Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Because neither Utah nor BYU will be attending a prestige bowl this year — and maybe no bowl — some are saying new coaches are needed to take those teams to the next level.
Good idea, except for one detail: They're already at the next level.
People should be careful with their expectations.
The Gary Crowton era wasn't that long ago.
The next game will be the 100th for Utah's Kyle Whittingham and BYU's Bronco Mendenhall as head coaches. The kids who cast off their training wheels in 2005 are all grown up. Both have been at it nearly eight full seasons. They've averaged three or four games a year against BCS opponents, and that continues to rise.
In honesty, it hasn't all been a box of chocolates — unless it's the box Forrest Gump described, full of surprises. This season has been particularly lackluster. Utah was picked to finish second in the Pac-12 South, yet is fighting to qualify for a bowl berth with a 3-5 record. For the second straight year, the Utes started the Pac-12 season 0-4.
BYU had hopes of a BCS bowl, but is 5-4, having lost four of its last seven. The Cougars have been out of contention for anything but the Poinsettia Bowl since mid-September.
But seriously, fire these coaches? This isn't the New York Yankees.
In the small view, the last year or two have been disappointing. In the big picture, these coaches should be hanging with movie stars. Both have shown ability to take their teams to high places. Whittingham has coached the Utes to a BCS bowl and No. 2 national ranking (two BCS bowls if you count a co-appearance with Urban Meyer's Fiesta Bowl team). Mendenhall has five seasons with 10 or more wins. Whittingham is 6-1 in bowl games, Mendenhall 5-2.
You want better than that, please contact the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
Nobody not named Urban has done better against big teams, not even LaVell Edwards. The legendary BYU coach was 31-44-1 against BCS teams in his long and legendary career, for a win percentage of .413. Mendenhall's 11-14 BCS winning percentage is .440.
Whittingham doesn't come close to the BCS success of Meyer, the current Ohio State coach whose record was 6-1 (.857). But Whittingham's 18-14 (.562) against big conference teams exceeds predecessor Ron McBride's 12-15 (.444).
Then there's Crowton, who was a fair 5-6 against BCS teams at BYU (.454), but just 26-23 overall.
The reason this is even an issue is that increasingly vocal fans want more. They point to the fact Whittingham is only 1-8 against ranked teams since the 2008 season. Mendenhall is 4-13 against ranked opponents. Yet both have shown enough success over time to warrant another year or two of forgiveness.
Both coaches have done well on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate Report, despite the fact LDS missions can skew the numbers. Whittingham's teams have been above the national average in six of the last seven years; BYU has been above average in four of seven.
Meanwhile, Utah and BYU are scheduling BCS teams in greater numbers than ever. Utah gets an automatic nine such games every year, thanks to its Pac-12 affiliation. BYU is anticipating the finest schedule in its history, next year, with Texas, Boise State, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Utah and Notre Dame on the list, as well as rival Utah State. However, reports say at least two of those games could be in jeopardy of being canceled.
Mendenhall is 71-28 in eight seasons, Whittingham 69-30. Going into this year, each averaged 9.4 wins. Both seem happy to stay and win where they are, but neither seems content with how things have gone this year.
Realistically, Utah can only hope to win a Pac-12 championship on rare occasion. It will probably never out-recruit USC or Oregon. BYU has only seven players in the NFL. The odds of the Cougars winning a national title with those numbers aren't good.
Both programs have problems, but none that are unfixable. Changing coaches would only upset that process. Besides, if they don't play in bowl games this winter it will give them extra time to reflect. It might even help.
To reverse a familiar adage, sometimes a vacation is as good as a change.
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