It’s a great place to live and people don’t want to leave it. It’s a great, great place to raise a family, and so I think that’s a big reason why there’s so much crossover. —Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — It didn’t long take long for the Whittinghams to make the switch. Despite a rich history with BYU football, the family went from blue to red as soon as patriarch Fred Whittingham was hired as Utah’s defensive coordinator in 1992. There’s been a Whittingham with the Utes ever since.
“Blood is thicker than water,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “I say that all the time, but we’re a very close family and family is everything to us.”
As such, he noted that their team allegiances changed “overnight” in support of his dad. Fred Whittingham was hired by Ron McBride after 10 years as a coach and scout with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Prior to that, he worked at BYU from 1973-81.
Kyle, a former star linebacker for the Cougars, became a Utah assistant in 1994.
“It wasn’t as big of a deal when I came aboard because I had already mentally made the transition, I guess you could say,” said Kyle Whittingham, who noted that he had been following his father and rooting for the Utes for a couple of years.
The younger Whittingham became defensive coordinator in 1995. A decade later, he took over as head coach. Since then, the coaching tree in the rivalry has extended well beyond family.
Saturday’s Utah-BYU game at Rice-Eccles Stadium features nine full-time coaches, including head men Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake, who have worked or played on both sides.
“I guess the longer you’re in it that just naturally happens. Your tree expands and so, yeah, there’s quite a few guys in this game that have all coached together at one point or another,” Whittingham said. “The coaching circles are pretty small in actuality. It’s a small circle, the coaching world.”
Besides the head coach, Utah’s staff includes three other former BYU players — co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, linebackers coach Justin Ena and tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham.
Then there’s wide receivers coach Guy Holliday, who spent the past three seasons as an assistant at BYU.
The Cougars, meanwhile, have four ex-Utah staffers — Sitake, defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, tight ends coach Steve Clark and defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi.
“There are a lot of friendships and fun behind it all. I know I love Kyle and he loves me. We are going to be friends no matter what,” Sitake said. “This is going to be one of those things that extends our friendship. We will get on the football field and compete, then we will hug afterwards and it's whatever you make of it.”
Sitake, a longtime Utah assistant coach who was one of Whittingham’s first hires in 2005, has downplayed any negativity associated with the game.
“I don’t see it as a big-time rivalry hatred as a lot of others see it. It's a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s exciting and there is a lot of good people involved on fan bases, so it’s going to be another great weekend.”
Ena, a former BYU linebacker, has similar thoughts. He noted that it’s always a good contest with guys playing hard. It’s rivalry week and the players are amped up.
The large coaching crossover, Ena acknowledged, might be a little strange at first.
“There’s a lot of guys on both sides,” he said.
However, it won’t take long for that novelty to wear off.
“It’s football,” Ena said. “We’ve just got to be ready to fight and do all we can to get that ‘W’ on Saturday.”
That’s the approach Holliday is taking. He considers the rivalry one of the most underrated matchups in the country.
“I’m not going to say it’s just another game because it’s the rival game. Does it mean any more to me because I worked there? No,” Holliday said. “I enjoyed my team there. Like I’ve said, I’ve got a great deal of respect for those people there.”
Even so, Holliday has a clear objective Saturday.
“I want to win the freaking game for the University of Utah, not for Guy Holliday. I’m going out to win,” he explained. “I wasn’t fired. I don’t hold any grudges. I love Kalani like a family member. But like I said, at the end of the day I want to win the game.”
Holliday cited a desire to do so for the Utah players, coach Whit and Ute fans.
Switching sides, Holliday added, is part of the business. You do what’s best for you and your family, he said, and you can’t anything personal.
As the latest coach to change sides, though, Saturday’s game will be a bit different. Holliday noted it will probably hit him when guys walk on the field that he coached and recruited.
“But at the end of the day, it’s going to be 60 minutes of war on the football field,” Holliday said. “I want to win the game.”
When the final horn sounds, though, things will be more civil. Holliday expressed respect for folks like Sitake, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, university President Kevin J. Worthen and Vice President Matthew Richardson.
“We’ll be friends after it’s over,” Holliday said. “That’s the great thing about this game.”
Holliday, however, knows that fans may not feel the same way.
As for the coaches — especially this time around — there is an abundance of common ground. Whittingham, though, doesn’t think the familiarity will have a significant impact whatsoever on the game.
Even so, it’s an intriguing storyline.
“There’s a lot of crossover,” said Whittingham, who added that demographics are a factor. “It’s a great place to live and people don’t want to leave it. It’s a great, great place to raise a family, and so I think that’s a big reason why there’s so much crossover.”