If you're in Kyle Whittingham's bowling league, health club or even church group, a coaching position at the University of Utah could await. The main thing is that he knows and trusts you.
That much became obvious last week when the Ute football coach hired youthful Brian Johnson as his offensive coordinator. Promoting assistant coaches isn't unusual, but hiring a 24-year-old to be a boss certainly is. Who is Whittingham's special teams coach, his babysitter?
There's no doubt the Johnson hiring raises questions. He is one of the youngest coordinators in college football, old enough to drive an offense but too young to drive a rental car. But one major qualification is that he fits the profile: a Whittingham insider. That formula has worked nicely so far. The Utes went from mid-major upstart to respectable Pac-12 member, based largely on a group of Whittingham's pizza buddies/confidants. Are there better coaches out there? Maybe, but it would be hard to prove. Whittingham is 66-25 as a head coach and has won six of seven bowl games and four of seven games against BYU.
As it currently stands, he could hire his podiatrist and nobody would complain.
Wherever he's getting these guys — up the street in many cases — it works. He never has been a grass-is-greener guy. He likes his job and his location. That much was clear when he showed little interest in taking jobs at places such as Tennessee, Arizona State and Penn State.
Mainly, though, he likes his own people. Paramount in the hiring process is knowing who has his back.
Nearly everyone on the staff has a previous tie to the Ute coach and/or the state of Utah. There is Jay Hill, the running backs coach who played for the Utes when Whittingham was defensive coordinator, then became a graduate assistant. Same thing with recruiting coordinator Morgan Scalley, who played for Utah's 2004 Fiesta Bowl team.
Dan Finn, a recent hire from San Diego State, was a graduate assistant for Whittingham. He now coaches the interior line. Defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a also played for the Utes when Whittingham was defensive coordinator.
Norm Chow, the recently hired Hawaii coach, was Utah's offensive coordinator for a season. He coached at BYU when Whittingham played there. Tim Davis, the offensive line coach, played at Utah and was an assistant at Idaho State alongside Whittingham.
Not to be overlooked is the Whittingham-Southern Utah University connection. Current Utah State coach Gary Andersen was an assistant at Utah with Whittingham, then went to SUU for a year and returned with a shopping list of coaches for Whittingham to hire. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and receivers coach Aaron Roderick each played at BYU and was a graduate assistant there before moving on to SUU and then Utah.
High school relations director Aaron Alford and operations director Jeff Rudy both had ties to SUU before joining the Utah staff.
Ex-offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was at Idaho State when he and Whittingham were assistants. Whittingham also recently hired Sharrieff Shah, who didn't play for him, but is a former Ute who has been a team sideline reporter for the last dozen years.
"Knowing the people and having that trust and familiarity is certainly important," Whittingham said.
He also said he used references from former Utah coaches Urban Meyer and Ron McBride.
It didn't always work out, as in Ludwig's case, but the overall success is undeniable. Last year the Utes went most of the season with backup Jon Hays after starting quarterback Jordan Wynn went down. Johnson, formerly the QB's coach, helped nurse Utah through what should have been a disastrous season. Instead, the Utes went 8-5, including a Sun Bowl win.
That was enough to convince Whittingham he had his man.
In that sense, Johnson isn't such a risk. He proved he could handle pressure as the U.'s quarterback in the 2008 Sugar Bowl season. He knows the landscape, knows the team's recruiting strengths and weaknesses. Just as importantly, he knows Coach Whit, who is a fine coach but a lousy candidate for "Let's Make a Deal."
He would never trade the kitchen appliance combo for whatever is behind Door No. 3.
So Utah is moving ahead with everybody from the neighborhood. While many teams claim nationwide searches to find coaches, the Utes are doing nicely with the people close to home. They are motivated, smart and successful. Beyond that, they're proving that sometimes the best answers are right beneath your nose.
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