Kyle Whittingham Discusses Greatest Coaching Influences, Players Over 30-Year Career

Mar 3, 2023, 11:11 AM | Updated: 11:18 am

SALT LAKE CITY โ€“ย 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 last week. Whittingham also discussed some of the greatest coaching influences and players throughout his 30-year career with the Utes.

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 last Thursday nightโ€™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.


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The Biggest Coaching Influences Through Whittingham’s Career

Whittingham has had an impressive and virtually unheard-of career with the Utes that has spanned 30 years with no break. He joined the staff in 1994 as a defensive line coach, worked his way up to defensive coordinator, and is now going into this 19th season as Utah football’s head coach.

“Counting Idaho State- I’ve only been to two places- Idaho State and University of Utah, 35 years I believe,” Whittingham said of his coaching career. “That’s quite a long time and to be in one place for going on 30 years is incredible in this profession. It just doesn’t happen. I feel extremely blessed and fortunate to be with the University of Utah that entire time. Most coaches at the collegiate level through that time will be at 10 or 12 different universities. I’ve had some opportunities to go places, but this is home for me. I love it here, I plan to retire here at some point in the next, who knows? Not too much longer, but very fortunate.”

As you would expect from a guy who has coached for as long as Whittingham has, he’s drawn inspiration and been influenced by the coaches around him. There are four coaches Whittingham has been under either as a player or an assistant coach who have greatly shaped how he’s made the Utah football program his own starting with his own father, Fred “Mad Dog” Whittingham.

“First of all, I grew up as a defensive coach,” Whittingham said. “I played defense, I was a defensive coordinator- always coached on the defensive side of the ball so my father, Fred Whittingham was absolutely the biggest influence on who I am and what I am as a defensive coach, strategist, and technique and fundamental-wise. I had the unique opportunity to play for him in college, he was my position coach, and I had the unique opportunity to coach with him here at the University of Utah. I got hired here in ’94 and he was the defensive coordinator. One year later he left and went to the NFL to coach, and I became the coordinator. Three years later he came back to us, and he was coaching under me.”

Whittingham went on to talk about the positive influence his own college coach had on in him in legendary BYU head coach LaVell Edwards.

“Tremendous person,” Whittingham said. “Just a great hirer of staff members. He had great staffs down there. Let them do their job, didn’t try to micromanage and really was a guy who made the attitude and the personality of the team very steady and even keeled. Never too high, never too low, just a very steadying influence on a football team.”

Finally, Whittingham went into detail about the two head coaches he worked under at the University of Utah before he took the program over in 2005.

“Ron McBride, the guy who hired me here at Utah and gave me my first opportunity to coach at this level,” Whittingham said. “What I learned most from him was all about recruiting. Recruiting is 80% of your success or lack thereof. If you don’t have the material, you’re going to struggle. I don’t care what kind of coach you are. Coach McBride helped me to understand and learn how to recruit a young man from A to Z. The whole cycle, how to deal with the parents- just the whole structure of recruiting a young man to the Division I level. That was absolutely crucial to my development as a head coach.”

“Then Urban Meyer,” Whittingham finished. “I only had a couple of years with him here, but he’s a meticulous, detailed guy that nothing was left to chance. He had a plan for everything. Just a great organizer, great motivator. When coach McBride got fired, I was on the staff, and I thought I should have been considered for the job. When Urban got the job, it turned out that was the best thing to ever happen to me because those two years were invaluable to me to really let me observe a real master organizer, master motivator. When he left, of course that is when I got my opportunity.”

Praising The Coaches On His Own Staffs

At 19 years on the job as a head coach, Whittingham has had his own assortment of talented coaches come through the Utah program. Whether they still work for him or have gone on to find success on their own, it’s very clear that Whittingham not only understands how to find talent on the field, but also talent on his staffs, and sometimes both at the same time.

“There are a few of them,” Whittingham said. “First of all, Brian Johnson. I hired him here when he was 24 years old which is extremely young for a Division I football coach. I actually made the error of making him coordinator two years later. I should have waited one more year cuz he wasn’t quite ready for that, but he’s proven he’s got everything it takes to be a great football coach. He’s ascended just on a great trajectory. My guess is he will be a head coach in the National Football League in the next two to three years. He’s a guy who is outstanding.”

Whittingham next had high praise for his former defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and special teams coordinator Jay Hill who are now both down at BYU as the head coach and defensive coordinator.

“Down in Provo, doing a great job there,” Whittingham said. “When I got him on the staff it was very apparent from day one that he had the makings of a head football coach and what it took to succeed at the highest levels. Jay Hill was at Weber State for seven years and now just made the move down to Provo. He’s also another guy who really is a talented coach and I won’t call him a young coach anymore. He’s mid-40’s, but he’s really got a lot of bright things ahead in his future.”

Finding Leaders Among Young Men

Perhaps one of the biggest trademarks of Utah football over the years has been finding exceptional leaders in young men both on and off the field. At 30 years on the job, Whittingham has seen some of the best of the best to come through the Utes’ program both as an assistant coach and as a head coach.

Alex Smith comes to mind right out of the gate,” Whittingham said. “Alex was a tremendous quarterback for us. He was the QB for that 2004 season, the guy graduated in 2 1/2 years. He’s a brilliant, brilliant young man and what a tremendous leader he was for our football team. Nobody outworked Alex Smith, constantly in the film room, constantly staying after practice working on that extra skill or play that would make a difference in the game.”

Eric Weddle was a tremendous leader for us,” Whittingham continued. “Played what? 10, 12 years in the National Football League and was a real inspirational leader for us. Morgan Scalley who is on our staff now and who is hopefully in line to succeed me. I think that is the plan as of now, and he was a great leader for us back when he played. It’s been, gosh, about 12 years since he played, and he was a conference player of the year and great captain and leader for us. Brian Johnson would be another one. There are half a dozen players that have really stood out through the years and those are a few of those guys.”

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


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Kyle Whittingham Discusses Greatest Coaching Influences, Players Over 30-Year Career