How Kyle Whittingham is building an unlikely Pac-12 power at Utah

Huntley throws his 3rd TD pass of the day (0:35)

Tyler Huntley puts another one in the air, this time to Bryan Thompson who makes a nice catch under pressure in the corner of the end zone. (0:35)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- They don't do land rushes in Utah.

When the Mormon pioneers arrived from Illinois in 1847, there was no sudden cannon shot and no racing of thousands of would-be settlers frantically planting flags to stake claim to a new home. No, the Utah Territory was flooded by a trickle and built using one handmade nail at a time. Many of the initial 70,000 who arrived did so by handcart, the leader of the household pulling a two-wheeled barrow that contained his wife, children and whatever belongings would fit in with them.

Brigham Young, leader of the movement, stated, "If they give us 10 years of peace, I will ask no odds of the government." Ten years later, when the government did come calling via the U.S. Army, Salt Lake City had been built into a place that could never be undone.

On the eve of a trip to Southern California for a Friday night showdown with USC, Kyle Whittingham sits in his office at the University of Utah, the school founded by Young in 1850. Out the windows behind the head football coach is the valley that those pioneers pulled those handcarts into and the city they used those nails to construct.

It hasn't been quite 10 years for Coach Whitt's fortress-building project. It has been nine. Just shy of a decade for the Utes as a member of the Pac-12 conference. Now, after all these seasons of quietly hand-carting and hand-nailing their program into a Power 5 worthiness, Utah isn't merely in a position to finally win a Pac-12 football title. It is now the popular choice of most as the team best-built to lead the once-proud conference out of College Football Playoff purgatory.

"Yes, I am fully aware of the current expectation level when it comes to this football team, and everyone in this building is," Whittingham, 59, reluctantly confesses. He speaks of the Utes' ranking atop the Pac-12 preseason poll and current No. 10 ranking in the AP Top 25.

"But if you know me and you know everyone in this building who works with me or plays for me, then you also know we don't care about that stuff. We really don't. Right now, all we care about is USC. And then Washington State after that, and then everyone who is next up on the schedule, one at a time. I know that probably sounds boring, but that's how it is."

Then the former BYU linebacker, the 1981 WAC Defensive Player of the Year, the guy who rides his Harley to work in the morning and keeps skis stuffed in his Porsche just in case the mountains look inviting on the way home at night, sits up straight in his desk chair.

When he does this, you also sit up straight in your chair. This is a man who lifts weights alongside his all-conference linebackers who are one-third his age, who walks into meetings right off the treadmill while eating almond butter straight out of the jar, and rides a way-too-old bicycle through the mountainous roads of Salt Lake City because he says it makes his legs burn just the way he likes it.

So yeah, he commands your attention when it's time to make a point.

"Don't get me wrong." he says. "The rankings and predictions and all of that, that's a huge compliment. It says people believe in what we've built here at Utah. But around here, we don't celebrate what people say you can do. We wait to celebrate what we've actually done."

Since joining the West Coast elite in 2011, Utah's climb has remained in step with the process that carved this campus into the side of those mountains. In its first three Pac-12 seasons, the team posted a record of 18-19. But in the five full seasons since, Utah has failed to win nine or more games only once, earning a share of two Pac-12 South division titles.

Last year the Utes finally reached the conference championship game, despite season-ending injuries to quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, but lost a legendarily gross contest to Washington, 10-3.

"Around here, we don't celebrate what people say you can do. We wait to celebrate what we've actually done."
Kyle Whittingham

The ugliness of that game and being denied a Rose Bowl berth -- high holy college football ground that was once inconceivable for a team that made its living in the Rocky Mountain, Mountain States, Big Seven, Skyline, Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences -- is why this season's depth chart is packed with so many names in boldface type.

A whopping 15 returning starters from the 2018 squad, including Huntley and Moss, part of a six-pack of seniors anchored by would-have-been NFL draft pick defensive linemen Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae. In all, a baker's dozen of seniors sit atop the Utes' depth chart.

"So many of us have been here for so long, there's a real investment in what we've tried to build here," senior safety Terrell Burgess said. "Those guys who could have left for the NFL, they came back for a reason. It's not just about coming back to school. We all love our school. But they are back for this team. It's been so close in the past. We really want to be the guys who push it to the next level so it can stay there."

And what's the next step in doing that?

"You're gonna make me say it, aren't you?" Burgess, a San Marcos, California native, shakes his head. "Yeah, you have to beat USC at the Coliseum."

For all of his accomplishments at Utah over 15 years at the helm (third-longest tenure among FBS head coaches) that's something Whittingham has yet to accomplish. He is 3-5 against the Trojans, but 0-4 in Los Angeles. On Monday, he was a little surprised when that stat was thrown out, thinking he was at .500 with maybe one win in SoCal, right? Wrong.

Then he was reminded that Utah hasn't won a football game in Los Angeles since before the Coliseum existed. But ... the Utes also have played only seven games there since the stadium was built in 1923. And, oh yeah, USC is 2-1 after a loss last weekend at BYU, a team that Utah manhandled in the season opener 30-12. And, oh yeah, their coach, Clay Helton, is strapped into a seat of increasing heat with a five-plus-year record of 32-18.

And one more thing, the biggest headline entering Friday night's game is that Urban Meyer, Utah's former head coach and a Whittingham confidant, will be at the Coliseum for the game working as an analyst for Fox Sports and everyone in L.A. seems to hope the trip also includes a job interview.

"I don't care what kind of situation USC might be in or what their win-loss record might be, they are still the measuring stick for this conference and one of the measuring sticks for all of college football," Whittingham says.

"They will never not have an overabundance of talent. They recruit over about 30 square miles because that's all they have to do. So, for the rest of us, who try to break that lock on that area for talent, when you share a field with USC, it tells you where you are."

Where is Utah? It is a team that has defeated USC the past three times the Trojan Horse has come to Salt Lake City. The Utah roster includes nearly three dozen Californians, a large percentage of whom come from Southern California. And slowly but surely, those on Whittingham's roster look more and more like those on that measuring stick.

"I look at where we were when we first entered this conference and where we are now, and yes, there is certainly a big difference," the coach said. "Where I really see it is on the perimeter, in our skill positions, where the longtime power programs, especially USC, would always have an advantage in speed and size. There was a real gap there. We have closed that gap. It has taken some time. But we have definitely closed that gap."

Truthfully, taking some time is exactly how Whittingham prefers it. It's how he prefers everything -- enjoyment cultivated by taking the hard way to the promised land.

He learned to relish that role of being a let's-outwork-their-asses underdog by watching his father, Fred Whittingham. "Mad Dog" survived a rough New England upbringing to earn a scholarship to the reinventing-itself football program at BYU, the only school to offer him any help. But he and the school's code of conduct didn't agree and he ended up on the West Coast, cracking opposing running backs as part of the small college defense at Cal Poly.

He went undrafted but managed to play nearly a decade in the NFL and then coach for another decade-plus with the Rams and Raiders. Years before having to answer questions about his inability to win games in the Coliseum, little Kyle Whittingham roamed that stadium, watching his father play with the Fearsome Foursome, then returning in the 1980s to watch his old man help coach the teams of Eric Dickerson.

"I played against Dickerson in the Holiday Bowl," Whittingham recalls. "I look back now and what a time to be on the sideline, as a kid and even as a young adult. I realize now that what I was watching, I was learning from. And the coaches I learned from, that's who I have become as a coach."

That list includes his father, but also stone-faced offensive guru LaVell Edwards, Whittingham's head coach at BYU, the Kragthorpe family of coaches, Ron McBride, the man who laid the foundation at Utah, and McBride's successor, Meyer.

"Not one of the coaches I have learned from, worked for, or still lean on now for advice, has ever used 'Well, we don't have this history' or 'Well, we don't have as much money as they do' or anything of that nature as an excuse," Whittingham says, clenching his fist a little as it sits atop his desk.

"Everyone on my list built something pretty great where it had only been good before. Or, in some cases, it had always been bad. Whether I was a player, an assistant, or a head coach, I have always felt that when we walk on that field and face each other, history doesn't matter. Not in that moment. Not in that game. My goal is to beat you right then and there. We'll talk about the history of that later."

It is an intense statement spoken during an intense weekday while preparing for an intense, potentially historic football game for Utah.

For Whittingham, it's just another autumn Monday.

"People ask me all the time, 'Hey, is he an a--h..." Burgess catches himself and starts laughing. "They want to know, 'How intense is he, really?' The answer is that, no, he isn't that word I almost said. But yes, he's intense. It's a good intense. He will definitely get on you if you make a mistake, but he's teaching you. He has a plan and we believe in that plan. Why wouldn't we? Look at the results."

"I think about the player that I was when I got here and the player I am now," says Moss, who started the season by hanging 187 rushing yards and a TD on BYU. "I think about what this team was when I got here four years ago and what it is now. Those are the results. We love him. We love what this team can do this year. That's why we're all still here."

That's why Whittingham is still here. He admits that "I've had plenty of other offers, and for more money," but over the winter he signed yet another contract extension. He even turned down his alma mater, but only after consulting with BYU's leadership to ensure that it was the school and not the church that was calling him back home.

"Utah is my home," he says, proudly adding that his four children all attended school in the same district their entire lives, a near impossibility in the coaching profession. "Home is where you are comfortable, but it's also a place you never stop working to improve. Every day I work to improve this place."

Kyle Whittingham brings the conversation back around to those preseason polls, the current AP poll and the talk of his 2019 Utes being the team that finally knocks off USC on the road and returns the Pac-12 to the College Football Playoff conversation.

"If I'm being honest, it's not how we like to do things around here," he says. "I've been here 20 years and we've made a pretty nice living sneaking up on people and proving we belong. You can call it a chip on your shoulder or whatever you want. We just call it our way of life. Work. Taking care of your business one step at a time until you've built something people have to appreciate."

Coach Whitt points to the mountain range behind him, where those pioneers and their handcarts rolled through 172 years ago.

"Around here, you never stop climbing."