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Jason Olson, Deseret News
RJ Rice, left, and Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham are greeted at the Salt Lake University Institute of Religion. Associate director Gary Poll, left, welcomes, from right, coach Kyle Whittingham, assistant Morgan Scalley, and Bradon and Stephanie Godfrey to the institute.

Kyle Whittingham was a guest speaker at an institute class Tuesday night — one attended by enough students to fill an entire chapel and two adjacent gymnasiums.

Whittingham, the fourth-year head football coach at the University of Utah, addressed hundreds of Salt Lake University Institute of Religion students as part of the "Last Lecture" series. The coach was accompanied by former Ute safety and current assistant coach Morgan Scalley as well as two seniors on the team, Bradon Godfrey and RJ Rice. The speakers used the forum to reinforce gospel principles while sharing experiences from their football careers to provide context for their spiritual messages.

Whittingham opened the meeting by praising his players for their accomplish-

ments on the field and in the classroom. He also pointed to the prominent LDS influence on the team, of which 50 percent (55 out of 110 players and five of 10 coaches) is made up of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I'm very proud to be around these guys," he said. "I love coming to work every day. I think I've got the best job in the country."

During his remarks, Whittingham provided an overview of the program's rigorous player-development process and then detailed eight principles that constitute a "dedicated and disciplined approach" to spiritual development. He conceded that his points weren't new or novel but used a quote by C.S. Lewis to suggest that reminders are often more important than instruction.

The first principle was prayer — and not just during football season, Whittingham joked.

"I believe in the power of prayer," he said. "The opportunity that we have to talk to our Heavenly Father and converse with him one-on-one is just incredible, and to pass up that opportunity to me just doesn't make sense."

He quoted Doctrine and Covenants 10:5 and warned students against falling victim when Satan discourages communication with God.

"Don't let him win," Whittingham said.

The other principles were daily scripture study, faithful attendance of church meetings, paying an honest tithe, choosing friends and associates wisely, developing Christlike character, setting goals and maintaining a positive attitude.

Whittingham told students that when he reads his scriptures, "everything just seems to work out." He read Malachi 3:10 to illustrate the blessings of tithing and encouraged the congregation "to take Heavenly Father up on his offer." And he emphasized the importance of recording goals, saying that the players on the team were asked to write their objectives on cards they carry with them throughout the season.

Finally, the coach counseled the students to "keep their guard up" against the distractions and temptations of the world.

"When things become tough, do not allow yourself to become discouraged," he said.

The head coach also did his best to keep his guard up against his assistant. Whittingham drew laughter when he explained that he'd decided to speak third because he suspected that Scalley would keep his remarks brief and leave his boss with the bulk of the program.

"Morgan, I'll leave you plenty of time," he said. "I don't want to follow him; that's the main reason. He's absolutely a superstar."

Scalley became emotional at several points during his talk, and he began with a direct assessment of football's place in the grand scheme of things.

"Football is a very insignificant game," said Scalley, who expressed confidence that God will not judge him by the number of interceptions he had during his playing career. "I don't believe that will be part of the interview process."

Scalley spoke about the emotion he often feels when reading the scriptures, saying he aches to be part of those stories. He mentioned Ammon and Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon — "I wish I could have had Captain Moroni as my strong safety," he said — but his favorite example is found in Third Nephi, where Christ visits the Nephites and commands them to "come unto me, that ye might feel and see."

"It reminds me of what is truly great about the gospel, that the fruits of the gospel can not only be seen but more importantly, they are to be felt," he said.

Scalley said he's often asked about what it felt like to defeat Brigham Young University at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2004 to secure an undefeated regular season, or how it felt to walk out of the tunnel at the Fiesta Bowl. Those were great moments, he said.

"As amazing as those two experiences were ... (they) don't compare, they don't even come close, to the experience I had in the mission field," said Scalley, who served in Munich, Germany.

"If I had to choose that or football, anything I ever accomplished in football, I'd choose a mission every time."

Scalley also expressed his love for two important people in his life: his wife, Liz, and Whittingham, whom he said he campaigned hard for when the coach was deciding in 2004 whether to remain at Utah or become the head coach at BYU.

Whittingham and Scalley were preceded by Godfrey and Rice, both seniors and former walk-ons. Godfrey, a receiver, related the story of a friend and roommate who is not LDS, but recently informed him that Godfrey had been a powerful example in his life — unbeknownst to him.

"This whole time I had no idea," he said. "There's always people out there that you don't know, that aren't members, but that you can be an example to, because they're always watching."

Rice, a backup defensive back who said he is the smallest player on the team and is often mistaken for the trainer, spoke about a time when he contemplated giving up football — despite the fact that it had been his dream to play at the U. A conversation with Scalley changed his mind-set, Rice said. He related the experience to the gospel, saying that if you don't give up on the Lord, he won't give up on you.

"Some people, they just kind of fall off, and they just kind of give up," he said. "We need to continue and endure to the end and do the Lord's work."

One of the program's lighter moments came when Whittingham welcomed the congregation, saying that it was nice to be among "nothing but solid" Utah fans.

"Usually when I do firesides, I have to excuse the Cougars so we can feel the spirit," he joked. "I don't have to do that tonight because we're all red."


E-mail: ashill@desnews.com