SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah struggles to find consistent football success in the Pac-12, one former coach of three teams in the conference offers advice to those itching to make changes.
Give it time, fickle Ute fans.
“Just be patient,” said Rick Neuheisel, “and it will be just fine.”
With the team coming off consecutive 5-7 seasons, many attired in red may not be willing to wait any longer. They are reaching the point to where it’s not good enough to simply belong in one of the nation’s premiere conferences.
Neuheisel, who served as the head coach at Washington, Colorado and UCLA, believes that Kyle Whittingham is building the very program that Utah fans desire. All the ingredients necessary to compete at the highest level are now in place, said Neuheisel, pointing specifically to the year-old football facility and general overall financial commitment the university administration has made to the program.
Coaching isn’t the issue, said Neuheisel, now a broadcaster for the Pac-12 Network.
“You can’t think that it’s going to happen overnight,” he said. “For people to grow tired or weary of Kyle Whittingham and think there’s a greener pasture somewhere else — caution. Be careful of what you wish for.
“Kyle Whittingham is Utah. He was here nine years as defensive coordinator, this is his 10th year as a head coach; you’ve got something special.”
So what do you think? Does Utah have the right coach in place?
"Kyle Whittingham is Utah. He was here nine years as defensive coordinator, this is his 10th year as a head coach; you've got something special."
For six years, no one could argue that Whittingham wasn’t an excellent Utah man. Under his tutelage, the Utes were 58-20, highlighted by the perfect season and thrashing of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in the 2008 season.
But Utah’s literal fortunes changed dramatically when the then-Pac-10 went looking for a partner to couple with Colorado. Since leaving the Mountain West, the Utes have gone 18-17 overall with a miserable 9-18 conference record.
While the Utes may have faced two ranked Mountain West teams, the Pac-12 regularly has five or six teams in the Top 25.
“The facts of the matter are when you’re playing nine conference games in a conference as strong as the Pac-12, it’s much more difficult than any schedule you can put together in the Mountain West Conference,” Neuheisel said.
Major issues at quarterback derailed any thought that Utah would make a smooth transition to the Pac-12. In a conference in which losing teams still put quarterbacks in the NFL (Arizona’s Nick Foles who’s now with the Philadelphia Eagles is an example), the Utes were trying to compete with a battery of injured or walk-on quarterbacks. Still, with a healthy Travis Wilson at quarterback, the Utes were 4-2 last season with a huge upset of Stanford.
Neuheisel is preaching patience because Pac-12 depth isn’t built quickly. Utah’s recruiting has improved greatly, he said, citing the ability to lure players from football hotbeds Texas and the Deep South.
“Those things aren’t happening if it’s still a Mountain West operation here,” Neuheisel said.
But at some point, and it had better be sooner than later, Utah needs more wins. Bowl eligibility could go a long way to quieting the critics.
As might be expected, Utah athletic director Chris Hill wouldn’t commit to specific numbers that the Utes need to achieve this season. Then again, he probably doesn’t have to.
“Those things just have to be looked at long term and see what’s going to happen in the season,” Hill said. “There are so many things ahead. You say one thing and it can be interpreted as non-support for our program.”
For now, Utah football is in a good spot. Season-ticket renewals pushed near 100 percent, indicating the fan base is still enthusiastic about the program. The athletic program also is becoming a full-fledged Pac-12 member financially.
But Hill understands he can’t lose sight of the purpose in playing games.
“You’ve got to win. It’s all part of it. I don’t want to downplay that,” he said. “Our fans don’t want to hear me sit here and say it doesn’t matter if we win or lose. If it doesn’t matter, then why keep score.”