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Utah’s football program is entering its 10th year in the Pac-12. The Utes turned out to be a good match.




In June 2010 things started to go fast for the Pac-10.

After 14 months in office after resigning as President and CEO of the Womens Tennis Association, League Commissioner Larry Scott was authorized to issue invitations to Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech in hoping to form a super conference with 16 teams.

It took Colorado less than a week to accept. The biggest domino of the bunch, Texas, famously dropped, so the other four predictably lined up and pledged their allegiance to the Big 12. Now with 11 teams, only needing a 12th to hold a soccer championship game, stuff waved to the University of Utah, a charter member of the Mountain West since 1999 and a charter member of the WAC before its beginning in 1962.

Things continued to move quickly in the wake of the Big 12 team relapse, and on June 17, 2010, Utah accepted an invitation to join as the 12th member.

We had put ourselves in a position to be attractive for the longest time, former Utah athletics director Chris Hill told The Salt Lake Tribune. It all worked out, we were enthusiastic and we were not afraid of high expectations.

Utah soccer coach Kyle Whittingham added: Wed heard rumors, but who knows how much of it was true. We were clearly excited about the opportunity to join the league, but when it came to fruition we were delighted. It was a huge plus for a lot of people at the university level, the athletics department. It was a great new opportunity.

On November 7, Whittingham and the Utes will open their 10th season as members of the Pac-12. For a program best known as the original BCS Buster before becoming one of 65 Power Five programs across the country, the past decade has seen profound highs, share of lows and a growing perception that the Utes have a consistent factor at the top of the Pac-12.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kyle Whittingham, as Utah faces Oregon in the Pac-12 soccer championship game in Santa Clara, California, on Friday, December 6, 2019.

In discussing this topic over the years, Whittingham told The Tribune that he has consistently used one specific analogy, and the 60-year-old, 16-year-old head coach went back to it when the topic was raised again on Tuesday.

All that goes with it is like spanning the Grand Canyon, Whittingham said with a faint laugh. Everything from recruitment, facilities, budget, staff, the bar was immediately raised.

The mere fact that Utah had made its way into college football got Whittingham and his staff on their doorstep in many cases, but the work had yet to be done.

In 2011, Whittingham scored 17 recruits in his first recruiting class as a Power Five head coach. He recalls that JUCO who walked back that transfer John White was a key player during that cycle, an idea that holds up as White rushed 2,560 meters in two seasons. Nate Orchard had many scholarship offers, but chose Utah, turned into an all-American defensive end, and has been in the NFL for six seasons.

I remember being very optimistic about Utah, Stewart Mandel, editor of The Athletics College’s football coverage, but a senior Sports Illustrated writer at the time, told The Tribune. There was so much talk back then about TCU and Boise State, but at Utah, people were more or less dismissive of entering a major conference. It became apparent pretty quickly that it would take some time to build the depth to compete at that level every week, but eventually they got there.

There were lows in the past decade, namely back-to-back 5-7 seasons in 2012 and 2013, but those cupless campaigns gave way to highs.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Utes with Devontae Booker (23) passes Michigan Wolverines linebacker Desmond Morgan (3) and Michigan Wolverines defensive tackle Matthew Godin (99) during the second half of the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday, September 3, 2015, Utah defeated Michigan with 24-17.

Utah beat Michigan in Jim Harbaugh’s debut at his alma mater in 2015, and later that season dropped 62 points to Oregon, which at the time ruled the league with an iron fist. The Utes won 10 games that fall and shared the Pac-12 South title for the first time, but lost the tiebreak to USC, which played in the Pac-12 championship game. The Utes rose to No. 3 in the AP Poll that season, but with a chance of winning the Pac-12 South outright, it also included back-to-back losses in November in Arizona and vs. UCLA with a combined 15 points.

I thought that season was a step in the right direction for the program, Whittingham said. A step in the evolution as a Power Five team, to become a legitimate Power Five team. It’s still the recruiting, the coaches and I can’t give them enough credit for their ability to project talent. It’s not where the child is now, but how much growth could there be in two or three years. Our coaches have been able to develop talent.

The breakthrough in 2015 was significant, but the recognition of what Utah football has become and where it can still go has never been stronger. A trip to the Pac-12 title game in 2018 and a dominant march through the 2019 season back to the title game have worked wonders for the perception of the program.

We had to weather the storm for a while early, it was rough sledding here and there, Hill said. We weren’t as deep as other Pac-12 programs, but we stuck in it and settled in. I wouldn’t be fair to say it hasn’t been fun seeing college and the athletics department get better in so many ways since we started the Pac-12.

Plus, the bar has now been set on 2019, an 11-win campaign in which the Utes went 8-1 against the Pac-12 and rose to No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings. That helped the Utes, in spite of a lot of staff losses, take 22nd place in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.

This continues to be difficult as the years go by, Whittingham said. Teams never stand still, they are always moving targets. Everyone is getting more competitive, and this is what was paid for. We have to keep working and bringing the best product to market because all these teams are still trying to achieve the same thing.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utes sing Utah Man as they celebrate their 45-15 win over the Colorado Buffaloes, in PAC-12 football action at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, November 30, 2019.
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Whittingham’s tenure as head coach will be remembered, among other things, for guiding Utah to big college football. He’s 13 wins, shy of becoming the program’s most successful coach, but any rational observer would consider him the program’s most successful coach. His contract will run through the 2023 season, at which point he will turn 64.

Whether Whittingham will choose to coach after the current contract is unknown, but at some point retirement will become a bigger topic of conversation. It should be noted that Whittingham doesn’t sound like a man ready to step away, not with his program gaining prominence as a Pac-12 contender.

I’m not an old man or a looking back man, Whittingham said. “I’m constantly looking ahead, thinking ahead. I don’t reminisce, it’s not my personality, I’m too focused on the next task. This job is too demanding, too much, so you better enjoy it and thrive in it.” the competitive arena you’re in. you’re not excited to get up and do it, it’s time to call it.

Hill added: Kyle knows what he’s done, he doesn’t need me or anyone else to pat him on the back.


2011: 8-5 (4-5 Pac-12)
2012: 5-7 (3-6)
2013: 5-7 (2-7)
2014: 9-4 (5-4)
2015: 10-3 (6-3)
2016: 9-4 (5-4)
2017: 7-6 (3-6)
2018: 9-5 (6-3)
2019: 11-3 (8-1)

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