I got into this knowing that for the second half of my career life I wanted to spend it in football. I think I’m still discovering where I want to go with that.
SALT LAKE CITY — Back in the day, Fred Whittingham Jr. thought about joining his father and eldest brother Kyle in the football business.
He certainly had the background for it.
As the son of a former NFL player and longtime coach, Whittingham was immersed in the sport from a young age. He recalls, with great fondness, hanging out at BYU practices in the 1970s when his dad was an assistant coach under LaVell Edwards. Young Fred would walk to the football facility from nearby Wasatch Elementary School. He’d later join his father for training table and run around the fieldhouse with younger brother Brady when the coaches would watch film.
“I feel like I grew up there,” Whittingham joked. “I don’t know when I did homework. I don’t ever remember that.”
Whittingham did, however, get plenty of things accomplished in the years that followed. He played for BYU’s national championship team in 1984 — along with older brother Cary — before serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Florida.
Upon his return, Whittingham led the Cougars in rushing for three consecutive seasons (1987-89) before brief stints with the Los Angeles Rams' practice squad and in the World League of American Football.
After graduating from BYU, though, Whittingham had a decision to make. Would he follow his father and brother Kyle into the coaching profession?
Unsure if that’s what he really wanted to do at the time, Fred sought the counsel of the coaches.
“(They) advised me not to go into it,” he said.
It was the early 1990s and the older Whittinghams cited a variety of reasons why Fred would be better off doing something else. Coaches, especially assistants, weren’t being compensated all that much back then. Besides that, the hours were long and there was a lack of job security unless you worked for a winning program.
The combination thereof helped lead Fred down another path. He went on to spend the next 19-plus years making his mark in the higher education publishing industry, eventually directing McGraw-Hill’s West Sales Region and its $100 million in annual revenue.
In January 2012, however, Fred opted to switch careers. He returned to football as Utah’s director of player personnel — managing recruiting operations, directing camps and clinics, and serving as the program’s NFL liaison.
It’s a move the 47-year-old doesn’t regret.
“I got into this knowing that for the second half of my career life I wanted to spend it in football,” Whittingham said. “I think I’m still discovering where I want to go with that.”
Since joining his brother’s staff at Utah, Fred has made an immediate impact.
“He’s really added to what we’re doing here. He’s got a lot of good ideas and he’s very organized, very thorough,” Kyle said. “In this day and age in recruiting you’ve got to think outside the box and he’s one of those type of thinkers that has some unique ideas.”
Fred’s non-traditional background, which includes work experience in sales, acquisitions and management, has proved to be a valuable resource for the Utes. He noted that most guys who go through the traditional coaching ranks aren’t exposed to a lot of things that happen in creative marketing and sales outside of football. “This is a pretty insular business,” he explained. “I think what I bring to the table is kind of that outside business perspective.”
Fred believes that superior evaluation and selling are the keys to being better than the competition when it comes to recruiting. He’s hopeful that Utah will attract student-athletes who are mindful of things like what kind of coaches they want as mentors, academic interests and the community.
“We try to facilitate that kind of a conversation — because if a kid is interested in how many different helmets or how many different jerseys we have, or how many Heisman Trophies we have, or how many national championships, we’re going to lose those sales battles to Oregon and USC and teams like that,” Fred said. “But if we can help facilitate them to become more interested in this kind of more substantial stuff, then I think we stand a much better chance of getting the kind of players that we need.”
As such, Whittingham sees his job as building a brand for the Utah football program — an identity formed by the materials sent to recruits, as well as the team’s social media presence and on-campus experience.
“My vision and my goal is that we become an organization that starts doing things that other teams say, ‘Hey, look what Utah did,’” he said. “And we’ve made some progress.”
When Whittingham arrived on campus, Utah’s football program didn’t have its own Facebook site and the only Twitter page in place was run by the athletic department’s marketing office. The Utes now have a social media strategy when it comes to recruiting.
Kyle praised Fred’s intelligence and added that he’s been a positive addition to the staff. They’ve been around the game virtually their entire lives and big brother was glad his younger sibling had a burning desire to get back into it.
“We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years and he finally decided it was time to pull the trigger,” Kyle said.
Fred is confident his father, who passed away in 2003, would approve.
“I think he’d be happy. I think he’d be happy that his sons were working together and that I was doing my part to help Kyle and try to help the program. It’s something that I think he would think was pretty cool.”
Although Fred would eventually like to pursue a coaching job or possibly a career in NFL player personnel, he definitely sees himself spending the next 15-20 years of his professional life in football.
“I took this position knowing it was a good starting point,” Fred said.
Even so, working at Utah wasn’t exactly where someone so entrenched at BYU earlier in his life expected to be. He feels like he practically grew up there.
“If you would have told me then that I would be up here now wearing red every day and stuff I wouldn’t have believed it,” Fred said. “But, you know, that’s the way life goes and now I don’t think there’s anybody in the family that has any torn allegiance. It’s 100 percent Utah.”
The conversion began when the Whittingham family patriarch was hired by Ron McBride in 1991 after a lengthy stint with the NFL’s Rams.
“Blood is thicker than water,” said Kyle, who joined the Utah staff in 1994. “So we’ve made that transition a long time ago.”
Fred acknowledged that things started to flip and the family got entrenched with the Utes.
“Now it’s funny because my own kids are just red all the way,” he said. “They actually have a disdain for BYU.”
Despite the switch, Fred recollects his time with the Cougars fondly. He remembers the disdain he had for the Utes during his playing days, especially for the “incorrigible” fans who cheered wildly when defensive back Eric Jacobsen knocked out quarterback Sean Covey in Utah’s 57-28 upset of BYU in Salt Lake City. The next year, Whittingham scored three touchdowns in the first half of the Cougars’ 70-31 win in Provo. He begged to go back into the game, but Edwards opted to go with reserves the rest of the way after BYU racked up 49 points by halftime.
That was then, however, and this is now.
“You never know what direction things are going to go and as it’s turned out we’re elated to be here,” Kyle said.