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About Utah: NFL labor woes stir memories for University of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

Published: Sunday, March 6 2011 10:35 p.m. MST

As close as his finger is pressed to the pulse of football, University of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has about as much inside knowledge as you and I whether the players' union and NFL owners will resolve their labor dispute, which went into overtime this week with the deadline extended another seven days, and avoid a lockout.

But if they don't?

"I think I have about three snaps left in me," he says. "If there's someone who needs a guy for three downs, let me know."

At 51, Whittingham already has a lot of cool football memories — coaching the Utes to that perfect season and No. 2 national finish, being named national coach of the year, being named the league's defensive player of the year his senior year at BYU — but remembering the last time the NFL players and owners couldn't agree on how to split up their billions is one of the coolest.

It got him into the National Football League.

Some 23 and a half years ago, early in the 1987 season, he played three games for the Los Angeles Rams — this was before the franchise moved to St. Louis — and has never forgotten the experience.

"When the USFL (United States Football League) folded I figured that was it," says Kyle, who briefly played professionally for the now defunct USFL's Denver Gold and New Orleans Breakers in 1983 and 1984.

But in 1987 a dispute over how to divide league revenue — the same dispute that's going on today — compelled the NFL Players Union to announce a strike. Overnight, every team was scrambling for what became known as replacement players.

Kyle's father and ex-NFL player, Fred Whittingham, was on head coach John Robinson's staff at the Rams at the time. He happened to have the home phone numbers of a couple of pretty good players.

The Rams called Kyle and his brother Cary and asked if they'd like jobs.

"I jumped at the chance," remembers Kyle. "When football's in your blood it's hard to pass up an opportunity like that."

He got to play with his brother and for his dad — although he wasn't coached directly by him. Fred coached the outside linebackers; Kyle played inside linebacker and was coached by Fritz Shurmur.

The Rams went 1-2 in those three games. They began with a 37-10 loss on the road to the New Orleans Saints, a game punctuated by long-suffering but now suddenly encouraged Saints fans chanting "Stay on strike."

Week 2 featured a 31-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Anaheim. Kyle lined up across from Mike Webster, the Steelers future Hall-of-Fame center — "a guy I idolized."

A number of veteran NFL players crossed the strike lines and played anyway, a list that, besides Webster, included Lawrence Taylor, Randy White, Too Tall Jones, Joe Montana, Howie Long, Tony Dorsett and Steve Largent — stars who had too much to lose in bonus incentives to stay away.

Whittingham was one of several future successful coaches to gain NFL playing time due to the labor dispute — among them Sean Payton, the current Saints coach and last year's Super Bowl winner, and Mike Stoops, now coach at the University of Arizona. Both played for the replacement Bears.

After the replacement Rams lost on the road to the Atlanta Falcons, 24-20, on Oct. 18, the strike ended — albeit without a resolution to the dispute — and Whittingham's NFL career ended as quickly as it started.

"It was a great three weeks," he says 23 seasons later. "I'd have probably played for free."

Still would, for that matter, although for slightly fewer downs.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. E-mail: benson@desnews.com.

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