EL PASO, Texas —
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham recalls, with great fondness, the last time he played football for his father. Fred Whittingham was BYU's defensive coordinator when Kyle capped off his collegiate career with MVP honors in the 1981 Holiday Bowl.
"It was very emotional in a lot of ways," Kyle acknowledged.
Now, 30 years later, roles have been reversed.
Saturday's Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech marks the final game that Kyle will get to coach his son, Tyler. The younger Whittingham is a special teams contributor for the Utes.
"First of all, I'm proud of him for what his contribution has been to our team. He's an extremely hard worker, does whatever is asked of him," Kyle said. "It's been a great experience for me. I know what he's going through because I did the same thing. It's not easy. It's not the easiest thing in the world to be the coach's son."
There's some extra responsibilities that come with it, explained the coach, because his expectations of him are very high — just like they are for all of the players.
"But you don't want to be the coach's son that screws up," Kyle said. "You don't want to be that guy."
Tyler has never been that guy.
The former starter at Brighton High and state power-lifting champion joined the team as a walk-on in 2009 after serving an LDS Church mission in Brazil. Following a redshirt year, Whittingham has appeared in 20 games over the past two seasons — making seven tackles (five solo).
"It's been a good ride the whole time — even though I knew coming into it that I wasn't going to play much," Tyler said. "My goal was to make the kickoff team and I'm grateful for every chance that I got."
The mass communication major considers it all a bonus, of sorts.
"Actually everything after high school for me has just been a nice little bonus," Tyler said. "I've been able to spend some time with my dad, with the family, with my team and it's been a really good learning experience."
Part of the educational process has been getting to know how his father operates at work.
"I never knew 'Coach Whit' until I played," Tyler said. "But I'm just proud of him and he's proved to me that hard work pays off."
Tyler used to be his dad's "cord guy," back when coaching headsets weren't wireless. He also visited practice regularly and went to the games while growing up, giving him an idea of what it might be like to play for his father.
"He's got a tough job but I think he handles it well," Tyler said while praising his father's hard work and dedication.
Football, though, isn't something Kyle brings home. Tyler insists his dad is just a "regular guy" away from work.
"I try to keep that separate. I try to, as best I can, leave the football aspect of it at the office. The main reason I do that is my father did the same thing," Kyle said. "When I was playing for him I was living at home, he was very good about that and I learned that from him."
As such, Tyler noted there was no pressure to follow in the family footsteps and play football. Although he was one of the better players at Brighton, Tyler readily admits he wasn't a Division I player. He's had to work hard to get there.
"In my family, there's never pressure to succeed," Tyler said. "You're only expected to do your best and as long as you're doing your best — no matter what happens — you can be satisfied with the results."
Being together in the football program for the past three years is something the Whittinghams value greatly.
"It's obviously very important," Kyle said. "It's been a great experience with him."
On the field, though, the father and son relationship becomes a coach and player situation.
"That's the way it has to be. You have to treat all your players the same within reason," Kyle said. "You treat players the way they deserve to be treated. That's an old John Wooden axiom, but as far as the expectations — what we demand and what we require — it's all the same."
Even so, the end of that era will be emotional for both Whittinghams. It almost came to an end a year ago. Tyler was going to graduate last spring, but opted to take a couple of more classes this fall.
"This is kind of the bonus round for me," Tyler said. "I was sad last year because I didn't think I was coming back this year."
Tyler's impending departure, however, may not be the last time Whittingham could have a son on the team. His youngest boy, Alex, is currently serving a mission in New Zealand. He was a starting linebacker at Brighton but tore his ACL in the first game of his senior season.
"I'm hoping he opts to play when he gets home," Kyle said. "I hope so, but we'll see."
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