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‘We were close to heading out to Tennessee’: Kalani Sitake says Kyle Whittingham almost became Vols’ coach in 2010

Tom Smart, Deseret News
Tom Smart, Deseret News

BYU football coach Kalani Sitake made a somewhat startling revelation regarding Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, his former boss, on Monday after a golf match benefitting the National Kidney Foundation of Utah and Idaho at Hidden Valley Country Club.

“First of all, I love the state of Utah. Essentially raised here in the state of Utah. It is home for me. I am not a ‘grass is always greener, looking over the fence, type of guy.’”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on why he chose to stay at Utah

Sitake said that in January 2010 — about five months before the University of Utah accepted an invitation to join the Pac-10 and make it, with Colorado, the Pac-12 — that Whittingham was within a whisker of accepting the head coaching job at Tennessee.

“We were just talking about this last week — we were close to heading out to Tennessee,” Sitake said in response to a question about why Whittingham has stayed at the U. for so long, with Whittingham nodding in agreement and saying, ‘That’s right.”

“You remember that, Kyle?” continued Sitake, who was Utah’s linebackers coach from 2005-08 under Whittingham and the school’s defensive coordinator from 2009-14. “It was close and it was like, uh, what do we do? And it was one of those weird feelings where it felt like it was going to happen.

“And then Kyle calls me at like 1 in the morning, and I take the phone call. We were literally (about to accept the job). I was working on my Southern accent and stuff like that.

“I answered the phone and he said, ‘Let’s stay and make it awesome here (at Utah).’ It was like sweet music to me. I was like, ‘Yes.’ It just felt right to stay, you know?”

That Tennessee had made a “lucrative offer” to Whittingham was common knowledge, according to a Deseret News article published Jan. 16, 2010, and Whittingham’s own Wikipedia page. What hasn’t been known, until now, is how close he was to taking the job, and taking Sitake with him.

“If you don’t like something about where you are at, this guy has taught me to just keep working,” said Sitake, flanked by Whittingham, to the question posed by former Utah quarterback Scott Mitchell. “And keep working, and good things will happen.”

Sitake, who was hired by BYU in December 2015 to replace Virginia-bound Bronco Mendenhall, said there were several times during his time at Utah with Whittingham that the now 64-year-old coach had offers to take other jobs for more money.

“It all sounds great, but I don’t think Kyle was ever going to leave,” Sitake said. “A lot of people made some really cool attempts to get him out of there. I was really lucky that he brought me in (to his office) and let me see some of it.”

When it was Whittingham’s turn to answer the question about why he has remained at one school for so long in this day and age of continual coaching shuffling, he credited Utah’s administration and his assistant coaches, including the former one now wearing BYU blue.

The Utes and Cougars will be back in the same conference beginning in the fall of 2024.
BYU and Utah head coaches Kalani Sitake and Kyle Whittingham share a laugh as they are joined by fellow coaches and fans for the annual Utah Kidney Foundation golf tournament at Hidden Valley Country Club in Sandy Monday, June 13, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“First of all, I love the state of Utah. Essentially raised here in the state of Utah. It is home for me,” he said. “I am not a ‘grass is always greener, looking over the fence, type of guy.’ And I believe in where your feet are, that’s where you do the best job you can do, where you are at, and our program has had a chance to be successful because of guys like Kalani.

“I have surrounded myself with really good assistant coaches who have done a great job recruiting, which has enabled us to have the longevity that we have had,” Whittingham continued. “You know, 80% of your success, or lack thereof, is tied to recruiting. We have done a great job — our assistant coaches, out on the front lines — have done a great job evaluating the talent, and bringing those guys into the program. That’s really been the key to our success.”