Mike Terry, Deseret News
First in a two-part series
Kyle Whittingham is late. This almost never happens. He prides himself on punctuality and organization, but this morning he arrived at his office a half-hour tardy for an appointment.
"I was stuck in an airplane on the tarmac for 2 1/2 hours," he offers with an apology.
Whittingham was bound to be late on his frenetic post-season victory lap. He has been running from one errand to the next since his University of Utah football team finished its 13-and-0, Sugar-Bowl-victorious, No. 2-ranked, stick-it-to-the-BCS season. There have been parades and halftime appearances and a coach-of-the-year trophy to accept and coaching conventions and recruiting visits and speeches and firesides and banquets and interviews and even job offers. One day Al Davis, the Oakland Raiders eccentric owner who once hired Whittingham's father Fred as a defensive coach, called Whittingham after seeing him on TV at the Sugar Bowl and tried to hire him to coach the Raiders defense.
Everyone wants a piece of Whittingham.
"The phone won't stop ringing," says Helen Buchanon, his cheerful, harried secretary. "I feel like his agent." On her desk is a one-inch stack of printed e-mails requesting him for personal appearances, and next to it is a booked-up calendar that she is using to organize it all.
"It's impossible to make room for everybody," she says.
Whittingham, who has overcome his natural shyness over the years, is uneasy with all this personal attention. His first response when asked to do this interview: "Can you make this about the program?"
"Being in the spotlight is not my deal," says the coach, settling behind his desk. "There are people who don't like attention. Then there are people who call attention to themselves by pretending not to want attention. That's not me. It's all about the players."
Whittingham is getting attention anyway, and it's his own fault. If he hadn't coached the Utes to an unbeaten season and the kind of national respect that raised an outcry for a national playoff to new levels, none of this would be happening.
After 17 years behind the scenes as an assistant coach, Whittingham has had to adjust to his more visible role as head coach the last four years. He has grown into a head coach. He served his apprenticeship under successful head coaches and tried to learn something from each — the unflappability of LaVell Edwards, the recruiting ability of Ron McBride, the organization, discipline and meticulousness of Urban Meyer. And still he wasn't quite prepared for the job.
"Until you're in this chair, you don't appreciate the full scope of the position," he says.
Whittingham missed the actual coaching on the field, and for one season he coached the nickelbacks, but he decided his attention was needed elsewhere. He misses running the defense, but he still makes many of the play calls on the sideline during games, although he has relinquished more of those duties with each passing season. He is more CEO than coach these days, as are most of his peers. He has, necessarily, dropped the luxury of emotion that he could afford as an assistant — evident during the 2007 run-up-the-score win over Wyoming — and assumed more of the Edwardian sideline cool befitting a head coach.
"He has really developed into a great head football coach," says Ute assistant coach Morgan Scalley. "He has had to establish his own personality. That '04 team was Urban Meyer's personality — outspoken and eccentric. This '08 team was a reflection of coach Whittingham — grinders, tough guys who fought through adversity."
The Utes have grown with Whittingham, improving each season, from 7-5 to 8-5 to 9-4 to 13-0, each followed by a bowl victory. Armed with a new five-year, $6 million contract extension as a reward for the 2008 dream season, he's already working on the encore. Talk about a tough act to follow.
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