Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Now that the Utes have been relegated to Pac-12 bottom-feeders, it seems only natural to ask: Is sorting through the rubble at season’s end as good as it gets?
The answer lies at the feet of coach Kyle Whittingham. Right now his program resembles “The Wreck of the Hesperus.”
The breakers were right beneath her bows,
She drifted a dreary wreck,
And a whooping billow swept the crew
Like icicles from her deck.
The Utes sealed their fate last weekend with a loss at Washington State. That put their ceiling at five wins, providing they beat Colorado on Saturday. This marks the first time in 23 years they’ve had back-to-back losing seasons.
The Utes have slid a long way since Whittingham was coaching BCS bowl teams. Remember when they were beating everyone on their schedule?
Now they couldn’t beat an egg for an omelet.
With that in mind, there’s sure to be face time between athletics director Chris Hill and Whittingham next week. They’ll discuss recruiting, assistant coaches and, of course, his job status. The conclusion should be this: bowl game or bust next year.
If it’s bust, Whittingham should go back to his first love — coaching someone’s defense. But firing him now would be an overreaction. He led the defense in 2004 and was also co-head coach when Utah played in its first BCS bowl. That was a year Utah fans never imagined. Yet it happened again four years later, when Whittingham took Utah to a Sugar Bowl win. That time he was president and COO of the company. Urban Meyer had moved two time zones away. Utah again accomplished the unthinkable by routing Alabama and finishing No. 2 nationally.
There’s no doubt Whittingham’s success has slipped since 2008. In 2009 the Utes went 10-3, including a Poinsettia Bowl win. In 2010 they went 10-3, losing in the Las Vegas Bowl. Then came the jump to the Pac-12, where they won just four conference games but qualified for the Sun Bowl and won in 2011.
Last year they won only three conference games, breaking their nine-year bowl streak.
Since their Sugar Bowl appearance, the Utes are 3-10 against ranked teams; against opponents from “automatic qualifier” conferences their record is 14-20.
But would Utah actually fire a coach that has dominated BYU?
In Whittingham’s nine seasons as coach he is 6-3 against the Cougars. Including his time as defensive coordinator, the Utes have won nine of the last 12.
That kind of command once belonged to LaVell Edwards.
Nevertheless, the Pac-12 honeymoon has pretty much played out. Fans who filled the stadium for several years won’t keep coming if the product doesn’t improve.
Whittingham has had terrible luck with injuries, but other things were his own fault. He didn’t sign enough quarterbacks early on and Utah got stranded. Though he has plenty of QBs now, none of the backups were ready to win this year.
Meanwhile, good assistants have left for other programs.
Some say Utah can’t attract a better fit than Whittingham. But that was also the cry when Urban Meyer replaced Ron McBride. Nowadays their odds of finding a strong replacement are good, especially since they pay a $2 million salary and the team is in a major conference.
If Mike Leach can go to Washington State and Rich Rodriguez to Arizona, a high-level coach could come to Utah.
But that’s looking too far ahead. It has been only two years since Utah won a respectable bowl (Sun) and three since it won 10 games. So the U. should keep Whittingham for another year, minimum. That will give him four years of Pac-12 recruiting.
Whittingham’s contract goes through 2016, though that seldom matters if a school makes a move. He gets a one-year rollover each time he wins six conference games or nine regular-season games.
A bowl invitation next year would show hope. A good bowl would show progress. A Rose Bowl would show he can do magic tricks with a yo-yo and a glass of water.
But another bowl-less year?
That would mean the Utes need a new captain of the ship.
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