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Remember when Utah capped off a breakthrough season with its first bowl victory in three years?
That was six days ago.
In the time since, three assistant coaches have left the program, and sources familiar with the situation tell The Salt Lake Tribune that the relationship between Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill is severely fractured, perhaps irreparably.
Those sources, who requested anonymity so as not to compromise their ties to the program, say Whittingham and Hill were on poor terms before the start of the season and that the rift widened in recent weeks. The two met Friday, a source said.
Caught in the middle: Utah's players and assistant coaches.
On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki accepted jobs at Oregon State, working under former Utah Defensive Coordinator Gary Andersen, who went on to head the Utah State and Wisconsin football programs before recently opting for the Beavers post.
Then, on Christmas, news broke that Offensive Coordinator Dave Christensen agreed to become offensive line coach and run-game coordinator at Texas A&M.
Sitake was a bone of contention between Hill and Whittingham. He was ultimately lured to Oregon State in part by what he felt was a better offer and greater stability, a source said, adding that he still might have been willing to stay at Utah for less money and a shorter deal than OSU offered.
Emails obtained through Utah's open-records law show that Whittingham had suggested "a significant increase" in Sitake's pay. Hill then offered what he considered a sizable raise, a figure that was redacted in the Dec. 5 email but amounted to an increase of $100,000 above his $500,000 salary over a two-year deal, according to a source close to the athletic department late Friday.
"If this does not meet your expectations as a significant raise, please let me know," Hill wrote to Whittingham. "We do not want to lose Kalani to another defensive coordinator position so please let me know in that case if it involves money and/or other issues."
A source close to the athletic department said that Hill eventually made Sitake a final offer of three years at $750,000 per year, with bonuses and incentives that could take the deal to $800,000.
A source said Hill's failure to lock up Sitake made Whittingham feel that Hill was trying to sabotage his program.
The Utah athletic department declined to make either Hill or Whittingham available to comment for this story.
Christensen also was offered a two-year deal, and Tuiaki and other assistants were offered one-year deals by the U., which redacted the amount of the offers because negotiations were ongoing at the time of the records request.
Whittingham appears to have asked whether Tuiaki's deal could be sweetened Utah's defense led the nation in sacks, with 52, largely due to Tuiaki's position group and Hill responded that his salary could be increased, but that he would not be offered a multiyear deal.
The emails also indicate that Whittingham inquired about his own deal. A source said the coach wanted a greater guarantee of his base salary, which he would receive if he were fired. His current contract, which runs through 2017, includes a base and guarantee of $750,000 per year. With additional income from side deals, the total package is worth $2.4 million.
Hill's offer did not satisfy Whittingham, the source said, further straining the relationship. The source confirmed speculation that Whittingham has met with administrators at other schools.
Whittingham has coached at the U. for 20 years, all told, beginning as a defensive line coach under Ron McBride and eventually succeeding Urban Meyer as head coach in 2004, after Utah's BCS-busting Fiesta Bowl victory.
He led the Utes to another undefeated season, culminating in a 2009 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, and compiled an 84-43 record and an 8-1 record in bowls as a head coach tying John Robinson for the best mark in NCAA history by a coach with seven or more bowl wins.
His only losing seasons came in 2012 and 2013, and the Utes won seven or more games in every other campaign.
This year's group won nine, the fifth time a Whittingham-led squad has won at least that many games.
Although Friday brought the news that left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi plans to declare for the NFL Draft, Utah returns as many as 16 starters next season.
Tribune columnist Gordon Monson contributed to this story