Six years ago Kyle Whittingham was faced with a life-altering decision. His choice helped awaken a sleeping giant and change the college football landscape out West
This is an article from the Nov. 8, 2010 issue
He was by himself, but not alone. Visitors to the East Lawn Memorial Hill Cemetery in Provo, Utah, may have noticed the solitary figure in the gathering darkness, a square-jawed, fortysomething man whose handsome features were careworn and clouded. As snow fell on that chill
December evening in 2004, Kyle Whittingham sat on a bench before the grave of his father and waited—"Pleaded," he recalls—for some kind of sign.
Whittingham was a mess, paralyzed by indecision. Then Utah's defensive coordinator, he'd been a highly regarded assistant coach for two decades, paying his dues, biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity. In a twist both unique and cruel, he had been offered—on the same day—the head coaching jobs at BYU and Utah, the principals in a rivalry whose intensity often crossed the line into ugliness. Conflicted barely begins to describe how he felt.
Whittingham had been a star fullback and linebacker at Provo High in the mid-1970s before crossing the street, literally, to play at BYU, as would his three younger brothers and as had his father, legendary wild man and former NFL linebacker Fred (Mad Dog) Whittingham. A brawler and partier as a young adult, Mad Dog married a BYU cheerleader named Nancy Livingston, who by all accounts had a civilizing influence on him. Eventually he was persuaded to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mellowing slightly after his NFL career, Fred evolved into a respected coach. He was the defensive coordinator at Utah in 1994, when Kyle joined the staff.
Fred Whittingham died in 2003 at the age of 64 of complications stemming from back surgery. Fourteen months later, Kyle sat in that cemetery, hoping Mad Dog might dispense a morsel of guidance from the beyond. During Kyle's 11 seasons at Utah he'd struck deep roots in Salt Lake City. His wife, Jamie, and their four children were firmly in the Utes' camp. But Kyle's brothers, mother and in-laws (Jamie's father was a BYU professor) wanted him and his family in Provo. On Day Three of the drama, some 30 Utah players showed up at his house and pleaded with him to stay.
As Kyle anguished, the fates of the state's two major football programs hung in the balance. WE KNOW HOW that turned out. After five days of deliberation, Whittingham stayed put, replacing the departed Urban Meyer. Four years later Whittingham's Utes spanked proud Alabama in the Sugar Bowl 31--17, finishing the season 13--0 and No. 2 in the country. This season, following a 28--23 escape from Air Force last Saturday night, Utah is 8--0, sitting at No. 5 in the BCS standings and No. 6 in the AP poll as it prepares to host No. 4 TCU in a seismic clash that will have national implications.
Despite missing six players who were taken in the last NFL draft (only four teams had more), Utah is averaging 45.3 points a game (third in the nation) and giving up just 14.1 (sixth). Against Air Force the Utes' defense forced five turnovers, which essentially decided the outcome. But it also yielded 411 total yards plus a pair of long, quick-strike fourth-quarter touchdowns that allowed the Falcons back in the game.
After the win, as a gesture of respect to their hosts, the Utes followed the Air Force players to the northeast corner of Falcon Stadium, where they removed their helmets and stood with the cadets as the Air Force band played the school fight song. Between their nettlesome triple-option attack and their Spartanlike refusal to quit, the Falcons have given Utah fits down through the years. Making no attempt to disguise his relief at losing Air Force as a conference opponent, Whittingham wisecracked, "I'm telling [Utah AD] Chris Hill he's a dead man if he ever puts those guys on our schedule."
While the Utes are in the mix for their second BCS bowl in three years, unranked BYU is 3--5 and a long shot to even qualify for a bowl. Both schools are leaving the Mountain West Conference: Utah for the Pac-12 (a move that will only improve recruiting at a program that already has a surprising level of talent in-house), the Cougars for an uncertain future as an independent.
Whittingham's choice of Utah over his alma mater is not the only reason for the diverging trajectories of these rival programs, but it is undeniably a major factor. "Fred always said Utah was a sleeping giant," recalls Nancy. How to awaken the giant? Kyle had a plan.
The BYU-Utah rivalry, the so-called Holy War, is often described as a clash between church and state: the devoutly Mormon Cougars versus the secular Utes. (Certainly there are plenty of BYU fans who choose to see it that way.) The fact is, roughly half the players on Utah's roster are LDS.
For decades BYU has had its pick of the best Mormon players in the country. Accelerating a trend begun by former Utah coach Ron McBride, who led the program from 1990 through 2002, Whittingham—himself LDS—has tapped into that pipeline, siphoning off significant numbers of talented Mormon athletes. Paul Kruger, now a defensive end with the Ravens, hails from Orem, just four miles from the BYU campus, but he chose Utah, as did his younger brothers Joe (a freshman defensive end) and Dave (the Utes' starting nosetackle). Their sister Jessica is married to Tony Bergstrom, the team's starting right tackle.
Bergstrom, who was recruited by both schools, visited a BYU practice. "It was really laid-back," he recalls. "Then I came up here. This was 2004, before I went on my mission. I'd never seen a team practice with so much intensity. Coach Meyer was all over the place, pumping guys up, dropping f bombs. I was blown away. I remember thinking, I want to be a part of this." Meyer left for Florida after that season, "but Kyle's just as intense," says Bergstrom. "Just with less cursing."
Even as he lures players away from his main rival, Whittingham has had increased success in selling his program to skilled players from Texas and California. "Salt Lake City is one of the best-kept secrets in the country," says Whittingham. "Once we get people up here on visits, they fall in love with it."
To get them there, Utah recruiters often must battle preconceived notions about the state. Before senior Shaky Smithson became a star returner at Utah (he leads the nation in punt returns, with 23.3 yards per touch), he was a star receiver and returner at East Los Angeles Community College. He was guarded when Utah's coaches first tried to woo him. He had visited a friend in Provo and been turned off by its lack of diversity. Persuaded that Salt Lake was different, Smithson took a visit. "It was a big eye-opener," he says. "Lot of restaurants, lot of clubs. There's a lot to do here, and the people, they accept you with open arms."
While BYU remains one of the nation's most monochromatic teams, Whittingham takes pleasure in pointing out that his is "the most diverse program in the country." A third of the Utes are white, a third African-American, a third Polynesian. Half are Mormon. Some are married, and some are married with children. "The beautiful thing about this team," Bergstrom says, "is that we're diverse, yet we can make fun of our differences and nobody gets upset about it."
Surprisingly few Utes got upset as the team chalked up win after win during the first two months of the season but got no traction in the polls. Utah rated less respect than the country's other non-BCS powerhouses: Boise State, now ranked No. 2, and TCU. It was as if voters lacked the bandwidth to deal with more than two plucky BCS-busting, slingshot-wielding Davids.
On Oct. 9 the Utes routed Iowa State 68--27. Result: They dropped from 10th to 11th in the AP poll. A week later Oklahoma drilled Iowa State 52--nil and jumped four spots. "It's nothing new for us," says senior center Zane Taylor. "We're used to not getting the respect we deserve." He says it as if it's a good thing.
"You see it, you feel disrespected by it, and you get annoyed by it," says Bergstrom, "but you come to practice and it's out of your head."
This week it had better be. Saturday's showdown between the Utes and the Horned Frogs amounts to a Mountain West title game. The stakes are huge: The winning team will have a clear path to an undefeated season and a BCS bowl. Depending on whether or not Auburn and Oregon win out—and on how voters and computers treat one-loss powers such as Alabama—TCU could fight its way into the national title game. The Utes, for their part, would need a minor miracle.
That assumes, of course, that they take care of business the rest of the way. After trips to Notre Dame and San Diego State, the Utes welcome BYU to Rice-Eccles Stadium. True Cougars fans will be pulling for the Utes this Saturday, in hopes of reserving for themselves the pleasure of ruining Utah's perfect season.
There was high drama the last time the Cougars and the Utes met—both during and after the game. Last year, after tossing the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to beat Utah 26--23, BYU quarterback Max Hall spoke from his heart about his feelings for the Utes.
"I don't like Utah," he said. "In fact I hate them. I hate everything about them. I hate their program, their fans.... I think the whole university and their fans and their organization is classless."
At Rice-Eccles the previous season, Hall contended, Utah fans "threw beer on my family" and "did a whole bunch of nasty things.... They deserved to lose."
Utah fans got less upset about that rant than they did about a self-righteous pronouncement by Cougars receiver Austin Collie following BYU's last-minute 17--10 victory over the Utes in 2007. "When you're doing what's right, on and off the field," Collie proclaimed, "the Lord steps in and plays a part."
The fact that there were 27 returned LDS missionaries on the Utah roster probably didn't enter Collie's mind. But implicit in his remark—and this is the attitude that drives Utes (LDS Utes in particular) around the bend—is the belief that the Cougars and their fans are literally holier than thou. That, at least, is what Utah fans choose to infer. "But that's how you want a rivalry—you want it nasty," says Smithson.
But wait a minute. If Utah's coach is Mormon, if half his players are Mormon, doesn't that give them common cause with their rivals? Wouldn't that turn down the heat on the rivalry? "It cranks it up, actually," says Taylor, who isn't Mormon. Speaking for his LDS teammates, he explains that "it offends them that someone would think they're a better Mormon just because they go to a religious school."
"What ends up happening," says quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, "is that it splits families."
It didn't split the Whittinghams, but it sure led to some lively discussions. Fretting over which team to coach, Kyle lost 11 pounds in five days. "He tried to want to go to BYU, he really did," recalls his mother, Nancy. "When he finally made up his mind, he came down to the Provo house the kids grew up in and gave us the news. And I said, 'O.K., we're Utes now.'"
It was that frigid vigil in the cemetery, Kyle acknowledges, that helped get him off the fence. At least twice a year the whole clan makes the drive up there. "It's a beautiful place," says Nancy. "Very peaceful and quiet."
Usually. On a recent visit some of the grandchildren got bored and started racing each other across the perfectly manicured lawns. "It was O.K., I suppose," Nancy concludes. "I'm sure Fred didn't mind. There weren't many other people around. And it's not like they were going to wake the dead."
Before long, some of the adults joined in—Race you to that headstone!—including one who is in the process of awakening a giant.
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THE HIGH FIVE
Here's what the five remaining unbeaten teams need to do in order to reach the BCS championship game in Glendale, Ariz. (Teams are sorted by BCS standings.)
1. Oregon (8--0)
The Ducks will be heavily favored to beat Washington and Cal the next two weeks before two tough tests to end the season: Arizona at home and Oregon State away. If Oregon runs the table, it won't have to worry about being left out of the title picture.
2. Auburn (9--0)
Like Oregon, the Tigers will be in if they win. However, they face the most difficult road to perfection: Georgia on Nov. 13 and Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 26 in a de facto national title play-in game.
3. TCU (9--0)
Running back Ed Wesley (above) and TCU leapfrogged Boise State in the latest standings, making them the non-BCS team most likely to make the title game. Even if they win out, the Horned Frogs must hope for a stumble by at least one of the top two teams (Oregon would help them more), then get a lot of love from the poll voters and computers to fend off the one-loss programs.
4. Boise State (7--0)
To reach Glendale, the Broncos need a finish similar to the one in their shocking 2007 Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma. Besides winning out, that would require at least missteps by Oregon and TCU and some favorable BCS math.
5. Utah (8--0)
Because their signature win was a victory over Pitt, the Utes are already in danger of getting passed by one-loss teams and would need carnage of 2007 proportions to befall other contenders.