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Engaging Whittingham, Utah fired up over Pac-12 adventure

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Kyle Whittingham and tackle Tony Bergstrom can't wait to play in the Pac-12. (AP)  
Kyle Whittingham and tackle Tony Bergstrom can't wait to play in the Pac-12. (AP)  

Kyle Whittingham has not coached a game as a member of a BCS conference, but there is no question he can entertain like he has.

You would think once there, in the big time, he'd be under some pressure, perhaps in the form of some stiff shoulders, a forced joke or an uneasy smile. Whittingham displays none of that.

Exuberance? Excitement? That he has plenty of.

And stories? He's got plenty of those too -- BCS coach-caliber ones to boot. Such as the reference the Utah coach made to several Pac-12 coaches at lunch one day during the East Coast portion of the conference's media days.

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"You know, at one time, Rick Majerus was the worldwide leader in Marriott points," Whittingham said matter-of-factly, before really emphasizing, "Worldwide leader."

The former Utah basketball coach was famous for staying in a hotel while coaching at the university. The current football coach, in his 17th year at the school, doesn't stay at a hotel but he is getting used to a new home in the Pac-12 this season.

"I have to say, the University of Utah had been hoping to join the Pac-10 for 25 years," Whittingham said. "This is something that has been a long time in the making. It's a tribute to many, many, many great athletes that have come through our athletic department and the many great coaches who have laid the groundwork for something like this to happen."

Whittingham is one of the coaches who helped make the school so attractive to Larry Scott when he began exploring expansion of the then-Pac-10 last summer. At least partially responsible for two undefeated seasons (one as defensive coordinator) and two BCS bowl wins, the seventh-year head coach has proven he belongs with the big names on the field and is right there with his conference brethren off it.

"I've known most of them for quite a long time," he said of his fellow Pac-12 coaches. "It's a great group of guys. A lot of success in this group of coaches. I've got a lot of respect for all of them and if anything that's grown."

If you need a sign of just how big the move on up to an automatic qualifying conference is for the program, look no further than Utah Day. A state-wide celebration marked the official entry of the school into the Pac-12 on July 1st and featured some 2,000 fans at the steps of the state capitol to hear dignitaries speak glowingly about the transition.

Whittingham couldn't attend the festivities due to a vacation but can feel the energy fans have for the move. He has a deep connection with the state's football tradition, having played linebacker at BYU and being thoroughly ingrained at Utah.

"Particularly Salt Lake City. The city is excited, the entire community of Salt Lake is really anticipating this upcoming season," Whittingham said. "There's been a big change in the landscape in terms of football in the state of Utah. Joining the Pac-12 is big for our university on many different levels."

How's this for excitement: Utah's season ticket renewal rate was one of the highest in the country -- an unheard of 98 percent this season. The program is beginning work to improve the current athletic facilities in December and, perhaps most importantly, has seen a noticeable improvement in the quality of player it can recruit -- all thanks to the move to the conference of champions.

"Just the reception we get and being able to get into virtually any door of any recruit we have interest in is great," Whittingham said. "Our recognition factor has gone up a lot in the last six or seven years, with the Fiesta Bowl and the Sugar Bowl and now this just takes it up another level.

"We feel we have a very good recruiting class that we out together last year and we've got a great start on this year's class."

The transition to stiffer competition naturally leads to the question of whether Whittingham, as a coach, and the Utes, as a team, can handle it all. Like playing in front of 90,000 at the Coliseum in the inaugural Pac-12 game. Or the week-in and week-out grind of playing in what should be the second-most competitive conference in 2011, after the SEC. Whittingham believes the team has been ready and willing to take on the challenge for several years now.

"There's good football in the Mountain West, make no mistake about that," he said. "TCU, last year, was as good a team as there was in the country as far as I'm concerned. Our team that we had in 2008, that we had in 2004, I believe, could have played with anyone in the country. I just think rosters in the Pac-12 from top to bottom are deeper. They're a little faster, a little bigger, a little stronger.

"We realize the challenge that lies ahead. The bar has been raised, there's no question about that. It's a great opportunity, what more could you ask for? As a coach, as a player, you want to compete at the highest level and this is our chance to do that."

Last year, Utah looked like it could have a shot at another Mountain West title and BCS bowl until TCU came to town. The Horned Frogs steamrolled the Utes at home, 47-7. After an 8-0 start, the lopsided loss killed any momentum. Utah proceeded to drop its next game to Notre Dame and barely beat San Diego State and BYU before scoring just three points in a loss against Boise State in the bowl game.

While most would be happy with a 10-3 record, Whittingham just looks back at the aftermath of the TCU game and sees a "what if" given the hangover the team had following the loss.

"That's my fault as the head coach," he said. "It's your job to make sure the mindset of the team is where it's supposed to be and that they're prepared going into each game. I believe we let TCU beat us twice. We played extremely poor, we were still hanging our heads a little bit, feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves and weren't as focused or as sharp as we needed to be."

In order to get last year's funk out of the building, the 51-year-old head coach brought in some new, seasoned coaches. While calling around about offensive line coach Tim Davis, Whittingham ended up talking to Norm Chow, who coached with Davis on USC's national championship teams a few years prior. It didn't take long before the conversation turned from offensive line to offense period and Chow was offered the chance to return to his alma matter as offensive coordinator.

"Norm and I go way back, some thirty-odd years of a relationship. We've kept in touch throughout that time frame. Obviously what he's done over the course of his career is very well documented. He's one of the most successful offensive coordinators in all of college football, so when we had the opportunity to bring him on board, I didn't hesitate."

Chow is intimately familiar with the Pac-12 style of football and brings some changes to an offense that slowed down considerably once starting quarterback Jordan Wynn went down with an injury.

"You're going to see a new look on offense," Whittingham said. "Much more of a pro-style attack with a West Coast flavor to the offense. A quarterback under center is going to be the most notable change, at least from a fan's perspective. Schematically, the run game will be much more downhill, a power-type attack. But there will be a lot of carry-over and similarity to what we were already doing."

There's still that question of the grind and if Utah can overcome it to hit the 10-win mark for the fourth year in a row though. The Utes have the pieces to compete, a stellar defensive line and a good number of returners from a defense that was among the best in the country against the run. As someone who has a plan for every bit of his program, Whittingham feels like he has one ready to go for this upcoming season to deal directly with that issue.

"We've got a preparation model in place that has been good to us," he said. "We may tweak it a little bit because of the physicality of the Pac-12 that we anticipate to keep our guys as fresh as possible. You don't want to beat them up in practice, so we've taken that into consideration. There's not going to be any wholesale changes from the way we've prepared them in the past to what we'll do this season."

There's only one wholesale change the Utes will have to make this season, one they've been looking forward to for quite some time. From the Mountain West to the Pac-12 South, the Utes are ready, and able, to join the big show.

Should make for an interesting and engaging story down the road from their head coach.

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