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.