Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham smiles on the field during the game against the Arizona Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.

SAN DIEGO — Kyle Whittingham has experienced numerous bowl games, large and small. This year’s Holiday Bowl will be his 13th as head coach. His success rate looks like Spielberg’s. He has the top winning percentage in college football bowl history (.916), and his 11 wins are tied for second among active coaches.

But this game bears an importance of its own.

This is not your basic winter getaway to Las Vegas.

Like San Diego itself, the Holiday Bowl never gets tiresome. Would it matter if it did? Whittingham never clowns his way through bowl season. At Sunday’s press conference, he compared bowl game preparation to readying for the first game of a season.

Bowl time is made for blather about all games counting the same, sticking to a routine, respecting the process, etc. Whittingham actually lives by these things. Beating Northwestern on Monday, in this town, is highly significant for him on several fronts. Here are all the best reasons for Whit to keep being Whit as another bowl game rolls around:

Conference credibility: The Pac-12 went 1-8 in bowl games last year, the only win coming in Utah’s 30-14 victory over West Virginia. This year, the conference started with Arizona State losing to Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl and Cal falling to TCU in the Cheez-It Bowl. But on Friday, the Pac-12 caught a break as Washington State held off Iowa State.

Considering the conference has been wavering in prestige and success, beating a notable Big Ten team (i.e. not Indiana) in a bowl game would be a boost for both Utah and the conference. Win, and the Utes can say they’re doing their part for the league. Lose, and they may as well admit they really weren’t that good, despite winning the Pac-12 South.

Recruiting: The Utes have more players from California than anywhere except Utah. Winning here is a crucial step in signing top-level players from a talent-rich area.

“Southern Cal is our primary area. If you look at our roster, the bulk of our team is from Southern California, in-state and Southern Cal, top two areas,” Whittingham said. “To be able to play in that footprint is a plus. … That definitely is an added bonus to playing down here.”

Utah’s incoming group will be small, due to a small graduating class. But what it has signed so far isn’t especially flashy. No one is among ESPN’s top 300 commits, and the Utes didn’t ink anyone higher than a three-star recruit on early signing day.

A win over the Big Ten could convince some of the better players out West to stick around. Getting them to Salt Lake is another matter.

Prestige: Whittingham was co-head coach for the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, and it was entirely his program in 2009 when the Utes won the Sugar Bowl.

But since then, they’ve been through a string of lightweight bowls: Poinsettia, Las Vegas, Sun, Foster Farms and Heart of Dallas.

The Holiday Bowl is a notch down from the New Year’s Six bowls. But the combined $6.326 million payout is more than triple that of last year’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.

“We’re elated to be where we’re at,” Whittingham said.

Critics say in big-time sports, it’s all about the winning. True. Which in turn means it’s really all about the Benjamins.

Positioning: Whittingham is 4-0 against the Big Ten (3-0 vs. Michigan, 1-0 vs. Indiana). Much has been made of the revenue disparity between conferences, as well as the Pac-12’s scarcity of College Football Playoff invitations. So even beating a good Big Ten team like Northwestern would count toward dispelling the opinion the Pac-12 is becoming a major mid-major conference.

Pride: Whittingham has plenty of that. It can be Tulsa (2006 Armed Forces), Colorado State (2014 Las Vegas) or Alabama (2009 Sugar), but with him, it will never be a vacation. Ask the players. This week they had the standard Navy ship tour and zoo visit. But don’t think Whittingham failed to remind them this is a football trip.

Some coaches see bowl games as a reward. He sees them as a calling.

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History: Whittingham played in the Holiday Bowl at BYU from 1978-81. There’s something serendipitous about him returning to his roots.

“It’s great,” Whittingham said. “In some ways surreal.” The memory will be sweeter if he wins here than if he were in, say, in Memphis, Las Vegas or Boise. In sentimental ways, it might even be sweeter than if they had gone bowling in San Antonio.

“If we weren't able to go ahead to the Rose Bowl,” Whittingham said, “this is where we wanted to be.”

Playing in a bowl game in maritime San Diego?

After all these years, he must have thought that ship had sailed.