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SALT LAKE CITY — As the annual coaching carousel begins in college football, here's a piece of advice for most programs: To keep from being a stepping stone, stay within your boundaries.
We're talking to you, BYU and Utah.
On the heels of his team finishing with a second consecutive 5-7 season, along with going 5-13 in conference games, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham faces questions about his job security.
But is it fair? Not if the team's heart and soul this season has a say.
“As far as the program goes, I think we’re not where we need to be,” said defensive star Trevor Reilly. “Obviously we haven’t won enough games, but I think we’re on the right path.”
The fifth-year senior was Utah’s undisputed leader this season, earning respect from the least of them up through the university president. As an outgoing senior with an NFL career waiting, he is free to speak without repercussion.
To him, Utah football isn’t far off, as the close loses to Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA showed. Whittingham and his staff need time, he said.
“How long did it take Arizona State to win a Pac-12 championship?” Reilly asked.
You've got to understand they've been recruiting Mountain West kids for 10 years and then two years (in the Pac-12) we're contending with Oregon, USC, Arizona State, Stanford. And those are all in one season. Back in the day, they used to have to get up for two or three games.
For those counting, the Sun Devils and Arizona left BYU and Utah in the Western Athletic Conference and joined the Pac-10 for the 1978 season. After winning seven WAC championships in nine years, ASU won its first in the new conference in 1986.
The Sun Devils, though, didn’t face near the struggles early on as Utah has since leaving the Mountain West three years ago. They went 42-17 over the first five years in their new conference.
But that was a different era. The Utes entered the Pac-12 at a huge financial disadvantage, which may take years to close.
There was also a wide talent gap between Utah and many of the original Pac-10 programs. As Reilly pointed out, Utah’s undefeated 2008 team didn’t face near the competition as the Pac-12 offers nearly on a weekly basis.
“You’ve got to understand they’ve been recruiting Mountain West kids for 10 years and then two years (in the Pac-12) we’re contending with Oregon, USC, Arizona State, Stanford,” he said. “And those are all in one season. Back in the day, they used to have to get up for two or three games.”
Whittingham knows Utah needs to improve recruiting, repeatedly stating the need to get faster at the receiver and cornerback positions. The quarterback staying healthy for the entire season would also go a long way toward helping the team get the six wins necessary to qualify for a bowl game.
While a third straight losing season would deservedly bring heat, Whittingham has earned the opportunity to turn around the program. The last thing Utah wants is to fall into the cycle of changing coaches every few years.
For all of their success under Frank Kush, Darryl Rogers and John Cooper, the Sun Devils plummeted into a black hole after going through four coaches in eight years.
After Cooper coached ASU to wins in the Rose and Freedom bowls in 1987, the program did not make another postseason game until former Utah State coach Bruce Snyder got to the Rose Bowl after the 1996 season.
As nice as Urban Meyer’s brief fling was, the Utes aren’t in position to bring in a bunch of outsiders who will leave if they have success. They need a Utah man.
What’s the point of hiring a coach the caliber of a Steve Sarkisian? The first time the former BYU quarterback won eight games at Washington, he took the USC job. Conference affiliation won’t prevent Utah from being a stepping stone for many coaches.
A coach with limited ties to a university beyond his current job is always a threat to leave at the first sign of success. These coaches can’t even bother to stay through a bowl game.
As Washington freshman quarterback Troy Williams tweeted, never commit to a school because of a coach. “Faker than a 3 dollar bill,” tweeted Williams, who left the Los Angeles area to play for Sarkisian in Seattle.
Take it from someone inside the program, keep the boss in charge. It’s a message Reilly is willing to deliver to university administrators.
“Before they make a rash decision they need to check themselves,” he said.