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Urban Meyer Almost Didn’t Retain Kyle Whittingham As Defensive Coordinator In 2003

(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Former Utah coach Urban Meyer admitted that he almost didn’t retain Kyle Whittingham as defensive coordinator when Meyer took over the football program.

Both Meyer and Whittingham interviewed for the job that was vacant when Ron McBride was let go. Former Utah Athletic Director Dr. Chris Hill gave the job to Meyer over Whittingham.

Whittingham joined Urban Meyer on the “Ring Chronicles” to look back on the 2003 Utah football Mountain West Conference championship team on the FOX College Football social platforms on Monday.

“Everybody has a circle of trust and people that when you interview jobs, you’re thinking about your career,” Meyer said on the “Ring Chronicles.” I knew of Kyle Whittingham. I knew his father. Obviously in the football world, you had to know about the Whittingham family. I was at Colorado State so I knew the defensive mentality, the toughness. But then I had friends that I trusted in the business say you know you have to move on and start fresh.

“First of all, there was a coach there named Ron McBride, excellent coach, great, great recruiter, and the players loved him,” Meyer continued. “And then all of a sudden you have a guy that interview for the job, Kyle Whittingham, you need a fresh start, break clean and bring your own program there. I was ready to do that and I met with Kyle and his wife and Shelly and I, one thing I’ve been very fortunate is surround myself with big time people and Kyle is as good of a football coach as I have ever been around I could tell that right away at dinner. I get paid to coach the offense and special teams. I’m gonna hire the best defensive coach I can get my hands on and that was Kyle Whittingham.”

Whittingham was originally disappointed when he didn’t get the head coaching job at Utah but was grateful to be retained by Meyer.

“I was a little bit disappointed because I hadn’t got the job, Chris Hill that morning had told me that ‘hey, I need you to come over to the hotel and meet somebody it’s the guy we just hired for the head coach,’ didn’t tell me a name or anything,” Whittingham said. “So I head over to the hotel and sat down and visited with urban and seemed to click right away. I mean, it seemed to be a lot of common ground between the two of us. We ended up going out to dinner that night with the wives and I would feel very fortunate afterwards to be able to be retained. That’s not the typical course of action and coach Meyer had a great, very good defensive coordinator at Bowling Green, he was there and could very easily have brought him with him and obviously knew of other quality coaches throughout the country so being able to stay on and be at a university that had been at for what 10 years prior was great for me and great for my family. I felt very fortunate to be able to do that.”

Emotional Air Force Game

On November 1, 2003, Utah traveled to Air Force. But, a tragedy struck Kyle Whittingham the week leading up to the game with the Falcons.

“We’re getting ready to play a wishbone team, which is difficult enough, then our defense coordinator Kyle obviously, his legendary father, great college football coach, professional football coach, the guy that I admired, a guy that was known well throughout Utah and really the country passes away earlier in the week and it was awful,” Meyer said. “As you can imagine, our team went to the funeral down in Provo and coach Whitt needed some time with his mom. Once you start to realize that we’re going to national television Chris Spielman is going to call the game and I’m not gonna have my defense coordinator against Air Force, I think they were ranked at the time and one of the best offenses in America.”

Despite dealing with the tragedy of losing his father, Whittingham made it to Colorado Springs on the day of the game.

“But we also know that family comes first,” Meyer stated. “We had to get a private plane to fly him in the morning of the game. He basically didn’t gameplan all week, I think in his own mind, he did because that’s the kind of coach he is. He shows up at the game and I’ve never been more happy to see a football coach in my life. We go out there and we put it on early. They come back in the second half and it’s triple overtime. They score, we score, they score, we score and triple overtime, they score a touchdown and he goes for two because you have to in the third one, and to this day Kyle and I believe that his father tripped him up. The quarterback ran triple option and was getting ready to jump in the end zone and he slipped. So we’re down by six.

“We don’t have a tailback now and I put Ben Moa, our 250 pound tight end at tailback, we’re in single lane offense, just pound the ball out, and it gets to fourth and one,” Meyer continued. “I’m getting ready to call the first jump pass, I think ever in college football, because we practiced it over and over again and the kid Ben Moa talks me into letting him run it one more time. We run it one more time, he scores, we call the jump pass, no one’s near the guy and we get a triple overtime win for Kyle, his family That really set the stage for the next few games. Matter of fact, we didn’t lose another game for the next year and a half.”

Whittingham remembered that week clearly.

That was a tough week,” Whittingham said. “It was a it was a great game. I had not had the opportunity to be with the team until in fact, I think was 45 minutes before kickoff when I finally got to the stadium and it was just surreal almost surreal in the way that thing played out at the end and just a great feeling at the end after a really obviously brutal week and tough loss for me.”

The Utes beat Air Force 45-43 in triple overtime to improve their record to 7-2.

Rivalry Snow Game

Meyer’s first ever rivalry game against BYU was not the game that he had hoped for offensively. Utah beat BYU 3-0 in the regular season finale that sealed the 2003 Mountain West Conference Championship for the Utes. Whittingham loved that game.

“Yeah, it wasn’t a blizzard, but it was cold and it was snowing and not a lot of offense that day and you know, as a defensive coordinator that is your dream game is a three nothing game,” Whittingham mentioned. “It was at their place and we had shut them out, they had 300 some odd games in a row of scoring, which was an NCAA record of a non-shutout streak going on, but I know that being able to go down there and win that game, because that was a huge rivalry back then. I mean, it’s still a rivalry but but back then it was gigantic. We’ve been playing good offense, we have scored 40-plus points, 30-plus points three or four games in a row prior to that game. But the conditions were just not conducive to a lot offense that day and then being able to come away with a 3-0 victory and put that streak to an end was a thrill for our defense.”

Meyer, being the offensive minded coach, was not happy that they only scored three points and wanted to get a touchdown before the game ended. But, Whittingham intervened.

“Another great story about that one, Kyle will remember, that was the first offensive game that we were held to a touchdown since I was a head coach and I took that very personal,” Meyer admitted. “It was six, seven inches of snow on the ground, the wind blowing and we just kept running the quarterback, running the tailback and our defense stops them on about the 20 yard line. All you got to do is kneel on the clock to win the game and I said the heck with this man, we’re gonna go try to score a touchdown here. Kyle hears it. He comes running down the field and once again very respectfully puts his arm around me says, ‘hey, kneel on the ball.’ I said, ‘screw that man, we’re going to score a touchdown here we have to’ and he goes ‘coach, kneel on the ball. It’s over. It’s over,’ and as bad as I wanted to go score the right thing to do. I listen to very few people in those kind of moments and we knelt on the ball and got out of there.”

Trevor Allen is a Utah Utes Insider for KSLSports.com and host of the Crimson Corner podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorASportsYou can download and listen to the podcast, here.

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