Good times, bad times

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

I almost have to chuckle when I see those Utah football banners around campus that say “Keep it rollin’.”

Keep it rollin’ where? Off a cliff? Into a pond of bloodthirsty alligators?

In two short years, the Utah football team has managed to fall from its pedestal, going from a team that consistently got airtime on ESPN to a group of seemingly lost souls who were orphaned when Urban Meyer left for better climate and, oh yeah, a realistic chance at winning the national championship.

But the glory and national attention are gone now. The bright lights are shining elsewhere and in their place is mediocrity of the harshest kind.

And the source of the demise seems to be getting clearer and clearer with each game.

Head coaching is more about team morale, intensity level and heart than it is about Xs and Os. It’s about finding ways to wring every last drop of effort out of every player who takes the field, and to do that, he’s got to have a sixth sense of what makes each guy tick.

Every college football program has a zillion position coaches, not to mention an offensive and defensive coordinator, to take care of the technicalities.

The head coach is on another level. He’s the leader and the motivator. He sets the work ethic and he lays out the team’s expectations. That’s not to say he’s just some motivational speaker with a headset.

He’s the lead strategist, but he needs to be more than that.

Good football coaching occurs when a coach can compel every guy-whether he’s the nose guard or the quarterback-to step between the hash marks on every down and sacrifice life and limb for a few more inches of yardage.

Great coaches turn football into something bigger. It’s not just a nervous “we’ve got to win so I don’t lose my job” situation. Great coaches make it about pride and community. Remember when Urban Meyer reinvigorated the MUSS? That wasn’t simply about getting more student support. It was all part of Meyer’s master plan. It put faces on the Utes and was a visual reminder of how much it all meant. It created excitement and unity within the school and surrounding community.

A head coach needs to be in touch with his players and convince them that he cares about them as people so they’ll give him their all.

The way in which Urban Meyer and his successor Kyle Whittingham interact with players is substantially different.

Meyer could tell you what a player’s wife or girlfriend did for a living and he seemed genuinely interested in the goings-on of players’ off-the-field lives.

Meyer even knew what kind of pet his players owned, one player said. Knowing that a player has a beloved guinea pig? Now that’s good coaching.

Meyer did all of this while maintaining a strict relationship that demanded respect.

Conversely, Whittingham is somewhat aloof.

Now I’m not saying that every coach should be expected to be of Meyer’s caliber. There’s a reason he’s the nation’s darling and is featured in Nike ads alongside Don Shula.

Part of his appeal is his spread offense. But the other part is that he got his players pumped up for every game. He thrashed every team the year of his 12-0 campaign. It didn’t matter who the Utes were playing; they never came out flat-footed. He never said, “It’s only a non-conference game.”

Football games were an event when Urban Meyer was here. He had the MUSS screaming, he had manly-man lineman proudly singing the wacky lyrics of “Utah Man” and proclaiming to be a member of the “jolliest” gang around, and he had his players believing in his system.

Meyer is a tough act to follow, and that’s why it’s probably too soon to run Whittingham out of town BYU-style.

After all, Whittingham was a solid defensive coordinator; there’s no doubt about that. But he has yet to prove that he has what it takes to keep the entire boat afloat.

And unless Coach Whit can somehow muster even a fraction of the fire Meyer brought to the Utah football program, the Utes will revert back to their old ways, and in no time, we’ll all be watching “Ronnie Mac: The Sequel.”

Natalie Dicou

Coach Kyle Whittingham applauds a referee’s call late in the Utes’ win against SDSU in San Diego.