OC'S CORNER

O’Connell: Instead Of Searching For Greener Grass, Whittingham Waters His Own

Aug 21, 2019, 1:37 PM | Updated: 1:39 pm
Head Coach Kyle Whittingham of the Utah Utes looks on during the fourth quarter against the Colorad...
Head Coach Kyle Whittingham of the Utah Utes looks on during the fourth quarter against the Colorado Buffaloes at Folsom Field on November 26, 2016 in Boulder, Colorado. Colorado defeated Utah 27-22 and win the Pac-12 South. The Buffaloes will play Washington next week in the Pac-12 Championship. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – For years I have been fascinated with the concept of “destination” jobs in college sports.

How many are there in the world of college football? I’m not talking about good jobs. I’m not even talking about great jobs. I mean the miniscule handful of head coaching positions that are so good that the man in that position is not on the lookout for the next big opportunity, or to coach on greener grass in someone else’s backyard. If one factors in the allure of a position in the NFL, does a true “destination job” even exist in college football?

I think there are a select few gigs that are almost impossible to improve upon (given the coach is a winner, or course) but the list is exceedingly small, and probably shrinking. The group of university programs that can offer a winning coach an elite mix of salary, power, and talent resources is exceedingly small, and made up mostly of blueblood programs that have multiple national championships to their credit.

For me, the definitive list of “destination jobs” looks like this.

  • Alabama
  • Ohio State
  • Notre Dame
  • Oklahoma
  • Michigan
  • USC
  • Texas

I’ll admit that I’m a bit shaky on those last two. Still, for a coach who can consistently win in either place (without major NCAA violations), I don’t think there is any reason to leave those jobs.

I’m willing to hear the case made for another handful of schools who might be on that bubble.

  • Florida State (but… Jimbo Fisher didn’t think so)
  • Texas A&M (see above)
  • Georgia (we’ll see when Saban retires)
  • Maybe Clemson.

Also, I think it’s time to talk about how Oregon should be one the elite jobs but somehow isn’t just yet.

Unfortunately, BYU, Utah State, or even the University of Utah don’t fall into the “destination job” category.

But…

Here’s the thing…

There are rare occasions when the matching of a certain coach and a certain program are so ideal that a job that might otherwise be a stepping stone or stopover on the way to bigger and better things suddenly, (and probably temporarily) becomes an end-of-the-yellow-brick-road-forever-home kind of job.

The Perfect Marriage

I believe that the perfect marriage of personality and locality has created one of these situations at the University of Utah. Let’s be clear, as much as we may love the view from Rice-Eccles Stadium and cherish the knowledge that Salt Lake City is one of America’s hidden gems – Utah Football really has no business being a destination job.

No National Championships. No Heisman Trophies. No rain-or-shine guaranteed sellouts with 100,000 screaming fans. Not even a recruiting advantage in your own backyard. Utah’s best high school talents are not a well-kept secret anymore.

Probably most importantly, the head coaching gig with Utah Football does not come with a top-ten payday creeping over the 5-million-dollar-mark like other final-stop jobs. Still, Kyle Whittingham and Utah seem to have grown into a symbiotic relationship of assured permanence. Every year, the coaching carousel turns. Every year, Kyle Whittingham is named as a darkhorse candidate for a job where the boosters are a little more fanatical and generous, and the stadium and payday are a little bigger.

Seemingly every year, the announcement comes rather quietly that Utah has extended Coach Whitt, probably with a little bump in pay for himself and his pool of assistants. Maybe a little discussion is thrown in about the tension in negotiations, or how close Tennessee came to luring him away. In the end, that’s all dismissed as posturing. For Kyle Whittingham, one of the most consistent coaches in all of college football.

Utah is a destination job. It’s not a perfect marriage – because no marriage actually is – but it’s a stable one. The decades-long kind that are celebrated at the huge family reunions with a picture of all the great-grandkids spread out in front of a pavilion at Sugarhouse Park. The kind that makes it through the hard times and the fights with both parties still holding hands in the end. It’s incredibly unique in today’s business-first world of university athletics.

Whittingham’s Loyalty

I can think of only two or three other coaches in the entire landscape that would view the gig up on the hill the same way that Kyle Whittingham’s constant presence has proven he does. All of them are either current or former Utah assistants (Morgan Scalley, Jay Hill, Gary Anderson maybe?). Utah fans often forget how lucky they are to be presented with the reality of a coach who regularly wins big games and bowl games, develops two-star recruits into NFL draft picks, and (now) competes for Pac-12 championships; but still doesn’t have his eye on or a more prestigious job or a program that will offer a more realistic shot at a national championship.

This season promises to be an exciting year for football in the state of Utah, and for the University of Utah program. When the Utes inevitably drop a game that fans think they should have won, and the urge to question Kyle Whittingham surges through the fan base, I hope that people at least remember that the contempt they may have bred over all of these years comes because of a familiarity that is not even possible in most programs.

By all means, lament the late-season drop-offs and offensive woes, but do so with the knowledge that virtually any other coach with Kyle Whittingham’s credentials and opportunities would likely have left the program by now. Utah Football is a program to be proud of, even in leaner years.

A Pac-12 Championship would certainly change the history of the sport in our great state. But even if it happens, 2020 will roll in with Camp Kyle, and the Utes will trot out a stalwart defense and players will talk about family vibes in the program. Because the most frustrating struggles and loftiest accomplishments have not changed the fact that Utah Football is Kyle Whittingham’s mountaintop. Coach Whitt waters his own lawn instead of searching for greener grass. Championship season or not, Utah Football fans should remember how lucky they are to have that in their Head Coach.

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