans in the first place, shutting down a potent Alabama team to a total of 208 yards, 31 of those rushing.
Andersen then left for Utah State, and has rebuilt the program in just four years into a Division I power and perennial bowl contender, ascending to the Mountain West Conference where it will begin play in 2013.
What makes the possibility of an upwardly mobile move by Andersen strange is that Andersen and Whit happen to be very good friends, stemming all the way back to 1992 at Idaho State when both coached defense.
Since that time the two have coached together at Utah on multiple occasions: first under Ron McBride, then under Urban Meyer and of course, Andersen did so under Whit.
Each time, Andersen coached under Whittingham’s watchful eye as the defensive line coach — while Whit was the defensive coordinator.
But times, they are a-changin…as the old song lyrics go…and Whittingham is currently in the throes of an abysmal 2-4 season that saw the Utes lose in overtime to Andersen’s Utah State squad, a team that is 5-2 and rolling toward another bowl.
What’s more is the Utes barely upended BYU — a team it throttled 54-10 last year — and so Whit may be on his way out if things keep going the way they are. It’s just a hunch, but you have to wonder how much losing Dr. Chris Hill, Utah’s athletic director, can take.
He’s certainly not used to doing much of the L word over the past decade.
The sad part is that both Andersen and Whit are loyal as lapdogs to each other, reportedly calling one another every week to see how life is going. They’ve been buddies for over two decades now — so how awkward might life become if Andersen were to get a phone call from Hill?
Yet in a business that is predicated on wins and losses, you wonder if Andersen — a former Ute center under Coach Mac — and Whittingham, who played at BYU under LaVell Edwards as a linebacker, will retain their friendship if Andersen were to receive an offer to coach at Utah.
There is the fact that Whittingham has been around the state — first as a graduate assistant at BYU, then from Idaho State to Utah — before being promoted to defensive coordinator under McBride.
And there is the fact that Whit’s father Fred was the Utes’ defensive coordinator before Kyle arrived in Salt Lake City.
And I’m sure there are many who will say there is something in the rule book about paying your dues.
Without question, Whittingham has done that, and then some. But showing your allegiance to a team and program has nothing to do with what is the bottom line in Division I athletics, and that’s winning.
And frankly, since the Utes have been in the Pac-12 Whittingham hasn’t done much in that regard. When the Utes were in the Mountain West Conference, Whit went 58-20.
In the two years since Utah been 4-7 in Pac-12 conference play, 5-4 out of conference, for an overall record of 10-9.
Some will point to the Utes going to the Sun Bowl last year as proof that Utah is in the right conference — and therefore it still has the right man for the job.
But if you think things are bad now, just look at the Utes’ upcoming schedule: at No. 8 Oregon State — a team that took BYU to the wood shed, 42-24, in Provo — become coming home for two winnable games against Cal and Mike Leach’s struggling Washington State bunch, and hitting the road for a game at Washington. After that, it’s a trip back to Salt Lake to face a vastly improved Arizona squad under Rich Rod and the new-found rivalry game at Colorado.
Funny, but it’s hard to see four wins coming out of those six remaining games — unless the Utes pull off an upset against either smoking hot OSU, the athletic Huskies or the explosive Wildcats.
It’s a tough road to hoe for Utah, and for Whittingham — who probably has about one more bad year before the questions start up about whether he is the right guy for the job.
Considering that before membership in the Pac-12 the Utes were going to the Fiesta, Sugar and Poinsettia Bowls with great regularity, it is hard to see how this upwardly move to a big-name conference has actually helped it thrive in an environment without a coach like Meyer at the helm.
Because that’s the bottom line here, Whittingham is not Meyer, nor will he ever be. Whit is a throwback, the kind of coach who delegates the majority of the responsibility to others a la LaVell, his first boss.
For starters, the decision to hire Brian Johnson, his 24-year-old former star quarterback as an offensive coordinator — it raised eyebrows not only statewide, but nationally.
And while Whit’s decision– which passed over several worthy and possibly more qualified candidates for that OC job — made many wonder if he just had too much power, the fact is, that decision may ultimately cost him his job.
And so, waiting in the wings will be Andersen, a Meyer disciple who has changed very little about his coaching style, instead borrowing and utilizing many of the spread offense schemes that made the Utes and Meyer such a power in the 2000 era.
In just the past two years, Whit first brought in Norm Chow as his OC to usher in the Pac-12 era — and Chow single-handedly transformed the Utes into a plodding, pro-style team before taking the job as Hawaii head coach.
Then Whit called a do-over, reverted to spread principles and hired Johnson, his Sugar Bowl architect and magic man.
At the end of the day, however, it all goes back to Andersen — who made Utah’s defense even more formidable after Urban was gone, if that was even possible — once Andersen was named the team’s defensive coordinator.
But the name of the game is loyalty with these two — and Andersen has a great thing going in Logan.
Not only that, Gary — with a career record of 24-31 as a head coach — may be making strides with a 12-8 record over the past two years at USU, but he has a ways to go to catch up to Whittingham, who at Utah is 68-29.
There is no question that the program Whit has been a part of for so many years may be at odds, not only schematically but also philosophically, with the foundation that Mac, Meyer, Whit and Andersen have created.
Did it all start and end with Chow? That’s what many Ute insiders believed — but now it seems that may have been false, as the Utes did go 8-5 last year.
Others will point to Whit playing against improved teams within the Pac-12, which is accurate as well. Todd Graham came from Pitt and has revitalized Arizona State, Rich Rod has done the same at Arizona, Jim Mora Jr. is doing a masterful job at UCLA and Mike Leach, a BYU graduate, will get the job done at Wazzu in good time.
USC is off its NCAA probation and is back to playing Top 10 football. Then there’s Oregon State and Washington.
But how long will that argument hold water? Sure, the talent in the Pac-12 is as vast as the Great Salt Lake, but if the Utes’ depth dries up as quickly as it seems against these superior Pac-12 squads the program will need an infusion.
And that’s where Andersen, and his philosophies, will come into view. He has done a masterful job of recruiting at USU, finding Chuckie Keeton — who is without question the state’s best quarterback — as well as players from far-flung places and unknown walk-ons, just like Urban did at Utah.
He has done the best with what he has, and that’s not much. If you don’t think Hill was paying attention when the Aggies outclassed the Utes in Logan, you are sadly mistaken.
That Andersen will stay at Utah State with the pending move to the Mountain West tells you one thing: Not only is he planning on not going anywhere, he’s making plans to stick around the state for a while. And it might even be in Salt Lake City.
For now, however, BYU grads like Whit and Leach are having a hard time winning in a vastly better Pac-12. Both are winless and in danger of missing a bowl trip.
Naturally, Meyer and McBride had a huge role to play in the Utes going to the Pac-12 Conference — where the program has now become whipping posts for larger, more athletic teams — but some of the credit, insist some Utah fans, must also go to Whit for helping them get there.
How much of that credit is given, however, remains to be seen and that chapter will be played out for the remainder of this season and next, as the once-proud Utes, and Whit, lick their wounds and struggle to survive in a brutal conference.
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