UTAH UTES

Kyle Whittingham Talks Navigating Adversity At Inaugural Union Scholarship Speaker Series

Feb 24, 2023, 1:14 PM

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham was invited by the A. Ray Olpin Student Union to speak about overcoming adversity at their inaugural Union Scholarship Speaker Series.

The Union Scholarship Fund was created 12 years ago and has given out over $800,000 in scholarships since its creation.

The Speaker Series was created in an effort to raise funds for those scholarships which go out some of the best and brightest students at the University of Utah. Too often, those students also are the ones who may not be able to continue their education without the scholarship making Thursday night’s event an important one.

Student Union Director Branden Dalley and Communications and Development Manager Hamza Yaqoobi guided the event, coming up with questions for Whittingham that would both inspire the students they are trying to help, while providing insight to the curious fan in attendance.

Utah Football Graduates Their Guys At High Rates

It’s easy to get caught up in the product on the field when it comes to college athletics, but it’s not the most gratifying part of coaching according to Whittingham. The biggest reward instead is watching guys grow up and leave with a degree in hand.

“The most gratifying part of the job is bringing in a 17, 18-year-old kid that is maybe a little undisciplined,” Whittingham said. “Maybe he doesn’t get work ethic, doesn’t get how to handle himself or behave and just see him grow and mature through the years here and leave with a degree in hand- that is absolutely the most rewarding part of the job. You’d be amazed at how many of our players are the first-time graduates in their family.”

 

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We hear it all the time- there is a reason why “student” comes before “athlete” in student-athlete and Whittingham believes that. His athletes are first and foremost there to get an education.

“That’s why they are here, and we have a 92% graduation rate,” Whittingham said of his program. “We are really proud of what we do on the field, but we are obviously even more proud of what we do in the classroom and that is only second to Stanford this year in the Pac-12. Two of the last three years we actually were ahead of Stanford. That’s job one here at the University of Utah is to get these young men in here and provide a future.”

What exactly does Whittingham mean by providing a future? Obviously, some of his players will go on and have futures in football whether it be playing in the NFL or finding their way into coaching. However, at some point the road ends for everyone and it’s important to have an insurance policy which is where the education comes in.

“Some will go on and play in the NFL, but at some point, it will end for every one of them and if they have that degree- they have some options,” Whittingham said. “They can do what they want to do and not what someone tells them to do.”

Some Favorite Utah Football Memories

When you career spans 30 years at the same place, you have a lot of options when it comes to choosing favorite memories. However, when that 30-year tenure is spent with a program that has seemingly made the impossible possible at every conjecture of their journey through college football, some obvious choices arise.

“We had 21-nothing in the first quarter before they even knew what hit them,” Whittingham said of the 2009 Sugar Bowl against Alabama. “That was coming off of a 12-0 season and just a great way to culminate the season- put an exclamation on the season. That was a great football team, we had great leaders on that team. So many of those guys went on to play in the National Football League. That’s got to be number one.”

“As an assistant, probably the Fiesta Bowl year,” Whittingham continued of his second choice. “That was 2004 and we played Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl that January. That was another great year and then these last two years. We got into the Pac-12 Conference in 2011 and we’ve been working our tails off ever since then to win that championship. To be able to do that in consecutive seasons is pretty special. Nobody has ever done it three times in a row so that is our goal this year is to try and threepeat.”

22 Forever, Navigating Difficult Times

The thing about life is you never truly know what is around the next corner. That certainly was the case for Utah football toward the end of the 2020 season when they lost freshman phenom Ty Jordan to an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound on Christmas Day.

Even more unthinkable was losing Jordan’s best friend on the team, Aaron Lowe, nine months later after being murdered at a house party. As Whittingham said, there isn’t much you can do to prepare for a situation like that.

“We’ve certainly had some difficult times losing Ty and Aaron a couple of years ago,” Whittingham said. “That’s as trying as it gets for a football coach and there is no blueprint for that. I had no idea how to handle that. We just navigated through it the best we could.”

Whittingham really credited having a group of players that truly love each other as the biggest factor in getting through the loss of two brothers on the team while simultaneously reaching new program heights with back-to-back Pac-12 Championships. Still, it’s not a wound that easily heals and Whittingham says Jordan and Lowe are still a big part of what the team does two years later.

“To this day we talk about Ty and Aaron almost every day down at the facility,” Whittingham said. “We remember the impact they had on the program- in fact, we are going to rename the spring game as the ’22 Forever Game’ and it happens to fall on the 22nd of April this year so that’s a good way to kick that off with that slogan for the game.”

Turning Heartache Into Something Beautiful: The Moment Of Loudness

Part of the healing process not only for Utah football, but the community and fans who cheer for them has been the creation of the “Moment of Loudness” that happens between the third and fourth quarters of every home football game. Whittingham says to this day it gets him every time.

“I get choked up every time I see it,” Whittingham said. “Great job by our social media department putting that together. All those people you see in the collage- those are people who have lost their lives in the last few years who were Utah fans or Utah students. I guess you could say it’s a rallying cry for our football team and we use that as motivation to finish the game and play as hard as we can possibly play in the fourth quarter.”

Rallying Around Cam Rising

There was a lot of buzz heading into the Utes’ second Rose Bowl appearance that quarterback Cam Rising would opt to come back for one last season in 2023. While that did in fact come to fruition, it also came with a hitch- ACL surgery for an injury Rising sustained during the “Grandaddy of them All”. There appears to be optimism in the building for an early return for the gunslinger, but Whittingham says it will be a long road.

“It is a long, hard process,” Whittingham said. “This is the second time Cam has been through this- he had a shoulder surgery the last time around. An ACL is probably as extensive a rehab as you get, I guess an achilles tendon would be very similar.”

As far as loving his players through a tough recovery, Whittingham says it’s all about keeping guys around the program and making sure they know they are missed and valued.

“First thing is to keep them close to the program,” Whittingham said. “Have them attend all of the meetings. Obviously, they can’t go out and practice. Give them support with other players. We’ll have other players go visit them and make sure they know that we are thinking about them, and they stay connected to the team. That’s really the biggest thing is keeping them connected and let them know we still consider them part of the team even though they can’t be with us on a full-time basis during the rehab.”

Mental Toughness Will Get You Through

To close, Whittingham was asked to talk about what he thought regular students and people out working in the world might benefit from in his experience working as a coach. Again, unsurprisingly, Whittingham went to “mental toughness” as a tool that can be applied anytime, anywhere for any reason to help get someone where they want to be.

“I’d say mental toughness is probably right at the top of the list,” Whittingham said. “Being mentally tough is kind of a broad term, but it’s simply doing the right thing, in the right way over, and over, and over again and not deviate from that. Having mental toughness to stay disciplined and stay on track- that’s not only doing the things you’re supposed to do, but not doing the things you’re not supposed to do. We tell our guys if they expect extraordinary results, you better put in extraordinary effort and extraordinary sacrifice because you can’t get that any other way.”

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BodkinKSLsports

 

 

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Kyle Whittingham Talks Navigating Adversity At Inaugural Union Scholarship Speaker Series