Mike Sorensen: Mendenhall, Whittingham can handle adversity

Published: Sunday, Nov. 6 2011 9:01 p.m. MST

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall, left, and Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham talk before the University of Utah and Brigham Young University play football Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in Provo, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Both coaches started the same time, getting hired within a week of each other in December of 2004. They started their first seasons as head coaches in the fall of 2005.

So, after six years and a couple of months, how are Utah's Kyle Whittingham and BYU's Bronco Mendenhall doing?

Would you believe that as of Saturday at just after 8 o'clock, just after Utah's 34-21 victory over Arizona, they enjoy the exact same 62-24 records?

You could argue all day about which coach has been more successful.

Let's see, Whittingham has a better bowl record (5-1) than Mendenhall (4-2).

But Mendenhall has won more outright conference championships (2 to 1)

But Whittingham has a better record (15-9) against BCS schools than Mendenhall (10-10).

On the other hand, Mendenhall has produced more academic all-Americans.

But in head to head games, Whittingham has the edge, 4-3.

Yeah, but Mendenhall's game-day gray T-shirt looks cooler than Whittingham's all-black sweatsuit.

You could go on and on.

But besides their starting dates and exact-same records, there is something else the two coaches have in common.

They're both extremely resilient. At least that's the m.o. of the teams they coach.

It's been shown time and again that it's impossible to keep a Mendenhall- or Whittingham-coached team down for very long.

In nearly every season the two coaches have worked, each has found a way to come back from adversity.

It goes back to their first years on the job when both started off kind of shakily.

Mendenhall lost three of his first four games, before winning five of his next six to finish with a 6-6 record and a bowl appearance.

Whittingham's first team endured a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season and looked to be out of the bowl picture with starting quarterback Brian Johnson injured just before the BYU game. However the Utes rallied with an upset over the Cougars in Provo and a decisive bowl win over Georgia Tech.

In 2006, after losing two of three to start the season, Mendenhall's Cougars reeled off 10 straight wins, including a whipping of Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The next year was a repeat — 10 straight wins after a 1-2 start.

In 2009, the Cougars rebounded from a midseason whipping by TCU to finish with five straight wins.

Then last year, the Cougars came back from a 2-5 start to finish with a winning record of 7-6 and were just a blocked field goal away from finishing the season on a six-game winning streak.

In Whittingham's second year, his team was 4-4 before winning four of five to finish the season. In 2007, the Utes suffered that ignoble 27-0 loss to UNLV to fall to 1-3, only to recover nicely with seven straight wins.

Last year, the Utes started strong before losing back-to-back games to TCU and Notre Dame. But just when the season seemed to be unraveling, the Utes came from behind to beat San Diego State and then BYU for another 10-3 season.

That brings us to this year, which is another perfect example of the resiliency of each coach.

The Cougars looked to be on their way to a mediocre record when they lost two of their first three games including the humiliating 54-10 loss to the Utes. But comeback wins over Central Florida and Utah State got them going, and before you knew it, they had won five straight and were bowl-eligible for the seventh straight year.

Similarly Utah has fought back after being left on the junk heap of the Pac-12 Conference. The Utes had lost four straight Pac-12 games and with their starting quarterback out for the year, things were looking bleak.

But suddenly they won two games quite comfortably, albeit against a pair of the league's poorer teams, and now it looks like the Utes will be heading to a bowl game for the ninth straight season with a 5-4 record with three games to play.

Where will the two coaches go from here?

The Cougars should win out and finish 10-3, 9-4 at the worst. The game at Hawaii will be tough, but Utah State rallied from 21 points down in the second half to win in Honolulu over the weekend. A bowl game against the third-place team from Conference USA such as Southern Miss or Tulsa should also be very winnable.

The Utes will have a tough game against a suddenly resurgent UCLA team this week at home. But they should win the two games after that against a couple of beat-up teams with little motivation. That would put them at least 7-5 with an opportunity to perhaps play in the Sun Bowl against an ACC team or in their second straight Las Vegas Bowl against someone like TCU.

With a lot of young players, both the Cougars and Utes expect to be better in 2012, although with tougher schedules.

But no matter what difficulties befall either program, you can bet Whittingham and Mendenhall will find a way to fight through them. That's just what they do.

Email: sor@desnews.com

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