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.
So it has all worked out. From the beginning, Whittingham has had a plan and he has followed it, preparing for each stage of his life like a coach preparing a game plan. That included marriage.
Whittingham met Jamie Daniels, a BYU professor's daughter, when he was 14 years old, shortly after moving to Provo following his father's retirement from a professional playing career. She lived four houses down the street.
"He was really shy," Jamie says. "My friends and I would flirt with him, and he was so embarrassed."
They have known each other for 35 years now. The three men Whittingham was closest to have passed away — his father, Fred; Craig Garrick, his childhood friend, workout partner and teammate; and Doug Scovil, a BYU assistant coach. Jamie remains one of his longest friendships.
They began dating at 16. During the week, Kyle usually showed up at Jamie's house and raided the refrigerator. They went together for some eight years, except for a one-year breakup in college. They reunited — "I fought to get him back," says Jamie — and put off marriage until Kyle completed his education.
"I like to be in control of circumstances," he says. "I wanted to wait on marriage until I had my degree and was in a good situation to support a wife."
"We weren't young and in love and stupid," says Jamie "We still did stuff with our friends and got our education. He wanted to be able to support me."
His plan unfolded methodically. He finished his college playing career in 1981, graduated from BYU with a degree in educational psychology and began his professional playing career in 1982, married in 1983, finished his professional playing career in 1984, began his coaching career in 1985, completed his master's degree in professional leadership in 1986, took his first college coaching job in 1987 and that was that.
Jamie completed her nursing degree while Kyle played for the Denver Gold in 1983, maintaining a long-distance romance, and married that winter. She worked as a full-time nurse until the birth of their first child.
She has not been surprised by his success. "I always knew he was smart," Jamie says. "In high school he could get good grades without trying. He'd just go to class and get an A."
The Whittinghams have four children — Tyler, 23, a former missionary and Brighton High lineman who now attends Utah; Melissa, 21, a Utah student and former Ute cheerleader; Alex, 16, a Brighton High linebacker, and Kylie, 10.
After Whittingham signed his initial million-dollar deal with Utah, the family resisted the temptation to sell their cramped home and buy something bigger, simply because they didn't want to leave their neighbors. They relented 18 months ago and bought a two-story home on a cul-de-sac near their old east-bench home.
Unlike most coaches, Whittingham has enjoyed stability in a vagabond profession. He has had two jobs in 21 years, and they have been charmed years. As a young defensive coordinator at Idaho State, he was the only coach retained after a win-less season. His father Fred, who was Utah's defensive coordinator, hired him at Utah, and the kid proved himself. When Fred took an NFL job, his son replaced him.
Four years ago, through a perfect storm of events, Whittingham found himself, almost overnight, the hot coaching commodity. In 2004, Meyer left Utah for Florida following a 12-0 season and BYU fired Gary Crowton following a 5-6 season, and both schools pursued Whittingham as their next head coach.
"It was agonizing," says Whittingham of the decision. He lost 11 pounds during the four days he wrestled with the decision.
He had grown up in Provo and played for BYU, as had his father and three brothers. He had coached 10 years at Utah and his family had lived in the same home all that time. His siblings urged him to go to BYU; his wife and kids were for Utah.
"It was a split camp, family-wise," he says. "I had so much invested here, and my kids knew Utah. They would have needed psychotherapy if I had gone to BYU. But it's also a big draw to return to your alma mater. I wanted to make sure."
The chance to rebuild BYU after three straight losing seasons appealed to him. Where was he going to take Utah in the wake of the unbeaten 2004 season? Former BYU players called Whittingham urging him to return to his alma mater.
He consulted three general authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — President Henry B. Eyring, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Elder Cecil O. Samuelson, the BYU president. "Is this a church calling?" he asked them, referring to the offer of the job at BYU. Each assured him it wasn't.
He drove to Provo and toured the campus, trying to get a feel for what he should do. He sought answers in an LDS temple. He visited his father's grave. Finally, he told BYU officials he would accept the job.
"Then almost immediately he didn't feel good about it," Jamie says.
He called BYU officials and said he had changed his mind. He told Utah he was still a Ute. It has worked out happily for all involved. BYU gave the job to Bronco Mendenhall, who rewarded the Cougars with conference championships in 2006 and 2007. Whittingham brought the Utes back to the heights they achieved under Meyer and then some in 2008.
"The whole season was just amazing, and the Sugar Bowl was the crown jewel," Whittingham says.
Like most coaches he is obsessive with work and hours. "The satisfaction your derive from coaching, it's a powerful, powerful hold," he says.
Like Meyer, Whittingham remains a little aloof, professionally distant, although he has warmed over the years, just as his father did. He is a private man, now 49 years old, who still lifts weights and does daily cardio sessions, sometimes conducting interviews on an elliptical trainer.
"If he doesn't get his workout in, it drives him crazy," Jamie says.
He describes himself as anal. He is organized right down to color coding the clothes in his closet and keeping his office neat, clean and orderly.
He's a man's man, like his old man, but (and this is also like his father) he's also soft-hearted. He and a young nephew exchange phone calls throughout a typical week just to visit, and the coach receives frequent, unannounced visits from several special needs people he has befriended. They sit in his office and chat away while he works.
He is religious, but doesn't — in his words — "wear it on my sleeve." He reads scriptures nightly and teaches elders quorum on Sundays after years of teaching the Young Men classes. He speaks at firesides almost monthly, but prefers to let his players have the experience. There are nearly 50 returned LDS missionaries on his team.
During the week leading up to the Sugar Bowl, the Utes won admirers in New Orleans. Several bowl officials commented to the coach and his wife that they had never seen coaches who associated so closely with their players or spent so much time with their families. Instead of keeping to themselves or hanging out in the hospitality suite, as many coaching staffs do, they played games with the players in the hotel game room or spent time with their families when they weren't preparing for the game.
"A couple of the Sugar Bowl people said they had never seen anything like it," Jamie says.
After the Sugar Bowl, Whittingham carried Kylie onto the stage to accept the winner's trophy. Seeing the rest of Whittingham's family down on the field, Sugar Bowl officials waved for them to come up on stage as well.
As Jamie tells it, "Afterward, the Sugar Bowl president (Ronnie Burns Sr.) told me, 'We broke all the rules for you guys because we've never let family come up there before, but you guys are so different, so family-oriented, that we made an exception.' "
Back in his office, Whittingham is opening mail as he talks. There is no time to be wasted. He and his coaches went from the Sugar Bowl to the recruiting trail, and now they are cutting up film of last season to evaluate their play and filling vacated coaching positions and getting ready for spring ball. There was little time for celebration and reflection.
"That's one of the trappings of coaching — you never have an opportunity to appreciate what you've accomplished," he says.82 comments on this story
He might have created a monster last season in producing a team by which he will forever be measured — a standard that few coaches ever achieve — but he isn't complaining.
"That's a good problem to have," he says. "But each year is its own entity. Each year is unique. Each year you're trying to be as good as you can be."
Tomorrow: Fred Whittingham's influence on his son Kyle.
Editor's note: Doug Robinson's son, Collin, plays on the University of Utah football team.