Utah coach failed first test for job

first_imgWithout equivocation, I was rooting for USC this past weekend. My Trojan roots run deep, and I still believe anything is possible this season.But there was a little — just a little — bit of me rooting for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. There’s a small chance Whittingham becomes the next head coach of the USC team, and I was hoping his potential candidacy would remain valid with his continued success.Much like a lot of Laker fans who adopted a #TankForWiggins approach to fandom while the Lakers were struggling so mightily, I guess you could have called Saturday a chance to #TankForWhittingham. It’s not like losing would have positioned USC better in an amateur draft, but it was a chance to evaluate one of the candidates getting the most attention in coaching rumors.Regardless of Saturday’s loss, Whittingham probably won’t be making the jump to the Coliseum until the Utes’ next game here. But one could argue that Saturday’s game is just as indicative of the fact that Whittingham needs to make the jump to the Coliseum as it is that he isn’t ready for it.Whittingham is a great head coach. He’s emerged as one of the most impressive program heads in the country this season with the meteoric rise of the Utes this season.And no, meteoric is not an exaggeration. Yes, this was a very solid team last year, and I certainly haven’t forgotten about the two-minute drill the Utes used to get past the Trojans last year. But I don’t think anyone outside of Salt Lake City expected this year’s Utes team to be in the top half of the Pac-12 South division standings, let alone the top four as of last week.USC obviously came into the season with a lot of hype. Many people expected UCLA to be another top team with highly touted quarterback Josh Rosen leading the offense and potential NFL first round draft pick Myles Jack leading the defense. Even Arizona and Arizona State made the AP preseason top 25 and were expected to compete for the conference title. Utah did get some votes in the poll, and the Utes certainly had higher expectations than Colorado. But nonetheless, this was a team that was expected to finish fifth — second to last — in the conference, and even after its worst game of the year, is still in first place in the standings.In some ways, though, it shouldn’t be such a surprise that Utah has been playing so well this year because it has had some serious success in the last decade. The Utes have twice gone undefeated, in 2004 under Urban Meyer with Whittingham as the defensive coordinator and in 2008 under Whittingham as the head coach. Both perfect seasons included BCS bowl wins. Both of those seasons were before Utah switched into a Power 5 conference, but Whittingham and the Utes’ victory in the 2008 Sugar Bowl was over Alabama, who would win the national championship the following year.Whittingham does have a lot of similarities to Meyer. He’s proven he can do a lot with a little. Despite the recent history, Utah still doesn’t have resources comparable to major programs with much more tradition, like Florida, where Meyer moved after 2004, or USC.Meyer then proved that his success would translate against tougher competition and established himself as an elite college coach with two national championships. In fact, one of those national championships at Florida came in 2008, the same year Utah went undefeated but was left out of the BCS National Championship game — back in the day before we had the national playoff — while a    one-loss Florida and Oklahoma both made it.Though Meyer is an obvious success story, making that kind of an offer is still a big risk. Just because someone can win with less doesn’t mean that success will translate against tougher competition, even with better recruiting or institutional resources.Whittingham is at an unclear middle ground in his career. Utah has made it to a major conference and turned a team with no major success prior to the turn of the century into a legitimate national title contender. Though it hasn’t included an innovation in offensive theory or uniform style like Oregon’s, the product on the field has been almost as impressive — especially when Utah smashed an underachieving Oregon team this year. What’s unclear is if Utah will be able to sustain it as much as Oregon has and come out with a Rose Bowl win or national championship appearance in the next couple of years.And this brings us back to Saturday’s result. It was not the finest performance by Utah’s players. Four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, probably had more to do with execution of the game plan than the game plan itself. USC was certainly due for a big game, and the Utes were probably due for a regression to some degree.Nonetheless, it’s a major test Whittingham didn’t pass. The Utes still probably control their destiny to the top 4, assuming that one other conference winner from the SEC, ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 will have one loss. But the defeat to USC could prove to be as disappointing for Utes fans who watched two undefeated teams left out of the BCS title game as any loss this season for Trojan fans. In some ways, the win might even make Whittingham more interested in coming to USC if as far as he can go is a Rose Bowl.Ultimately, there are still too many games and too many potential candidates to really speculate about the next head coach. All we can say now is that interim head coach Clay Helton might be leading the field, but that field is still huge.So I’ll be rooting for UCLA or someone else from the conference to beat Utah one more time to open up a potential conference title for the Trojans. All USC needs is one more Utah loss to control its destiny toward the Rose Bowl.But if Whittingham goes undefeated the rest of the way, that might be good news too.Luke Holthouse is a junior majoring in policy, planning and development and broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs Wednesdays.last_img

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