Bleeding Red: Heeding wise words from Whittingham

Another year has passed us by
Just enough time to wave good-bye
Coach has taught me a thing or two
As this past season we review

COMMENTARY – We cannot start the New Year without recognizing an achievement that hasn’t occurred in many, many years. The Runnin’ Utes beat the Ducks in Eugene for the first time since 1951 (ending a nine-game losing streak at any venue).

utesAfter beating Oregon State, Utah sits atop the Pac-12 as one of only four undefeated teams, with UCLA being the only other team to have won two conference games.

The Runnin’ Utes host two Top-25 teams in Arizona and Arizona State this Thursday and Sunday.

But we still have lots of time to talk about basketball. Let’s take one last look at Utah’s football season now that it has concluded. I like to learn from my past experiences, so here are the top three things I learned from Kyle Whittingham this season.

3. Steady and sure wins the prize.

The Utes finished ninth in the Pac-12, but still qualified for a bowl game due to their three non-conference wins. Of the nine teams to get invited to a bowl game, Utah was the sole Pac-12 team to actually win.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, file photo from NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/George Frey)

Say what you will about the level of competition, because many of the Pac-12 teams were higher ranked than their bowl opponent and/or favored going in to the game. When all was said and done, the Utes were the only team that delivered for their fans in the season finale.

Whittingham is now an unprecedented 11-1 in bowl games, for the best winning percentage in NCAA history.

One of the contributing factors to such a stunning bowl record is the continuing hard work and preparation by Utah going into its bowl games. While there is still time to enjoy the bowl experience, the Utes understand and prepare for the task at hand. “You hear of other places get in a bowl and go out four or five times in shorts and a helmet and run around for 45 minutes and that’s not how we approach it,” explained Whittingham after his most recent bowl victory. “We approach it like a regular-season game, we go full pads a great deal of time during the prep.”

Even when Utah was experiencing its late-season slide, Whittingham kept preaching the hard work necessary to turn the situation around. “It’s just like life. You get knocked down, you get up again and you keep working, you keep working hard.”

You can’t argue with the results. Whittingham is nearly unbeatable in December. I just wish the Utes could be more competitive in November. But alas, hope springs eternal with the New Year, and there is always next season.

2. There is enough blame and credit to go around.

One of the things that has impressed me about Whittingham is that he is not above sharing in the blame after a loss.

When Utah blew out Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Nick Saban did his best to deflect the lion’s share of the blame to the players (and even the fans). That has never been Whittingham’s style. Just looking back over this past season, you see many forthright acknowledgments by him.

After the Utes lost a home game to Arizona State for their third consecutive loss, Whittingham candidly conceded, “the bottom line—you’ve got to coach better, you’ve got to get them ready and have a better plan on both sides of the ball, we’ve got to be better coaches.”

After the loss to Washington State, Whittingham stated the simple truth, “we’re all responsible.” The coaches shared in the blame. “It’s the coaches’ responsibility to push the right buttons and coach the guys the right way.” But the players weren’t let off the hook either. “It’s up to the players to be coachable and accept coaching and not hang their heads and feel sorry for themselves.”

Coach Kyle Whitttingham

When things go well, Whittingham is also quick to share the credit. For example, after righting the ship for a 48-17 win over UCLA, Whittingham was very careful to take the time to point out the positives of all three components of the team — the offense, the defense, and kicking and special teams. And that is the rule, not the exception. After all games, even the losses, Whittingham tries to give credit where credit is due.

Notably, while he makes sure he includes the coaches in sharing the blame after a loss, rarely does Whittingham ever pat himself on the back after a win. His most recent bowl victory and his overall bowl legacy is no different. “We’ve got a group of guys and have had several groups of guys come through here that take a lot of pride in their bowl performance and the bowl record we have at the University of Utah. This group was no different.” Whittingham explained after the game. “Each subsequent group doesn’t want to be the group that lets the previous groups down. They want to keep that bowl prowess alive.”

It is true that Whittingham couldn’t have won 11 bowl games without committed performances by his players. But it is equally true that the Utes could not have won 11 bowl games under Whittingham without his commitment to coaching at an elite level. Players (and even assistant coaches) come and go, but there is a reason why Whittingham is the common thread among those 11 bowl victories.

1. If it’s broke, fix it.

Whittingham was promoted to head coach in large part because of his genius on the defensive side of the ball. As long as Whittingham has been the head coach at Utah, his teams have been predominantly defined by the defense, while the offense has been the Achilles heel more often than not.

Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) will be a key component in the future of Utah’s offense. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

I’m not an advocate of turning the offensive coordinator position into a revolving door. In Whittingham’s defense, not all changes in the offensive coordinator position were the result of his decision to make a change. For example, Norm Chow left to be the head coach of Hawaii. But I do have to give Whittingham credit for recognizing a problem and trying to fix it.

It looks like Whittingham may have finally found his man in Troy Taylor. This year we were given a hint of the potential that lies in store with Taylor at the helm of the offense.

The reality is that it takes time to fully implement a new offense. With the offensive coordinator turning over on an annual basis, the Utes’ offense has basically been treading water in the starting block for years without being given a true opportunity to implement and effectively run the full scope of any offensive scheme.

We even saw some of those growing pains in the offense again this year. However, at times we saw flashes of what might be, and the bowl game really showcased the potential of what Taylor has to offer. But for a number of dropped balls, some very well-designed plays would have blown the game open even wider. With many key players returning next year, including the starting quarterback, a stable of running backs, and most of the wide receivers (not to mention Britain Covey’s return from his church mission), I can’t wait to see what Utah’s offense looks like next year.

Whittingham also deserves credit for giving Taylor the latitude and discretion he needs to be successful, especially because the offense isn’t in Whittingham’s wheelhouse of expertise. Part of being a good head coach (and a great leader in general) is surrounding yourself with good people, and then giving them the tools and the space to be successful.

Here’s hoping the football team can carry some momentum into spring ball and next fall, while the basketball team continues to be a contender in the Pac-12.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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