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
Fred Whittingham was exactly the kind of guy you picture when you think of an old-school NFL middle linebacker, which is what he was. His nickname was Mad Dog. He was a man's man, quiet, reserved, self-possessed, with a gravelly voice and movie-star good looks under a crop of thick iron hair. He was 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, with wide sloping shoulders.
He was in the middle of the action during the NFL's glory days. He tackled Gale Sayers, Jim Brown, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Johnny Unitas during a decade-long career that ended in 1971.
Several years ago, John Robinson, the Nevada-Las Vegas coach at the time and the former USC coaching legend, spotted Fred Whittingham, then a Ute assistant, on the opposite sideline before a game between their teams. Pointing him out to assistant coach Ken Niumatalolo, he said, "Fred Whittingham is the toughest person I've ever been around."
Niumatalolo agreed aloud that Whittingham must have been a tough coach, but Robinson corrected him. "No, he's the toughest human being I've ever been around."
Kyle has heard stories like this for years from his father's former playing and coaching peers. A sports writer once wrote of Fred, "He reminds the beholder of the stand-up, fists-extended breed of pugilist that vanished with the buffalo."
Fred Whittingham had the same thing Jerry Sloan has: An aura that says "Don't mess with me," and nobody did. He appeared menacing, and the source of it came from something other than his hulking physique. Fred's accountant once asked his secretary, "How come every time Fred Whittingham comes to the office you run away?" The secretary replied, "Because he's so scary." He scared players and even fellow coaches without even opening his mouth. Dick Felt, who coached defensive backs under Whittingham at BYU, recalls, "He would get 'strong' on the sideline and scare the daylights out of you. I'd have to let the smoke clear."
One of the favorite stories about Whittingham that has been told by everyone from former BYU coach LaVell Edwards to Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid (a former BYU lineman) is this: During the 1980 season, Junior Filiaga, a big BYU defensive lineman, flew into a rage and struck a referee during a game against Utah State. He was still out of control when he was brought to the sideline. When Whittingham grabbed him to try to calm him down, Filiaga raised his fists, ready to fight. Whittingham looked him in the eye and, without even raising his voice, said, "You've already made one mistake today; don't make another one." Filiaga dropped his hands and settled down immediately.
Everyone who played or coached with Whittingham has a story, but after a while they're all about the same, the theme of which is that he was a rough, tough man who suffered no fools, on the field or off. During his playing days, Fred lost his temper during a preseason scrimmage between the Saints and Chargers and slugged the opposing center because he was holding him. It triggered a bench-clearing brawl. Felt happened to be there at the time, trying to pick up some coaching tips to take back to BYU. When he recounted the fight to Fred years later, Fred smiled. "You didn't see all that happened," he said. He explained that during the brawl, Sid Gilman, the legendary Chargers coach and offensive guru, was heckling him, so Whittingham decked him, although he denied it to reporters at the time.
Late in life, Whittingham and Felt, another former pro player, became close friends, and they exchanged stories from their playing days. "Fred ran around with Mike Ditka and Doug Atkins and some other hard-nosed players," recalls Felt. "They were pretty wild. Fred would go in a bar and clean the place out if someone got out of line. He wouldn't back down from anybody if it got to that, and it did. I met a lot of his friends while I was recruiting in California over the years, and they all said that if they ever got in trouble they'd get Fred."
Asked once if there was a player whose career he had helped to mold, Jack Faulkner, the former director of pro personnel for the Rams, said, "Fred was a good player and a very good coach. I spent a lot of time getting him home to his wife."
Cougar on the growl
Sitting in her Provo home, Nancy Whittingham leafs through scrapbooks and old photos as she recalls her own memories of those days. "I don't know how I lived through it," she says. Nancy, a cheerleader, met and married Fred while they were students at BYU, ignoring her parents' worries about how a California-raised Mormon girl would fare with Mad Dog. She had her own concerns during Fred's playing days with the inappropriately named Saints, who, like other expansion teams of the day, were the NFL's Island of Misfit Toys.
"Oh, gosh, that group of Saints were wild men," says Nancy. "The players drank a lot, and so did everyone who hung out with them."
Felt saw Whittingham, a man who grew up with a chip on his shoulder, warm and thaw over the years. He joined the Mormon Church and became a doting father and grandfather.
"When he came to BYU, he made changes in his life, and not just because he was coming to BYU," says Felt. "He had had a rough life and knew he needed to change."
Fred, given up to foster care by his unmarried teenage mother near the end of the Great Depression, was nine months old when he was adopted by George and Hanna Bell Whittingham of Warick, R.I. It was not exactly a match made in heaven. Fred grew up angry, rebellious and restless, and there was friction in the home.
Fred caroused, brawled, skipped school to go to the beach, ran away from home and became acquainted with the local police force. At 16, he and his buddies stole a car and set out for Florida. When the car ran out of gas, they jumped a train, riding between the cars or in freight cars. They lived off what they could steal — milk from doorsteps, bread from delivery trucks. Two weeks later they returned home, but a year later they hit the road again. Whittingham, an all-state halfback, missed half of his senior football season because he took off on another cross-country tour.
In 1992, I tried to talk to Fred about his adoption and childhood, but he politely declined. There is no excuse for his teenage troubles, he said, and he didn't want kids to think there was.
He was considered the best high school football player in the New England area — many years later he would be voted one of the top 50 athletes in Rhode Island for the century — but, says Nancy, "No one in the East would touch him. He was well known. He was trouble."
In 1956, Hal Kopp, the University of Rhode Island football coach, was hired to coach at BYU, and, thinking Whittingham was worth the risk, brought him to Provo. Neither of them was Mormon, and they were a strange fit for the school. Fred smoked, drank and brawled.
"He had a lot of aggression in him," says Nancy.
Someone suggested that he take his aggressiveness to the boxing ring. He won all 21 of his fights, 15 by knockout, and claimed the Intermountain heavyweight championship and the regional Golden Gloves title in Las Vegas. He turned down offers to become a professional fighter.
Kopp lasted three seasons at BYU, one more than Fred. "They asked me to leave," Fred once told me. "I was going to leave anyway."
USC wanted to sign Whittingham, but couldn't give him a scholarship until the fall, six months away; Fred couldn't afford to wait that long. He finished his collegiate career at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
He was an intense, aggressive, physical player, and if that style of play broke his body it also probably saved his life. He was laid up in a hospital with a concussion when the plane carrying his Cal Poly teammates crashed into a mountainside, killing 14.
Not many NFL teams knew about Whittingham, a good player hidden away at a small school. The Rams bet on it and didn't bother wasting a draft pick on him; they knew they could sign him as a free agent, and did. Whittingham blew out his knee during his rookie season, and the Rams cut him, believing he would never play again.
The Philadelphia Eagles signed him immediately and made him their starting linebacker. He played six seasons for the Eagles, and then he was one of the players they served up to the New Orleans Saints as part their league-mandated donation to the expansion team.
In 1968, Whittingham was named NFL Player of the Week after collecting 19 tackles (13 unassisted) in the Saints' upset win over the Minnesota Vikings. He might have stayed in New Orleans for a while, but during a social gathering, Whittingham, who always spoke his mind, told off John Mecham, the owner of the team.
"He said something to Fred, and Fred told him, 'Why don't you shut up, you fat ass?' " says Nancy.
The Saints cut Whittingham, which turned out to be a blessing. He was quickly signed by the Dallas Cowboys and wound up starting in place of the injured Lee Roy Jordan on a team that was 11-2 before losing in the conference championship game. Whittingham returned to the Eagles for another year and finished his career in Boston.
Kyle, born during the 1959 football season, the first of Fred and Nancy's five children, spent his formative years following his father and his career. He had his father's playing cards and action photos on the walls of his room. He attended practices when he didn't have school, hung out in the locker room and ate at the training table. He became acquainted with his father's famous teammates — Jimmy Taylor, Bob Lilly, Calvin Hill, Roger Staubach. After practice, Fred and Kyle liked to stop at 7-Eleven for a Slurpee.
Sharing the playbook
When Fred's playing days were finished, he took a coaching job at Alhambra High School in California, and a year later he received a call from another new BYU coach — this time LaVell Edwards — asking him to return to the Cougars to coach linebackers.
The Whittinghams moved to Provo and settled into an east-bench neighborhood known as Oak Hills. The neighborhood was a who's who of famous Mormons and their descendants — Ballifs, Pinegars, Romneys, Coveys, McConkies, and the Edwardses.
Kyle, an eighth-grader, was the long-haired California teen who zipped around the neighborhood shirtless on a motorcycle. And then there was Fred's wild-man reputation.
"We were the talk of the neighborhood when we first came here," recalls Nancy. "We were not regular Oak Hills Mormons."
They settled in a small two-story house and reared their kids — Kyle, Cary, Brady, Fred Jr. and Julie. Jamie Daniels, who would become Kyle's wife a decade later, lived four houses down. Edwards lived nearby. So did the late Craig Garrick, who would become Kyle's closest friend and future BYU teammate.
In Fred, the Cougars found an astute, organized coach, and he was soon promoted to defensive coordinator.
"He was very tough, like all the stories you hear, but he was very, very bright," says Edwards. "He was an outstanding coach because of his insights, native intelligence and commitment. He had been exposed to a lot of coaches in the NFL, and he knew the intricacies of the game and how to make adjustments during games."
They didn't know it at the time, but Fred's and Kyle's careers were on parallel tracks that would bring them together repeatedly over the years. For the next nine years, Fred coached linebackers and oversaw the defense at BYU. One of his best players was Kyle, a tough, undersized (5-foot-11) middle linebacker who started for the Cougars in 1980 and 1981, when BYU claimed its first two bowl victories.
"Kyle wasn't big enough and wasn't fast enough, all he was was good enough," says Edwards. "He was a lot like his dad. He was smart and tough and very competitive."
Kyle was a team captain and leader of the defense, relaying his father's defensive signals from the sideline to his teammates. During the 1980 Holiday Bowl — commonly known as the "Miracle Bowl because BYU overcame a 45-20 deficit and won on the last play of the game — the Whittinghams teamed to produce one of the game's biggest plays.
"Calling plays is an art — you can't teach it; it's instinctive," says Kyle. "I don't want to sound boastful, but my father had it — and I have it, too."
SMU was faced with a crucial third-and-one situation late in the game; a first down would secure victory. BYU called a timeout. On the sideline, Fred improvised and drew up a new blitz on the spot. The tackles would rush the A gap, and the linebackers would rush the B gap. Fred was convinced SMU would call a certain running play. "Go like hell!" he told Kyle as he sent him back on the field. Kyle tackled the SMU running back in the backfield for a loss, forcing the Mustangs to punt.
In 1981, Kyle was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Western Athletic Conference. He was invited to play in post-season all-star games in Hawaii and Japan and was signed as a free agent by the Denver Broncos but was released. He played two years in the United States Football League.
Whittingham earned an undergraduate degree in educational psychology with a special-ed credential and then took a master's degree in professional leadership. As he neared the end of his college days, he recalls, "I was racking my brain for what direction to go. I just couldn't picture myself being happy doing anything but coaching."
He was hired as the defensive coordinator at Timpview High in 1982 and discovered that he was not prepared for the task. "I knew my position," he says, "but I didn't know much about what the other 10 guys did." He regularly called his father to pick his brain for information and dug into his father's old BYU playbooks.
He spent the next two seasons as a graduate assistant coach at BYU, and then landed his first real college coaching job at College of Eastern Utah, but he wound up back in uniform instead. He played for his father on the Los Angeles Rams' replacement squad during the NFL players' strike of 1987.
Fred had left BYU in 1981 to coach the Rams' defense. He returned to Utah in 1992 to become defensive coordinator at the University of Utah. Two years later, he hired Kyle, who had been the defensive coordinator at Idaho State for six years, as his defensive line coach, and father and son were reunited again. Kyle moved into his parents' house for a few months until he could resettle.
After three years at Utah, Fred left to coach in the NFL again, this time as defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders. Kyle replaced him as Utah's defensive coordinator. The separation didn't last long. After three years with the Raiders, Fred returned to Utah again in 1998, this time as a linebacker coach under Kyle. He moved into Kyle's Salt Lake house for the season and went to work for his son. Again, Kyle utilized the opportunity to learn from his father, whose office was just two doors down from his.
"Everything that embodies me as a coach is directly from him," Kyle says.
The current Ute defense — the one that confounded teams throughout the unbeaten 2008 season — is largely Fred's defense with some tweaking to defend the spread offense.
"I'm a little more aggressive than my dad was, but that's because we've had to adapt to the spread offense," says Kyle. "We bring high pressure. The spread wasn't around when my dad was coaching, or you can bet he would have adapted."
Fred lasted two years at Utah this time. Much to everyone's surprise, he was fired by Ute head coach Ron McBride in 2001. The word was that Whittingham and his strong personality were disruptive to the rest of the staff, although his son certainly disagrees. Kyle considered quitting the Utes after his father's dismissal, but his father convinced him otherwise. Fred retired to the old family home in Provo.
The house that Fred built
"Fred was depressed," says Nancy. "He'd go work out at the gym and then come back and say, 'Now what am I going to do, go back to bed?' He went downhill after that. He didn't know what to do without football."
The football injuries he collected from hundreds of collisions had taken their toll over the years. He underwent eight surgeries, including multiple operations on his Achilles tendon and right knee. He winced when he walked. "You can't imagine the kind of pain I have every single day," he once confided to Nancy. In the end, it was his back that bothered him most. Bone spurs were growing into his spine. He grew increasingly immobile, struggling just to walk. Whittingham chose to risk surgery to avoid the wheelchair.
There were complications during the surgery. The first operation was followed by another and then by another. Doctors couldn't control the bleeding. After the third surgery, he was lying in his hospital bed, chatting with Nancy, when he suddenly sat up and leaned on one elbow, staring straight ahead at a wall. Nancy turned to see what he was looking at.
"I'm going to die," he said.
"What do you mean?" Nancy said, caught off guard.
"I'm going to die," he repeated, then he sank back into his pillow and passed away. Kyle raced down I-15 to be there. The other children raced to the scene as well. Nancy asked the doctors not to unplug life support machinery until her children arrived.
Looking back now, Nancy says, "When he went, it was the right time. Everyone says he missed so much, but there was a lot of stuff that would've been hard on him. He couldn't live without coaching, but he couldn't coach because his body was so broken up."
To fill the void football had left in his life, Fred built a house on an empty lot a few houses down from the family's old Oak Hills residence. He did some of the work himself. Fred died before the house was finished, and no one has ever lived there. Nancy has remained in the same house her family has lived in for more than 30 years.
Nancy keeps the new house anyway, fully furnished and decorated, with a radio constantly playing the country music that Fred favored, although no one is there to hear it. On one prominent wall, there is a large framed photo of Fred crashing into Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp. When her children visit, they stay in the new house, but otherwise it is empty.
"This is Fred's house," Nancy said as she took a guest on a tour of it recently. "This is where his spirit lives." She laughs out loud at this. "I want to move into it, but it just seems lonely, not homey."
By all accounts, Fred, the hard-partying tough-guy, was a revered father and grandfather who became a devout member of the LDS Church and was a loving and gentle grandfather. It was difficult not to note the contrast when the tough old middle linebacker gently cradled one of the grandkids in his lap, as he often did. Jamie believes it is revealing that when her children were teens they preferred their grandfather's company to their own peers when faced with a choice.
"The kids and the grandkids were tight with him," says Jamie. "You wouldn't have thought that because people were so intimidated by him, and it's not what you expect from a big tough guy. But they worshipped him. If you had seen him with his grandkids, you'd have been surprised. He was so loving, and they were so comfortable and close with him."
Fred and Nancy's children have prospered. Cary, who started at linebacker for BYU after his father's departure, is a cop and high school football coach. Fred Jr., who started at running back for BYU, is the Western states regional manager for Simon-Schuster publishers; Brady, who played for BYU's freshman football team, is a wealthy entrepreneur. Julie is married and lives in California.
"He could get after me, but he was a great father," says Kyle. "We didn't talk football at home. Even when I played for him and coached with him, we didn't bring it home."
"He was always a good dad and a good husband," Nancy said. "He became a model dad. He was involved. I don't think he ever (spanked) one of our children, although he could yell pretty good sometimes."
Like father, like son
Fred found a measure of peace and contentment later in life. He had grown up angry about his orphaned childhood. "It always bothered him," says Nancy. Time and family smoothed the rough edges. "He finally matured at about 50," says his widow with another big laugh.
During Fred's final year in the NFL, when he was playing for the Patriots, Nancy tricked a government records official into telling her the names of Fred's parents on the phone. She called Fred's mother, Charlotte Bain, in Boston, and heard her story. She was pregnant, single and 19 in the late days of the Great Depression, and decided the only way to care for her child was to put him up for adoption. Nancy called Ernie Hulton in Rhode Island. He didn't own up to being Fred's father, although he paid the $500 hospital bill and Bain identified him as the father.
A decade later, Fred and Nancy packed up their kids and drove out to meet Hulton at his house. It was another decade or so before Brady tracked down the mother again, this time in Florida.
Brady tried to arrange for her to meet her son, but she declined. It was an old wound she didn't want to pick. As Nancy tells it, "She felt terribly guilty and ashamed of giving a child away to foster care," says Nancy. Fred wanted to meet her, but he said, "If it's that tough on her, let's don't do it." Bain sent photos, but she never did meet her son before she died.
Whatever was missing in his early family life and left him wanting, Fred filled with football much of his life. "If it hadn't been for football," Fred once told me, "I wouldn't have gone to college, and I never would have coached. Who knows, maybe I would have gone from bad to worse. But I think I knew all along where I wanted to go."
His powerful personality notwithstanding, Whittingham was a popular coach with his players, just as Kyle is. Fred was intimidating, but he also inspired fierce loyalty, respect and even adoration from his players. Tom Holmoe, the BYU athletic director, speaks glowingly of his old coach. He played under Fred and alongside Kyle as a safety for the Cougars before going on to win three Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers.
"I loved Fred," says Holmoe. "He was an incredible coach. He made a lot of players better. He brought out their full potential. Fred is one of my all-time favorite coaches. If you busted your tail and wanted to win and had a passion for it, you loved him. If you were lazy, he was going to kill you. There were no gray areas with Fred. You knew where you stood with him. I don't know a player who worked hard who didn't love him. The best compliment I ever received in my playing days at any level came from Fred. I don't want to say what he said; it's too special to me. But when he said it, I could've died that day because I had earned his respect. That's how much guys wanted to please him."
Says Edwards, "Fred was always liked by his players. He surprised me. He'd raise his voice at times, but generally he was a quiet guy. He wasn't a holler guy. But when he spoke, they listened."
Fred wound up being a career assistant coach, except for the brief high school experience, and that bothered him. "Why doesn't anybody ask me if I want to interview (for a head coaching job)?" he said to Nancy once. But those who knew Fred Whittingham know he was far too impolitic to be a head coach, and Nancy is one of them. This is a man who dared to put NFL owners in their place, including Mecham and Al Davis.
"He would like to have run everything except the political part, but you have to do that," says Nancy. "When I see what Kyle has to deal with it, I think it would've driven Fred crazy. He would have won, and they would've fired him anyway."
Whittingham undoubtedly would be pleased that Kyle — his son, protege, player and co-worker — has taken the best he had to give him and then added his own touch to it and grown into a mature head coach.
"Kyle is a lot like his dad," says Edwards, "and his success is not a surprise at all. I figured he'd do well when he got the chance."76 comments on this story
In the end, let Holmoe have the final, eloquent say on the subject:
"I never compared the two (Fred and Kyle) when Kyle and I were teammates, but now you can see Kyle is similar to Fred as a coach. He's becoming more and more like his father. And I love the fact that Kyle reveres his father and gives credit to his dad, because it's true. If he came out and it was all about him, people who knew Fred would say, 'come on.' We all respect Kyle for that. He's credited and honored his dad, and Kyle is darn good at what he does."
Editor's note: Doug Robinson's son, Collin, plays on the University of Utah football team.