I remember that night quite well. We were all over at his house. It was a tough decision, and a lot of family was over there helping him have a clear mind so he could make the right decision for himself and his family. I think he did make the right decision. —Jason Whittingham, on the night his uncle Kyle told his family in December 2004 he would stay at Utah to become head coach
SALT LAKE CITY — Jason Whittingham doesn’t have the luxury of obscurity.
From the moment he began playing, he’s carried with him the tradition of tough, talented, defensive-minded football players that started with the patriarch of that legacy — the late Fred Whittingham Sr.
When your grandfather’s nickname is Mad Dog, you really can’t get away with anything other than a Herculean-like effort, even if the task is filling water bottles. There is also a bit more scrutiny when you’re the nephew of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, a guy who earned awards as a linebacker at BYU and who's coached multiple defensive award-winners.
While some might see that tradition as a heavy burden, Jason said growing up a Whittingham has more advantages than drawbacks — especially when it comes to football.
“There is a little pressure, obviously because of the family name, and the tradition we have in football,” said the 22-year-old redshirt sophomore, who, like his father, uncles and grandfather, plays linebacker. “My grandpa is obviously a great coach, and a great player before he was a coach, but I don’t feel too much pressure. I just try to do my best, and do what I know is right. I try to do what my uncle and my dad tell me because they obviously have been where I am now, and I try taking advice from them. It works out most, well, all of the time.”
He said the real advantage is that when he has questions, he has a number of resources, starting with his father, Timpview High head coach Cary Whittingham, who led the T-birds to a state title in his first season at the helm of the program last fall.
“He’s always there for me, and he has a lot of great advice for me,” Jason said. “He comes off as intimidating to a lot of people. He is a quiet guy. He just tries to lead by example and he lets his actions do the talking for him. He is very tough. I try and learn from him and how he lives his life. I try to take that toughness on in my own life as well.”
Jason said one night he remembers well is the night his uncle Kyle gathered the family together in December 2004 to tell them he would stay at Utah rather than take the helm of his alma mater.
“I remember that night quite well,” he said. “We were all over at his house. It was a tough decision, and a lot of family was over there helping him have a clear mind so he could make the right decision for himself and his family. I think he did make the right decision.”
Whittingham said he wanted his uncle to take the BYU job, but not because he favored the Cougars over the Utes.
“I kind of had a little fantasy going there in my head,” he said smiling. “It was exciting to know that my family could all come down and live with me in Utah County. But I kind of knew he’d stay at Utah, that he’d stay loyal to where he’d been all those years. And I think he did what was in his heart. I think he made the right choice.”
Jason sometimes prods his father to regale him with stories of his BYU glory days, including the year the Cougars were national champs in 1984. Both his father and his uncle, Fred Whittingham Jr., now director of player personnel at Utah, played on that team.
“He doesn’t ever brag about anything,” said Jason of Cary Whittingham. “Sometimes I ask my dad who was on the 1984 national championship team, and what that was like, but he doesn’t have much to say. He just kind of brushes it off like it was no big deal.”
Still, Jason knows there is more to the story because he sees the dedication of his uncles and his father to both the game and to their families.
“I know they were all hard workers on those BYU teams that they played on, and I’m just trying to follow in their footsteps and hopefully (help) Utah to have a good season this year.”
After Saturday’s overtime loss to Oregon State, Jason Whittingham said the defense simply needed to play tougher if they wanted to create turnovers, something they haven’t been able to do in their first two games.
“We just weren’t hitting hard enough,” he said. “We’ve got to hit people in the mouth, and I feel like we weren’t doing that tonight.”
To create turnovers, he said, Utah’s defense must find a way to play tougher.
He said that’s something he feels personally responsible to do, especially in light of his family heritage.
“I take a lot of it upon myself to have that mentality that we need this ball back, we need it for our offense,” he said. “It’s kind of like, when you go against an offense, it’s like who’s tougher? If you can get a turnover, then it shows you’re tougher than the offense. You impose your will upon them.”
While he admits there is something special about the rivalry game, which he missed last season due to injury, he sees the wisdom in approaching the contest the same way the Utes approach any other opponent. He also knows to expect the unexpected.
“You kind of want to skip the first three quarters and go straight to the fourth in this game sometimes because that’s where the most exciting parts happen," he said, recalling last year’s wild finish. “You never know what to expect in this game. It seems kind of like a bigger win than any other on the schedule when you get that win, but it’s really not.”
Despite the ties the Whittinghams have to BYU, and even some affection, the family is united in their support for Kyle, Fred Jr. and Jason this weekend.
His twin brother, Trevor, attends BYU, but on Saturday he’ll be rooting for the Utes.
“My brother is faithful to the family,” said Whittingham. “He is rooting for Utah. He is always there to support me, and he’s one of my biggest fans.”
And when he runs out onto the field, he will feel a sense of responsibility to a grandfather he lost in 2003 and a father and uncles who show him every day the best way to honor Mad Dog’s legacy — on and off the field.
“I always loved hearing those stories,” he said. “It hits my heart in a spot that nothing else really does knowing that my grandpa is up there watching me play football, and I just try to make him proud.”
BYU NOTES: BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy, an All-America candidate, has 23 career sacks, making him the NCAA's FBS active career leader in the category. He needs 11 sacks this season to tie the career sack record (33) at BYU. The Cougars are 2-3 at home against Utah since 2003. Two BYU players ranked in the top five nationally in average rushing yards. Jamaal Williams (163 ypg) is No. 3 in the nation, while Taysom Hill (150.5) is No. 5. BYU is 66-8 under coach Bronco Mendenhall when the Cougars score at least 24 points. When BYU scores fewer than 24 points, the Cougars are 9-22. When BYU scores more than 30 points, the Cougars are 50-3.
UTAH NOTES: This is the Utes’ first road game of the season. ... Wide receiver Dres Anderson is coming off of back-to-back 100-yard receiving games. The junior had 103 against Weber State and 101 in last week’s Pac-12 opener with Oregon State. ... After beating Utah State earlier this season, Utah can win the Beehive Boot outright with a win Saturday. ... The Utes are 13-6 in games broadcast on ESPN2. ... Utah quarterback Travis Wilson is second in the Pac-12 in passing yards per completion (16.9) and points responsible (72). ... The Utes are 2-0 this season when scoring first and when leading after three quarters.
Contributing: Dirk Facer and Jeff Call