SALT LAKE CITY – Kyle Whittingham is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He went to high school in Provo, Utah, rooting for the church's official university, Brigham Young. He was later a star linebacker for the Cougars, named the league defensive player of the year in 1981.
It made his decision back in 2004 one of the most unique possible.
He was simultaneously offered the head coaching job at both BYU and Utah, where he was the defensive coordinator.
The two schools are bitter rivals, making this an unheard of situation – like choosing to coach Florida or Florida State, Auburn or Alabama, Michigan or Ohio State?
Only this was even more difficult. The rivalry between the two isn't just fueled by proximity. Religion plays a huge part in a state dominated by Mormons.
"An agonizing decision," Whittingham calls it today. "There were a lot of factors. It took me four or five days to make it."
When BYU calls the odds are a Mormon, let alone an alumnus, will answer.
Whittingham didn't. In a move that stunned some of his own family, he stayed at Utah, choosing, in some minds, state over church. He considers it continuing the job of building the Ute program – he'd been at the school 11 seasons as an assistant.
He understands some see it the other way.
He isn't spending much time worrying about it. In his fourth season, Whittingham has duplicated Urban Meyer's once unheard of success here. The Utes are 12-0 and ranked seventh in the country as they prepare for a Sugar Bowl matchup with No. 4 Alabama.
Utah has always been a unique place. It's the flagship state school in a state where the majority of the populace answers to their own higher calling. BYU is the place for Mormons.
Former Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus said the challenge of coaching at Utah was recruiting. Outside the state, Utah is seen as a Mormon school, which might not appeal to non-Mormons. Inside Utah, it's considered the state school, which might not appeal to Mormons.
While Whittingham admits "we have to dispel some myths from time to time," he's taken a different tact in building the program.
Rather than being defined as church or state, why not be both?
It's Utah Football 2.0.
A devout Mormon, Whittingham has made the program both "more" Mormon and "more" attractive to recruits from across the country of any religious, racial or cultural background.
Fifty-five players and half the coaching staff are members of the LDS. Forty-seven players are returned missionaries, a two-year service to the church that takes them out of college that Whittingham encourages. The coach has included voluntary prayer in the program and set up a weekly "Institute of Religion" class, which features the study of the Book of Mormon for those interested.
"I think we have a great environment for LDS athletes," Whittingham said.
At the same time, Whittingham has been able to build on Meyer's momentum with out of state recruits.
One of the reasons he chose Utah over BYU was his belief that being the big-city state school offered advantages with non-Mormon recruits. In blunt terms, that means attracting African Americans to a state that's overwhelmingly white.
Salt Lake City is home to the LDS Church, but is also a relatively cosmopolitan and diverse community.
"I thought we were just scratching the surface for what we could do," he said of his time working for Meyer. "We can recruit speed and athleticism here. We get a kid on this campus we have a great chance of signing him."
The combination, Whittingham believed, made the Utah job more promising than BYU, even if conventional coaching wisdom suggested otherwise at the time.
The current success bears it out. Quarterback Brian Johnson hails from Texas and his top two receivers, Freddie Brown and Brent Casteel, are from California. All are African Americans. It's the same for most of the defensive secondary.
The combination of success and stability means this isn’t just a one-year wonder program. Utah is only getting better.
It starts mostly with Whittingham. His devotion to his church has never wavered. He rarely misses one of the weekly classes and often gives his own "firesides," an LDS tradition where he can speak on a religious theme for over an hour.
Out at alumni dinners and recruiting functions he's even found one of his best applause lines – and jabs at BYU – right out of Mormon doctrine.
After Whittingham decided to choose the Utes over the Cougars, one of his cousins was studying the LDS' book of "Doctrine and Covenants." He came across Section 133 verse 48, called Whittingham and told him that choosing Utah over BYU made sense.
"And the Lord shall be red in his apparel," the verse begins.
"See," Whittingham said, laughing. "It was right there in the Doctrine and Covenants the whole time."
Now only if it said something about beating the Crimson Tide.
- Kyle Whittingham