The traitor among us

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

Once Utah and BYU fans pick a side, they rarely waver. In fact, trading red for blue, or vice versa, is often seen as a shocking betrayal.

But for Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, the transition went surprisingly smoothly.

“I was loyal to Utah the day I got here,” Whittingham said.

The switch didn’t seem like a huge jump for Whittingham — who took a job as a defensive line coach at Utah in 1994 — partly because of his California upbringing.

Whittingham spent his formative years outside the Utah-BYU rivalry zone.

He moved to Utah in eighth grade after his dad, Fred Whittingham, became BYU’s defensive coordinator.

“It’s hard to go against your father, so yeah, absolutely, I was a fan,” Whittingham said.

Whittingham didn’t necessarily spend his childhood dreaming of playing for BYU.

“I just loved football,” Whittingham said. “When I came out of high school, the program (at BYU) was very good, and coach (LaVell) Edwards was a great coach.”

The fact that his dad coached at BYU played a big role in Whittingham’s decision to play for the Cougars.

“Not many guys have a chance to play for their fathers,” Whittingham said. “Now some guys wouldn’t want that chance, but I did.”

The Whittinghams and the rest of the Cougars teamed up for four-straight Western Athletic Conference championships from 1978 to 1981.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more out of my college career,” Whittingham said.

After college, Whittingham spent a few years in the United States Football League. Then, in 1987, he made his NFL debut after the regular players went on strike. His NFL career lasted three games.

“It wasn’t a great professional career by any means, but I had a chance to play a little bit beyond college, and I was excited about that.”

When Whittingham first showed up at the U at the age of 33, he hadn’t been associated with BYU for more than a decade.

“There was a lot of time that went by between when I got hired here at Utah and when I was last at BYU,” he said.

Whittingham believes that his time away from BYU cushioned his transition from Cougar to Ute.

“It would’ve been a much bigger adjustment if I’d come straight from one school to the other,” Whittingham said. “It wasn’t nearly as big a deal as people may think.”

By the time he began his career at Utah, Whittingham’s father had retired and his brothers, who had played at BYU, had also moved on. It wasn’t difficult to convince his family to support the Utes.

“Blood is thicker than water,” Whittingham said.

As for his decision to take the head coaching position at Utah instead of BYU, Whittingham doesn’t want to “rehash” all the details. But it’s clear that his life — along with the two rival football programs — would be much different today if Whittingham had chosen to return to BYU. In what ways, we’ll never know.

One thing is for sure: If he’d gone to Provo, he wouldn’t be allowed to sport a goatee.

“I guess that’s something that would not be allowable,” Whittingham said with a laugh.

At the end of the 2004 season, when both BYU and Utah were fighting over him, Whittingham gave BYU serious consideration.

“I don’t think that anybody in the country wouldn’t have a certain draw to go back to their alma mater,” Whittingham said.

Whittingham, of course, decided to stay put. To explain his decision, he likes to use the word “investment.”

“All I can say is that I had such an investment here at the University of Utah,” Whittingham said. “I’d been here for 10 years. I had recruited several of the players on the roster and put so much time and effort into the program.”

As a coach, Whittingham says the rivalry is less frosty from his standpoint than from a civilian’s.

The coaches and most of the players are separated from much of the animosity felt between rival fans. Many didn’t grow up in Utah and are here for a salary or the opportunity for an education. The bitterness hasn’t had an opportunity to take root.

“I’ve only been on both sides as a player and a coach,” Whittingham said. “It’s a very intense, emotional game, but it’s not the same as what fans experience. They’re going at each other’s throats.”

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Lennie Mahler