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Those first weeks passed a bit like a fever dream for Kyle Whittingham.
It was 2004, and he had just taken on the head coaching job at Utah with the program's first-ever appearance in a BCS bowl ahead. He was replacing Urban Meyer, who was still around a bit to help, but also was dealing with the departure of four assistants to Florida, another to UNLV and trying to maintain his roster, recruit for next year and prepare for Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl all at once.
"We had a skeleton crew," Whittingham said, recollecting the buildup to his first bowl victory as a head coach on Monday afternoon. "We plugged in the [graduate assistants] and tried to do the best we could."
It's not the same stakes or the same context, but Whittingham can at least understand the challenge for new Indiana coach Tom Allen before the two tangle in the Foster Farms Bowl on Dec. 28.
Allen was a surprise hire after coach Kevin Wilson resigned at the beginning of the month amid administrative probes of how he handled player injuries. Allen was new to the program this season as its defensive coordinator, but not new to Indiana, where he coached high school football for years.
In his first address as head coach, Allen had to explain to his team why Wilson, who had led them to Indiana's first back-to-back bowl seasons since 1991, was leaving. It was difficult, he said, but many of the team's leaders on offense from All-American lineman Dan Feeney to senior receiver Mitchell Paige were among the first to embrace him.
"That really kind of helped bring everybody together," Allen said. "As the defensive coordinator, you don't work as much with offensive guys. But they kind of saw what we were all about."
Indiana was a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team this year, but had to compete with three top-10 programs Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan within its division. The Hoosiers couldn't beat those teams, but also weren't beaten as badly as many of their peers: The worst defeat of the season was a 38-17 loss to the No. 2 Buckeyes.
Among Indiana's previous opponents, Nebraska might bear the most resemblance to Utah, Allen said.
"They have very good offensive line play, big receivers, a strong-armed quarterback who can run; they're a very talented team," he said. "Their special teams also impresses me. I was a special teams coordinator for three years at Ole Miss. It's a huge part of our game that isn't talked about enough."
Both Utah and Indiana know some things about being in close games. And both know the sting of having a red zone offense ranked at the bottom of their respective leagues.
But despite a 6-6 year that ended with his predecessor leaving, Allen said both his team and the Indiana fan base is excited to taste some success. He cited a video released by Indiana after the bowl announcement, in which Allen is mobbed by cheering players after saying, "We're going to California." He added it's incentive for the fans to make the long trek, too the Hoosiers were facing the possibility of going to colder bowls.
Whittingham's second bowl was also in San Francisco, at AT&T park against Georgia Tech, when the teams shared a sideline. He said he remembered vividly what that was like: scrapping late in the year just to get eligible, then beating the Yellowjackets in the postseason. Back then, Whittingham said, he was just happy to be in a bowl.
"This bowl is done the right way," he said. "Who wouldn't want to spend a week in San Francisco?"
Foster Farms Bowl
Utah vs. Indiana
P at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. Dec. 28, 6:30 p.m. MST
TV • Ch. 13