SALT LAKE CITY — The Man in Black had a point. Friday’s Ute football practice was winding down, but the loudspeakers were cranking up. The song began with the mariachi bleat of trumpets, followed by the growl of Johnny Cash singing “Ring of Fire.” A few support staffers and media kept in rhythm, mouthing the words.
And it burns, burns, burns
The song ended and there was a momentary pause, but the trumpets again started up. By the end of practice, the tune had played five consecutive times.
Could there be a more appropriate theme for Whittingham and the 2013 Utes? There’s the possibility of a fire in the near future, and not in a good way. They have five ranked opponents on their schedule, plus dangerous instate games with BYU and Utah State.
This isn’t lost on Whittingham, whose conference record since entering the Pac-12 is 7-11, 13-12 overall. This from a program that won two BCS bowls in five years. Since then the Utes have been trending down. Injuries have played a big part, but so has coordinator turnover and offensive production.
Asked if he puts more pressure on himself than anyone on the outside, Whittingham said, “I do. I’m my own worst enemy. I eat at myself constantly, 24-7, but that’s the nature of the business.”
So, too, are firings.
Which gets us to Whittingham and the possibility of another dismal season. If so, where would he stand? Answer: If he gets six wins and a bowl invitation, he’ll be OK. If he finishes where he did last year (5-7, 3-6), he still probably won’t go down in flames.
But the temperature in the room will definitely be uncomfortable.
The Utes are in a strange place. On one hand, Whittingham doesn’t look particularly vulnerable. The leap to the Pac-12 has been tough on the field, but off the field things could hardly be better. Utah has had a 98-percent season ticket renewal rate for three years. If the Utes are a disappointment, it would be hard to prove it at the gate.
But how long will fans continue to renew their tickets if the team stinks? At some point the thrill of carrying the Pac-12 banner is sure to wear off. A Saturday tradition can become a Saturday nuisance, and finally a Saturday burden.
This is the strongest schedule in Utah’s history. Oregon and Stanford are ranked Nos. 3 and 4, UCLA 21, USC 24 and Oregon State 25. USU is coming off an 11-2 bowl season and BYU is the same threat as always.
If Utah gets a bowl berth, that qualifies as measurable improvement. It would likely require beating someone on the road — something the Utes have rarely done so far. In two Pac-12 seasons, they are just 3-6 in away league games.
Naturally, Whittingham isn’t talking that far ahead. Regarding Thursday’s season-opener against Utah State, he said the pressure is “the same as always.”
He continued, “There’s tons of pressure every week. That doesn’t change.”
But season-to-season it does.
A .500 season would mean something. (That’s hard to imagine, but Utah isn’t in the Mountain West anymore.) For one thing, it would be back in the bowl business. The Utes aren’t secure enough to fire bowl coaches, especially those whose contracts extend through the 2016 season. At the same time, with a new football center in place, another losing season would make things awkward. Utah is coming off back-to-back losing conference seasons, which hasn’t happened since 1989-90.
Utah has never had three consecutive losing conference seasons.
Another negative year probably wouldn’t cost Whittingham his job, unless it was a disastrous one. But it would put him in pink-slip range. A $2 million salary comes with conditions, if only unspoken. At that point you’d have to say the Man in Black at least had the gist: There’s nothing like having your feet to the fire.
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