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Patrick Kinahan: Whittingham long ago proved coaching greatness


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SALT LAKE CITY — To the casual observer, the kind a big game usually draws in, Kyle Whittingham has enhanced his stature as an elite college football coach the last two seasons.

Consecutive Rose Bowl berths, which his Utah program has achieved, are excellent credential builders. But to those paying close attention, such as his peers, Whittingham's greatness is nothing new.

Utah's impressive performance over the USC Trojans should not do much to alter Whittingham's image or reputation. If you're paying attention, the 23-point win that dropped USC out of the playoff picture is the norm of late for the Utes.

Look no further than seven weeks ago when Utah saddled then seventh-ranked USC with its first loss. Despite oddsmakers listing the rematch as close to a toss-up, most forecasters expected the Trojans to win the Pac-12 championship game last Friday night in Las Vegas.

And why not?

USC got a new coach 12 months ago, making the splash hire of the offseason in luring Lincoln Riley away from Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma. The heavily bankrolled Trojans quickly became the darlings of college football with a high-powered offense, but the revamped lineup financed through the transfer portal wasn't enough to buy a Pac-12 championship.

Don't believe the money line? Ask one of BYU's players off the team last year who turned down a decent sum for the chance to play at USC this year.

The Trojans now are reduced to playing Tulane in the Cotton Bowl, while the Utes are preparing for tradition-rich Penn State. The venue that used to be belong to USC — which has made 34 appearances in the Pasadena, California, game — in early January suddenly has become Utah's home away from home during the holidays.

The first time is unforgettable, but No. 2 for the Utes is sweeter. Oregon, last year's opponent in the conference championship game, was a wreck by the time early December rolled around.

Oregon's coach, Mario Cristobal, had more than one foot out the door going into the game. He was on an airplane practically minutes after the loss to take the job at Miami, his alma mater.

USC had no excuses in this game, even allowing for the hamstring injury quarterback Caleb Williams suffered on a long run in the first half. The Utes were without injured leading wide receiver Devaughn Vele, who was limited to fair catching punts, leading rusher Tavion Thomas and superstar tight end Brant Kuithe.

But enough about the losers. Let's talk about Whittingham's winners.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham is doused in celebration before beating the USC Trojans in the Pac-12 Championship at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. The Utes won 47-24.
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham is doused in celebration before beating the USC Trojans in the Pac-12 Championship at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. The Utes won 47-24. (Photo: Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)

The grinder, in his 18th year as a head coach, rarely draws attention to himself beyond his team's notable accomplishments. As soon as any praise comes his way, Whittingham always quickly deflects it to Utah's assistant coaches and the litany of outstanding players who have paraded through the program.

In the press conference after the championship game, an Associated Press writer asked Whittingham about ranking among college football's coaching greats. Big surprise (insert sarcasm), he offered no opinion.

"As far as the success that we've been able to have," he said, "I don't really care one bit about what conversation I'm in (or) not in."

About the best he'll go is: "We've got a very good football program and that's what you want. You don't want to have a good team every now and then, you want to have a good program. That's the point where we're at. We've got a program that's got some momentum now."

Even if the winningest coach in Utah history retired after the Rose Bowl, which is not beyond the realm, his place among the greats is undeniable. Few coaches can lay claim to building the same program into a powerhouse in two different conferences, as he's done in the Mountain West and Pac-12.

"He's one of the most winning coaches in the Pac-12 and the most winning coach at Utah," said quarterback Cam Rising.

"He's been doing something right, and he's been tenured there for so long that you've got to be doing something right in you're there for that long. He's just a great coach."

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

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