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Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
U. coach Kyle Whittingham is no stranger to bowl games in San Diego, having appeared in 4-straight Holiday Bowls while playing at BYU.

SAN DIEGO — When it comes to going bowling, this is the place for Kyle Whittingham.

The Utah coach, who will lead the Utes into Thursday night's Poinsettia Bowl against Navy, has a special fondness for postseason play in San Diego.

As a player at BYU, he participated in the first four Holiday Bowls — excelling in his final two.

Whittingham made a game-high 16 tackles in the 1980 "Miracle Bowl" when the Cougars rallied from 20 points down in the final four minutes to defeat SMU and Eric Dickerson, 46-45.

In 1981, Whittingham earned defensive MVP honors by making 10 stops and recovering a fumble in BYU's 38-36 win over Washington State.

"It was a great experience," said Whittingham, who also participated in the 1978 and 1979 Holiday Bowl games — a 23-16 loss to Navy and a 38-37 setback to Indiana.

"A great, great destination. A great location to have a bowl game at. You can't beat the weather, that's obvious, and there's so much to do down here," Whittingham said. "The bowl does a great job. You get to go to Sea World, the aircraft carrier — a lot of great activities are involved with this bowl. I think it's one of the best destinations in the country."

Whittingham, thus, was excited to learn that the Mountain West Conference would be affiliated with the Holiday Bowl's new venture — the Poinsettia Bowl — when the game was established three years ago.

"As soon as I heard that the Mountain West Conference was tied to that new bowl game in San Diego, I thought that was a big plus because of my experiences there," Whittingham said. "I knew what a great time it is to be had there as far as a bowl experience."

Whittingham's first bowl trip back to San Diego as a head coach hasn't been disappointing. The Poinsettia Bowl is run like the Holiday Bowl with similar activities and hospitality.

Dozens of bowl committee members, decked out in bright red sports jackets, lined both sides of a red carpet when the Utes arrived at their team hotel. A Mariachi band added to the atmosphere.

Employees at the San Diego Sheraton Hotel and Marina, where the Utes are staying, are wearing Utah T-shirts and joined the Poinsettia Bowl crew in welcoming the team to town.

Bowl-week activities have been plentiful. Besides watching ex-Ute Eric Weddle and the San Diego Chargers defeat the Detroit Lions Sunday, the team has been treated to a welcoming dinner, go-kart racing and a trip to Sea World. They'll eat lunch aboard the USS Midway today.

It's all a buildup to Thursday's game at Qualcomm Stadium — a place Whittingham still refers to by its old name, Jack Murphy Stadium.

"Every time I go back there — whether it's to play San Diego State or whatever — I have so many memories of that stadium," Whittingham said. "Both as a player and as a coach."

The latest chapter, he no doubt hopes, is a seventh consecutive bowl victory for the Utes.

Utes on the air

Poinsettia Bowl

Utah (8-4) vs. Navy (8-4)

Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego

Thursday, 7 p.m., MST

TV: ESPN Radio: 700AM

E-mail: [email protected]