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Kyle Whittingham's road toward 100 victories as the University of Utah's football coach is unlike anything anyone has traveled in the history of sports in this state.
Imagine if Jeff Cassar had followed Jason Kreis as Real Salt Lake's coach and the team was promoted to the Premier League six years later. That's about what Whittingham has done by succeeding a superstar coach, taking the Utes into the Pac-12 and thriving in his 12th season on the job. Utah will take a 4-0 record and No. 18 ranking into Saturday's game at California, where Whittingham can earn his 100th win.
"It's a phenomenal milestone," said Sharrieff Shah, Utah's cornerbacks coach.
Not that you'll hear such talk from Whittingham. Asked what the potential No. 100 means to him, he said, "Nothing."
It is something, in a coaching tenure that likely never will be duplicated in Utah sports regardless of how long Whittingham, 56, keeps working and where he takes the Utes from here. Just try matching Whittingham's script of following Urban Meyer, going unbeaten in his fourth season, using eight offensive play-callers, starting over in the Pac-12 and beating some of the biggest names in college football.
Whittingham is 4-0 lifetime vs. Alabama's Nick Saban, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh and Stanford's David Shaw, who have a collective .833 winning percentage at their schools and are ranked among the top seven teams in this week's AP Top 25. Yet to illustrate his struggles at various stages, Whittingham is 9-10 vs. other coaches in the Top 25, including 3-3 vs. Nebraska's Mike Riley (then at Oregon State) and 2-2 vs. San Diego State's Rocky Long (then at New Mexico).
Whittingham's tenure is easily broken down into four quarters. He stood 16-13 as of an infamous defeat at UNLV in September 2007, having lost at least once to every Mountain West rival. Whittingham then produced a 39-4 run, including the 13-0 season of '08 with a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.
"Kyle was prepared, he was ready to step into that chair the moment it came," said Oregon State coach Gary Andersen, who spent four seasons as Whittingham's defensive coordinator. "He used other people's plans and put together his own plan, which is what every great coach does."
Andersen moved to Utah State before the Utes experienced what he calls "a crazy transition" into the Pac-12. Whittingham went 18-19 in his first three Pac-12 seasons, including 9-18 in conference play. He's 12-7 in league games since then. And starting with a victory at Colorado in the 2014 regular-season finale, he has won 16 of 19 games overall. It all adds up to 99-46.
So the next phase should be very interesting, with Utah emerging as a force in the Pac-12 South and creating an offense to complement one of the conference's top defenses.
A coach whose opening statement in news conferences always begins with the phrase "OK" is consistent. He's also proving to be adaptable the complimentary label for a management style that once appeared impulsive, with his constantly changing group of offensive coordinators.
Shaw is the only Pac-12 coach who has witnessed Utah's full tenure in the conference. He shares a kinship with Whittingham, as a son of a NFL assistant coach, with an old-school approach to football and the challenge of having followed Harbaugh at Stanford.
Asked to summarize the Utes' growth in the Pac-12, Shaw said, "Along the way, they kicked my backside twice." That's being nice, because one game was decided on a fourth-and-2 play from the Utah 6-yard line and the other went into overtime. Yet Shaw admires Whittingham's style, the Utes' toughness and the coaching staff's work, with a developing passing game in 2016.
"They're not stuck in their ways in everything," Shaw said. "They're playing to the strengths of their players, and that's just what good football coaches do."
As the calendar turns to October, Utah and Stanford are moving toward a meeting in the Pac-12 championship game. That's the next checkpoint in Utah's evolution.
Pac-12 membership is "the best thing to happen to Utah football, in my opinion," Whittingham said. "The level of competition, the talent … it's exciting stuff. Our players love it."
So does Whittingham. Andersen, who went from USU to Wisconsin, followed the standard career arc in the profession. Whittingham is a rare coach who went to the Power 5 level without having to move. That jump was difficult, but he's succeeding. He's also seemingly the same guy as ever, even with a $3.3 million salary five times what he earned in his first season as head coach.
Before joining the coaching staff in 2012, Shah observed Whittingham as the Utes' radio sideline reporter (while working as a personal injury attorney). From the outside, "I always knew he was brilliant, especially when it came to football, but I didn't know how much everything related to football mattered to [him]," Shah said. "There's nothing that goes unnoticed. He sees everything. He's constantly evaluating us to say, 'How can we do it better?' … I love that."
Shah concluded, "It never gets old with him this process, this grind."
Winning clearly makes it more fun, at 99 victories and counting.
Kyle Whittingham by the numbers
99 • Wins in 12th season (counting 2005 Fiesta Bowl as co-coach), with 46 losses.
70 • Weeks in AP Top 25 (16 in 2008, 12 in 2009, 16 in 2010, 10 in 2014, 14 in 2015, 2 in 2016).
39 • Wins in 43 games, during a run from September 2007 through October 2010.
35 • Wins in six seasons of Mountain West play, with13 losses.
33 • Millions of dollars in projected earnings as Utah's head coach, based on completing contract through 2020.
21 • Wins in six seasons of Pac-12 play, with 25 losses.
16 • Wins in last 19 games, starting in November 2014.
13 • Wins vs. coaches currently in AP Top 25 (3-3 vs. Mike Riley, 3-3 vs. Gary Patterson, 2-2 vs. Rocky Long, 2-0 vs. David Shaw, 1-0 vs. Nick Saban, 1-0 vs. Jim Harbaugh, 1-2 vs. Chris Petersen).
9 • Bowl wins, with one loss.
8 • Wins over BYU, with three losses.
3 • Utah high school graduates he will join in the college football 100-win club (LaVell Edwards 257, E.L. "Dick" Romney 128, Bronco Mendenhall 100).
1 • Conference championship (Mountain West, 2008).