Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham has become a Pac-12 staple. He has has played a role in 186 victories during his time as an assistant and head coach at Utah, more than any football coach in school history.
Now in his 12th year as head coach, Whittingham has his squad primed for another successful season. The Utes enter this weekend's matchup at UCLA with a 6-1 record, and remain in contention for a Pac-12 Championship.
Earlier this week, we caught up with Whittingham to discuss changes to the Utah football program over the years, learning from Urban Meyer, and his favorite hobby other than coaching football.
Here's our conversation. [divider]
HERO: What were the major changes you noticed when Utah joined the Pac-12?
Whittingham: There were huge changes across the board. I use the analogy, it was like getting a new job. It was that big of a change. The bar was raised in every single aspect of our program as far as facilities, recruiting, expectations, everything. It was a big change. It was a process to adjust, we knew it would be a process. It wasn't going to happen overnight.
We thought it was going to be four or five years to get our roster upgraded, and have more athleticism. We were a little bit behind on the perimeter with our skill players, we felt good up front. We matched up pretty darn good on both the offensive and defensive lines. But we had some catching up to do at the skill spots. We've done that for the most part but we know we aren't a finished product, it's not like we're sitting here thinking we've arrived and got everything right where it needs to be.
It's a work in progress, but we feel like we are more equipped right now than anytime since we joined the league. And we've really had to tap into that depth. We've had more injuries this year than in the 22 or 23 years since I've been here. It's not even close. [divider]
HERO: How much do you think about Urban Meyer and the things you learned from him?
Whittingham: A ton. I had a great opportunity to work for Urban for two years and it was a great learning experience for me. A lot of what we still do in this program today was implemented by him back in 2003-2004. There's a handful of truly elite coaches in this country, and he's certainly one of them.
Kyle Whittingham speaks at a media event earlier this year.
HERO: Special teams has been a staple for you. How do you develop a true special teams player?
Whittingham: First of all you have to get the buy in. The player has to understand that special teams are important. Generally speaking, where these guys come from, they are the stars of their high school or junior college teams.
Before they get here, their special teams roles were very small if any. A lot of places special teams is seen as a second-class job. Here it's just the opposite. We place a premium on it. I'm in every special teams meeting. We really emphasize it, and I try to back that up by being involved in every aspect of special teams.
The key is to get them to buy in and realize the importance we place on it, and the impact it has on the game. If they aren't interested or exciting about paying special teams, they aren't going to do you any good. They have to take pride in what they are doing. We've been able to establish that over the last several years. [divider]
HERO: Is there anything specific in your recruiting process to find diamonds in the ruff?
Whittingham: We realize we are going to get a limited amount of the four and five-star recruits. We've had a few over the years, but typically we are going to have to make our living on the guy that's just a little bit under the radar.
That being said, we have to be great evaluators and projectors of talent. We understand it's not where the guy is now, it's where is he going to be in two or three years. What kind of development can take place? Does he have the basic skill set to become the player we want him to become?
It's been our challenge but I think our assistant coaches have done a great job through the years of targeting those kinds of players. Tall, big frame, big wing span kids that are maybe a little light, or missing something that's causing some of the other schools to pass them by.
When we joined the Pac-12, we certainly had the opportunity to get more of the high-profile recruits. But still, we have to be accurate in our assessment of the guys that are under recruited. [divider]
HERO: What were the biggest things you learned playing under legendary coach Lavell Edwards at BYU?
Whittingham: First of all, he was a master of hiring a good staff and letting his coaches coach. He gave his coordinators autonomy to run their respective sides of the ball, and just have faith and trust in them.
Secondly, just the even keel personality he was able to run a program with. His emotions were never to high or never too low, just very steady. Very consistent in his approach. Those are both big takeaways I got from Coach Edwards and have implemented here at Utah. [divider]
HERO: If you had to pick one hobby that's not football related, what is it?
Whittingham: Snow skiing, without a doubt. I'm a passionate snow skier. I'm good enough to go fast, but probably not good enough to be going that fast. Gosh, I can get to Snowbird in 12 minutes from my home. It's a world class resort right up the canyon. There are just great ski resorts all throughout the Utah area here, so I've just fallen in love with the passion for snow skiing. I get up there every chance I can.