Doug Robinson: Whittinghams: Like father like son

Whittingham following in his dad's footsteps

Published: Monday, Feb. 16 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

After coaching for two years at Idaho State University, Kyle Whittingham, left, came to the University of Utah to coach under his father, Fred Whittingham, right.

Provided by Whittingham family

Last in a two-part series

When all the cheering stopped and the parades were finished and the Sugar Bowl victory was history and the polls were completed and the trophies handed out, there was only one thing missing for Kyle Whittingham, the University of Utah's football coach.

The old man.

Fred Whittingham, his father, coach and mentor, never got to see Kyle become a head coach. He missed the four bowl victories in four tries, including the historic win over Alabama in last month's Sugar Bowl. He missed the No. 2 national ranking and the unbeaten season.

He missed the national coach of the year honor. He missed the victory parade that sent his son and his team through the streets of Salt Lake City. Fred was there for all the formative years, but not the victory lap.

Kyle still keeps his father's old playbooks and notebooks in his office, although he does not refer to them nearly as much as he did early in his coaching career.

When he was agonizing over whether to accept a head coaching offer from BYU or Utah, he drove to Provo and visited his father's grave. He still chokes up when asked to discuss his father, which is why he chooses to say little on the subject.

"I've asked Kyle if he feels like his dad is there," says his mother, Nancy. "He says there are times during a game when he feels like he's right there next to him."

Kyle Whittingham literally tried to walk in his father's shoes. As a grade school kid, he coaxed his mother into letting him wear Fred's sneakers to school one day. They were size 13 — six sizes too big — but he wore them anyway. By lunchtime, he had had enough of the sloppy fit and walked home to change shoes.

He has spent the rest of his life — and you saw this coming, didn't you? — walking in his father's shoes.

You cannot discuss Kyle Whittingham without discussing Fred, his larger-than-life father. You must know the father to know the son. As Kyle says so frequently, everything he does as a coach comes from his father. When Whittingham was honored as the national coach of the year at a ceremony in Houston last month, he acknowledged the great coaches he had learned from — LaVell Edwards, Ron McBride and Urban Meyer — and then paid tribute to his father.

"This is where it gets difficult," he said, pausing to control his rising emotions. "The coach that was the most influential in my life without a doubt was my father. He passed away five years ago. … He is without a doubt the best coach I've been around. I wish he were here. But I think he knows what's going on. I dedicate this to him."

Whittingham's bond with his father is unique, partly because they spent so much time together and in so many roles. Fred was Kyle's father and childhood hero, his college position coach, his professional position coach, his coaching mentor, his boss, and finally, in a strange twist of fate, his subordinate. They spent years working side by side.

Fred held a deep love and respect for football, and Kyle breathed it all in and loved the game, too, but not for the same reasons. The game saved Fred from himself, although it also killed him eventually. Fred probably would not have traded one day of his playing career for an extra day on earth.

As I watched Kyle during the celebration that followed Utah's big, nationally televised win over TCU earlier this season, I suspected that his father was in his thoughts. But when I asked Kyle about this the next day, he declined to discuss it, explaining that it was still too difficult, even five years after his father's passing. He did say this much: "No question I was thinking about my dad. But I think about him anyway, and not just in football settings. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of him in some way."

Mad Dog, wild men

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