SALT LAKE CITY — Kyle Whittingham’s reaction revealed what he thought of the targeting call that sent his leading tackler to the locker room in the first quarter.
His face, normally stoic and inexpressive, twisted into a mixture of anger and incredulity.
That, however, was the only evidence that the longtime Utah football coach shared any of the outrage that erupted among fans and media analysts over the ejection of senior linebacker Chase Hansen Saturday night.
Twitter exploded with criticism of the call as a short clip of Hansen’s hit on Colorado quarterback Steven Montez was shared thousands of times during and long after the game. Stories popped up on websites, and conspiracy theoriesabounded.
And then there were the calls for Whittingham to do the most un-Whittingham thing of all — rant about the unfairness of what happened to Hansen.
The outrage was understandable.
First of all, Hansen is one of likable athletes on the team. He’s polite, articulate, humble and insightful. The Lone Peak alumnus has proven to be one of the most resilient players on the Utah roster, changing from quarterback to safety to linebacker, and excelling wherever he landed.
This year, as a senior captain, Hansen started every game at rover linebacker, and he’s been one of the best in the conference. He leads Utah with 88 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and five sacks.
So it is with that backdrop that fans and media viewed what was, at best, a questionable call.
While the focus was on how Hansen seemed to deliberately avoid helmet-to-helmet contact, NCAA rules about targeting don’t require that for a targeting call to be made. It says targeting occurs “when a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.”
The rule then lists a few examples of “targeting” behavior, including leaving one’s feet, crouching and then thrusting upward, and leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm hand, elbow or fist with forcible contact at the head or neck area.
Hansen’s sack on Montez was not targeting.
Some official somewhere will have to defend it, and, in real time, most of us understand how an official might make that call. But, on replay, it is clear that Hansen did what was necessary to tackle Montez and nothing more.
In fact, it wasn’t even close to the most brutal hit of the game.
I didn’t see, read or hear a single defense of the targeting call.
What I did hear were a lot of people hoping Whittingham’s righteous rage would boil over into what many saw as a “defense of his player.”
In fact, there was even talk of how much they hoped he would be fined, and how they’d gladly contribute to a fund to pay the penalty that can be levied against coaches who publicly criticize the officials.
Instead, Whittingham did what he is always claiming he asks his players to do — trust the next guy in line to do his job.
I admit that hearing a team has a “Next Man Up mentality” gets old. But I’ve come to believe that’s because most of them don’t truly believe that.
In Utah’s case, they’ve had several gut-wrenching opportunities to prove that isn’t just a cliché they throw around to avoid answering questions about how much they’ll miss what each unique athlete brings to the team effort.
They lost what most of us considered their two best offensive players in quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, and, instead of succumbing to the lower expectations, they captured the Pac-12 South title and will play for the Pac-12 championship for the first time on Nov. 30.
Coaches always preach that players should ignore what they can’t control, including media criticism, trash-talking opponents and baffling calls from officials.
But that’s often easier said than done.
Something about playing with passion and the competitive nature make perceived unfairness tough to take without a little pushback.
It would have been entertaining, and momentarily satisfying, for Whittingham to tell us how outrageous he found the call, how unfair it was, and how it penalized one of the hardest working, most contentious players on the field.
But, instead, he taught us — and his players — a different lesson.
The game isn’t fair. Neither is life.
Bad things happen to good people. Unfortunately, the satisfaction that comes from venting can suck us into a negative spiral. Sympathy feels pretty good, and having our outrage validated, even shared, is somehow soothing.
It changes nothing.
In fact, the only thing that will change our circumstance is our attitude and our effort.20 comments on this story
So why not trust someone willing to step in and help out in an unexpected situation? Why not see setbacks as a challenge to resolve, creativity and resilience?
Whittingham didn’t explicitly say any of that after Saturday’s win. Instead, he showed it by offering that same unsatisfying cliché that allowed Utah to achieve something most thought they’d lost three weeks ago to bad luck.
“It was just a matter of next man up,” he said, his stoicism returned. “That’s the mentality you’ve got to have.”