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Monson: The Pac-12 does not stand still; new hirings put heat on Kyle Whittingham, Utes

Published December 3, 2011 11:40 pm

Pac-12 firings and hirings put heat on Whittingham
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

While I was talking with a well-known national columnist the other day, he said something notable: "In college football, don't rip the players. They're kids doing the best they can. Rip the coaches. They're the professionals."

They're the ones making millions, while the players get a short stipend with which they barely make ends meet.

This past week, a lot of coaches got ripped. A lot of coaches got pink-slipped. In the Pac-12 alone, four coaches were fired during or after the season: Mike Stoops, Rick Neuheisel, Paul Wulff and Dennis Erickson. Others around the country also were sent packing.

They got high-lowed: The dollar figures are high. The job security is low.

It makes you wonder: How much winning is enough winning? How much losing is too much losing? And how much stress is enough stress to turn a coach into a nutbag?

A party at Rice-Eccles Stadium broke out when Utah and Pac-12 officials announced that the Utes were headed to that enlarged league. There were balloons. There were cheers. There were smiles, all around. The only human being not grinning at that announcement was Kyle Whittingham. He knew that along with all the fresh advantages his program was bound to enjoy, the piles of cash coming its — and his — way, there would be fresh hardships and pressures, too.

"You always put pressure on yourself," he said. "But there will be new challenges playing in this league."

In his first season there, Whittingham went out and lost four straight conference games. He then won four straight before watching in some combination of amazement and disgust as his team disintegrated in front of its fans on its home field against a team flat-out inferior to his own, all with a berth in the league championship game at stake.

He finished the regular season at 7-5, equaling his shakiest win-loss record ever — Whittingham went 7-5 in his initial year at Utah — as a head coach.

All he could say about that was this: "It could have been a lot worse."

It will be a lot worse if Whittingham doesn't find a path to better results. You have to ask the question, whether it seems fair right now or not: How many 7-5 seasons before the coach feels the weight of the world rolling across his shoulders?

I'm already on the record, before the Colorado collapse, that Whittingham did an admirable job veering his team's fortunes in a positive direction after a negative start this season. He lifted the Utes' spirits after that losing skid, punctuated by a disaster of a showing against Cal in San Francisco, and he got by with a backup quarterback — after Jordan Wynn was injured — who came off college football's QB junk heap in the far reaches of Division II to join the offense late. That Utah was completely unprepared and running on empty in that regard, after caroming through an offseason without knowing whether Wynn would be whole from a previous surgery, ultimately is Whittingham's fault.

The suggestion here is not that the heat should boil around the coach after Year 1 in the Pac-12. His entire program has a chance to cash in on the benefits of being a part of that conference, bennies such as enhanced recruiting and, eventually, better facilities and much greater funding. But there is this: Washington State hired Mike Leach, who kick-started the winning at Texas Tech, for $2.2 mil and higher piles of cake from all that TV money expected to be thrown at new and better coaches at heretofore dozy and underachieving programs at UCLA and Arizona State. Lane Kiffin is re-establishing momentum at USC, although scholarships will yet be reduced there, and maybe even with Rich Rodriguez coming in at Arizona, the winning in the South will be harder still.

As for the North, the two best teams against which Utah was and is fortunate not to have to play this regular season or next, those strong outfits, among other emerging teams, will continue to pose large hurdles for the Utes.

"We're swimming in the deep end of the pool," is the way Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow said it.

Whittingham had best refine his stroke, then, in the individual medley. He's a smart man, a meticulous guy who knows how to recruit, who has learned to communicate with and motivate his players. He's a talented and fine coach who has improved with experience.

But it's a stone-cold world out there in the Pac-12, a league filled with great athletes, great schools and great intentions of former head coaches now looking for work elsewhere; a league likely to get stronger as some of its weaker teams rebuild and regenerate from the top down.

Say what he will about this season being satisfactory, 7-5 isn't good enough for Whittingham. It will never be good enough. He feels that pressure, from the inside out. He'll also feel it from the outside in — as the challenges of playing in the Pac-12 renew themselves in the days and weeks and months and seasons ahead.

Gordon Monson hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at gmonson@sltrib.com. Twitter: @GordonMonson.






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