How A Fateful Meeting Launched Nick Saban, Kyle Whittingham In College Football

Jan 12, 2024, 12:36 PM

SALT LAKE CITY – The College Football world was rocked on January 10, 2024, as news came down of Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban’s retirement.

Love him, hate him, or indifferent to him – Saban grew to become the standard of the sport when he took over the job in 2007.

However, there feels like a point in time when Saban and the Crimson Tide really launched into how we all know and recognize them now in the modern era of College Football. That point and time was 15 years ago, on January 2, 2009.

Enter Kyle Whittingham and the Utah Utes- a matchup no one saw coming.

The Standard Of College Football Vs. The Constantly Underrated

Saban was just two years into his tenure with the Crimson Tide when he was fatefully paired against Utah and Whittingham in the Sugar Bowl.

At that time, Saban finished a 7-6 2007 season (an NCAA investigation later vacated five of those wins) and had improved to 12-1 in the regular season in 2008 (the Utes gave the Tide their second loss that year).

On the other hand, Whittingham was four years into being the head coach of the Utes after taking over for Urban Meyer in 2005. Through that time, Whittingham led Utah to 7-5, 8-5, and 9-4 records before going 12-0 in the regular season in 2008.


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Anyone who is an avid college football fan knows the history and lore of Alabama football- specifically under Hall of Fame coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Those days were long behind the Crimson Tide, however, when Saban took over. Though, a glimmer of hope was beginning to emerge under his new reign.

For Utah, basketball was their true history. The Utes had their moments in football, but nothing like Alabama or the proud SEC.

When it came to football, most of Utah’s history was recent, including being the first non-automatic qualifying school to “bust” the BCS in 2004 before being the first to do it twice when they met Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

A Game That Launched College Football Legends

At this point, I believe we all know what happened in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

Utah went on to win convincingly, 31-17 after jumping out 21-0 alone in the first quarter.

The result shook everything we thought we knew about College Football.

The SEC and MWC rarely ever mixed and mingled at that point. Even more so, the MWC never won if they did.

The result, when reflected upon, also appears to be a launching point in two very different, yet successful College Football coaching careers.

Since the loss to Utah in 2009, Alabama and Saban went on to win six National Championships- three in the BCS era and three in the College Football Playoff era.

Saban also posted a 187-21 record since that meeting. (201-29 all together with the vacated wins in 2007 or 206-29 still counting them).

Saban has only lost to 22 different coaches in his entire career- Whittingham being one of them.

Saban has set the standard for how to do the most with more, not lose focus, and just win.

On the other hand, Utah and Whittingham found themselves tasked with transforming from that “cute” Group of Five school that occasionally harpooned a whale to being one of the whales in the Power Five after receiving an invite to join the Pac-12 in 2010.

Mission accomplished.

The Utes made the Pac-12 Championship game four times in its 13-year existence, winning two of them and earning the program’s first-ever Rose Bowl appearances in the process.

Whittingham has racked up a record of 125-65 since going toe-to-toe with Saban and Alabama. (Whittingham’s total as a head coach currently sits at 162-79.)

Whittingham has also set a standard in College Football- how to do more with less, build a legacy, and make the impossible, possible.


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Nick Saban, Kyle Whittingham Have Done It Their Way

It’s hard to say for sure how much either coach has thought about the other, or even interacted since that fateful day 15 years ago.

Likely not much.

What does feel clear, however, is that 2009 Sugar Bowl unleashed something in Saban and Whittingham that helped propel both to greatness in their own rights.

Both have achieved their legacies with an unwavering belief in building culture, giving players second chances, accountability, and creating a “second home” while demanding the best from everyone around them.

There is little doubt of the positive impact both have had on young lives through the years.

Both coaches have done it the right way, in their own way, and College Football is so much better because of it.

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 XInstagram, and Threads: @BodkinKSLsports

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How A Fateful Meeting Launched Nick Saban, Kyle Whittingham In College Football