PROVO — A pair of first-year head coaches, and longtime defensive coordinators, stepped into the glaring spotlight of the BYU-Utah rivalry in 2005.
That season, Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall and Ute coach Kyle Whittingham took over their respective programs, and their first meeting in November went into overtime.
That memorable game was a harbinger of things to come. More memorable finishes followed, and more drama is expected Saturday (8:15 p.m., ESPN2), when the Cougars and Utes collide at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
It marks the ninth time that Mendenhall and Whittingham will match wits.
With the rivalry taking a two-year hiatus after this season, it’s possible that Saturday’s showdown could be the final time the two coaches square off against each other — and, if it is, a colorful chapter of the BYU-Utah rivalry will have come to an end.
Whittingham holds a 5-3 advantage in those eight matchups. In six of those games, the outcome was determined on the final play.
"There have been some interesting battles, some very interesting battles, and so many of them have gone right down to the wire,” Whittingham said. “It's uncanny how many games in the last 20 years have gone right down to the wire in this series. You would be hard pressed to find any rivalry that has had the amount of exciting finishes that this one has had."
During his career, Whittingham hasn’t faced a coach more times than Mendenhall. And Mendenhall hasn’t faced a coach more times than Whittingham.
But Whittingham is quick to downplay any focus on the coaches.
"I haven't thought about it. I don't know if either one of us has thought about that,” Whittingham said. “When we changed conferences, that was the one game that stayed in place so I think it was just a matter of circumstances. But it's not about the coaches, it's about the players. The coaches are a sidebar to the whole thing. It's all about the players, and that's the long and short of it."
Over the years, both Mendenhall and Whittingham have made some well-publicized mistakes, and enjoyed impressive achievements. There are more similarities than differences between the two men.
Both coaches have gone through major changes in their programs. Since 2005, Utah has jumped to the Pac-12, while BYU has become an independent and signed an exclusive contract with ESPN.
During the offseason, both coaches made major changes to their offensive coaching staffs, as Whittingham hired Dennis Erickson, and Mendenhall brought back Robert Anae.
It's no secret that Whittingham and Mendenhall don’t have a cordial, friendly relationship like Ron McBride and LaVell Edwards did.
But Whittingham and Mendenhall are inextricably linked.
In December 2004, BYU had just finished its third consecutive losing season, and undefeated Utah was headed to the Fiesta Bowl after busting the Bowl Championship Series. Then-Cougar coach Gary Crowton resigned and then-Ute coach Urban Meyer was poised to become the new head coach at Florida.
Both Utah and BYU targeted the same man to be their next head coach — Whittingham, who starred as a linebacker at BYU, and had spent a decade as a Ute assistant.
BYU offered the job to Whittingham, and Mendenhall heard about it through a television report. Mendenhall, who had been hired by Crowton, knew that if the defensive-minded Whittingham accepted the offer to return to his alma mater, there would be no place for him at BYU.
Certain that Whittingham would take the job, Mendenhall and his wife, Holly, sat down with their three young sons and told them that they were getting ready to move. Mendenhall was close to accepting a job as defensive coordinator at UNLV under former Utah offensive coordinator Mike Sanford.
But, in the end, Whittingham turned down the BYU offer to stay at Utah and Mendenhall was hired days later — paving the way for several classic matchups between Mendenhall and Whittingham.
After serving as head coach for eight BYU-Utah games, Mendenhall said he appreciates the rivalry.
“I’ve always cared about it. It’s a great game,” he said. “But every game is great opportunity to learn and grow. This one just because of proximity and how much people care about it in the state. It becomes more personal because it affects more people that you know.”
In that first meeting in 2005, Utah outlasted BYU, 41-34, in OT.
“It’s the sweetest victory I’ve ever been a part of,” Whittingham said after his team’s dramatic 41-34 victory in Provo.
“This was a hard-fought game that came down to one play,” Mendenhall said at the time. “Two teams fought. Two teams competed. Two teams laid it on the line. What else can you want from an in-state rivalry?”
Thanks in large part to Mendenhall and Whittingham, over the past eight seasons, there have been memorable battles, dramatic finishes and epic plays.
What else could anyone want from an in-state rivalry?
Dirk Facer contributed to this report.
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