With National Letter of Intent Day coming up Wednesday, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham wants all the exposure his program can generate.
Would 170 million viewers be OK?
When Baltimore and San Francisco meet in Sunday's Super Bowl, the massive TV audience will get a look at what Whittingham's coaching has wrought. Four former Utes are on the bowl game rosters, as well as another guy who acts like he should have played at Utah but didn't. Only one other college team (the Miami Hurricanes) has more alumni in this year's game (five).
The marketing people at Utah couldn't have planned this better. But will they capitalize on it?
"You bet. When things of that nature happen, things that put the pro-gram in a good light, you use it," Whittingham said. "We're very proud of the success they're having."
As for the Utes' success, that has been hit-and-miss lately.
Which brings up a good rule of thumb: If you can't play in big bowl games, know someone who does.
Despite the busyness of recruiting, it's not hard to pin down Whittingham for a phone interview these days. This year Utah missed playing in a bowl for the first time in nearly a decade. That's not to say he had nothing to do. He says he spent the extra time on preparation.
After a 5-7 season, the Utes needed it.
But Whittingham isn't so busy as to miss a chance to promote his program. Instead of telling recruits, "We think we can get you to the NFL," all he needs to say this week is "Turn on the television."
With key recruits making campus visits, Whittingham will have TVs blaring at the football offices on Sunday.
"For sure we'll have all our guys here by 2 p.m. to watch the game," Whittingham said.
Never mind that the actual game doesn't start until 4:30.
In the process, he hopes the recruits will develop a positive opinion of Utah football. It would be hard not to. Baltimore linebacker Paul Kruger is having his best season (42 combined tackles, nine sacks, including 11 playoff tackles). Ravens nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu is relishing a second chance, having overcome a torn Achilles and dropped 70 pounds. He had five combined tackles in the AFC championship game.
For David Reed, the prospects are slightly less glamorous. As a reserve receiver, he was injured much of the year, but ended up with five catches. He is expected to play on special teams in the Super Bowl.
Reed set a Ravens' record in 2010 with a 103-yard kickoff return.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith remains the Utes' the biggest story — even when he isn't starting. Last year he took his team to the NFC championship game. This year he began even better, until a concussion in Week 10 opened the door for Colin Kaepernick.
Nevertheless, Smith avoided controversial statements and actively helped Kaepernick develop.
"Alex is a class act all the way," Whittingham said.
If there's anyone who might relate to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, it would be Whittingham. Both coaches faced the dilemma of whether an injury should cost a quarterback his starting job. To the dismay of many, Whittingham stayed with Jordan Wynn as Utah's starter, even after it appeared Wynn's career was slipping. It took a career-ending injury to halt the controversy.
Harbaugh, on the other hand, replaced the injured Smith and never switched back.
"I wasn't close enough to the situation to make an accurate assessment, but Harbaugh's a smart guy and he has his reasons," Whittingham diplomatically noted. "When you look at the final outcome, he appears to have made a good decision. But who's to say it wouldn't have been the same with Alex?"
Who indeed — except all those bowl-happy 49ers fans.26 comments on this story
Whittingham considered joining those fans at this year's Super Bowl. Not only would he have seen the aforementioned players; he would have been back in New Orleans, where he played for the USFL's Breakers. He returned with the Utes for the 2009 Sugar Bowl, where they fashioned a convincing win over Alabama.
Alas, Letter of Intent week got in the way of a nostalgic reunion.
Still, having players in Sunday's game has an appeal of its own. Also playing will be All-Pro Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, a former University of Oregon star. Ngata spends the off-seasons in Salt Lake and works out at the University of Utah.
"He's our adopted Ute," Whittingham said.
The natural born Utes can take it from there.