SALT LAKE CITY — For several years, Kyle Whittingham was among the most coveted coaches in the country, a contender on everyone’s A-list. His name came up in coaching searches at such noted football schools as Arizona State and Tennessee.
Lately he’s on some other lists — mainly those that say “hot seat.”
Utah’s conference wins since entering the Pac-12 have gone from four, to three, to two. The number of consecutive of bowl-less seasons stands at two, for the first time in in 16 years. So Whittingham’s name keeps arising. CBSsportsline’s Dennis Dodd gave him a 3.0 on his fire-ability chart, on a scale of five. Dodd had him “on the bubble, feeling the pressure.”
That was last year.
This year the speculation has only become more intense. ESPN.com Pac-12 writer Ted Miller rates Whittingham the second-least secure coach in the conference, just ahead of Cal’s Sonny Dykes. Mike Huguenin on NFL.com rates him No. 14 on his “14 for ‘14” grouping of endangered college coaches.
The Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette ranks Whittingham the most likely coach in the conference to lose his job. SI.com’s Martin Rickman places him among his 10 most tenuous coaches in the country.
There are publications that have longer memories and can still recall the Utes’ 2009 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Athlon, the venerable football magazine, has Whittingham on its “getting warm” hot seat chart, but doesn't go so far as to predict a firing.
“Whittingham isn’t in any danger of being fired and it’s hard to place him on any hot seat list as the Utes are making a difficult transition from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12,” it said in March.
It added it’s “too early” to make a call on the 10th-year coach.
Meanwhile, the “Coaches’ Hot Seat” website has Whittingham in the “safe for now” department.
Either way, this kind of discussion isn’t new territory for Whittingham. He heard similar complaints last year, before a 2-7 Pac-12 season. He has repeatedly said “nobody can put more pressure on me than I do on myself.”
If Whittingham actually is feeling besieged, there are those close to him who know the feeling. Dennis Erickson, Utah’s running backs coach, was fired by the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona State Sun Devils. He said on Wednesday this is how he handled it: “You’re not worried about it. Shoot, I was on every watch list for 40 years. I was on every hot sheet you can imagine. You just can’t worry about it. You can’t let that bother you.”
For both Erickson and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, it has a familiar — and recent — ring. Erickson was fired by ASU in 2011 and Christensen got pink-slipped at Wyoming after last season.
There are, of course, benefits to these things. Asked this week if he’s glad he doesn’t have to deal with all the issues of being a head coach, Christensen said, “I tell coach Whit that all the time. In fact, I mentioned it yesterday. Something came up and I said ‘That’s all you, it’s not me anymore.’”
While it’s not really any assistant’s direct problem, it often affects them. When a head coach goes, often so do his assistants.
“I worry about the staff, the team and all that,” Erickson said. “But I also know those rumors are probably all false and all b.s., so ”
Erickson has his point. Decisions are usually made as the season progresses. Sometimes the athletics director or president of a university makes a determination in the middle of the night.
“People invent things,” Erickson said. “Nobody knows. It’s stupid, to me, the people that do that.”
Stupid, maybe, but definitely stupefying to realize Whittingham was still coaching in bowl games as recently as 2011, yet is on endangered species lists today.
“What he’s done here is unprecedented,” Erickson said. “So it’s pretty hard for me to believe that (a firing) would ever happen.”
But as anyone who has ever received a telemarketing call knows, it doesn’t take much to get on somebody’s list.
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