Friday, December 20, 2013
Whittingham's six-coordinator itch
By Ted Miller
You can't say Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is afraid of change. You can't say he's not desperately trying to fix his ailing offense. And you can't say that the unexpected hiring of former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen on Friday to run the Utes offense in 2014 isn't a bold move with a potentially substantial payoff.
Christensen has a great reputation for offensive innovation -- just review what he did at Missouri in 2007 with QB Chase Daniel.
Still, it is fair to wonder if a revolving door at offensive coordinator is a good thing for the Utes' short-term prospects, particularly with growing pressure on Whittingham to reverse a two-year bowl-less slide.
Kyle Whittingham has had a revolving door at offensive coordinator.
Revolving door? Christensen is Utah’s sixth offensive coordinator in… six years:
• Andy Ludwig -- 2009
• Aaron Roderick and Dave Schramm -- 2010
• Norm Chow -- 2011
• Brian Johnson -- 2012
• Dennis Erickson (Johnson remained co-coordinator in name only) -- 2013
• And now Christensen -- 2014
Here's an interesting dynamic: At least as of now, Roderick, Johnson and Erickson will remain on staff, working under Christensen. Erickson will coach running backs, Johnson quarterbacks. There was a void on the offensive staff because tight ends coach Jay Hill was hired as Weber State's head coach. Christensen will coach tight ends. Roderick was receivers coach and passing game coordinator last year. The release from Utah on Christensen's hiring doesn't note any change to his status.
The Pac-12 blog's oft-stated position on why the Utes offense has struggled the past few years, other than a higher quality of opposing defenses in the Pac-12 compared to the Mountain Weast, was the lack of continuity at quarterback. Unless Christensen has a cure for what ails the health of the promising Travis Wilson, that will be the overriding issue in 2014.
Whittingham also probably will need to smooth over some roughed-up egos.
It would seem this move is a surprise to Erickson, who refused to comment to the Salt Lake Tribune, per Twitter, but had said he wanted to return as coordinator. The feeling when Erickson, 66, was hired last winter to play lead with demoted co-coordinator Brian Johnson was he would mentor Johnson, an inexperienced but undeniably promising coach, not to mention a former Utes football great. The seeming ideal scenario there was Erickson retiring after a few years and Johnson regaining his old spot with a new bag of tricks and far more seasoning. That scenario has been clouded by the hiring of Christensen.
It will be interesting to see if this offensive staff doesn't undergo a few more changes before next season.
Christensen was only fired at Wyoming on Dec. 1. He went 27-34 overall in five seasons coaching the Cowboys and 16-23 in the Mountain West. He was Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year in 2011, but he went 9-15 the past two seasons.
Before Wyoming, he served 17 years as an assistant for Gary Pinkel at Toledo (1992-2000) and Missouri (2001-08), and he's a no-huddle, spread specialist, the scheme the Utes have been tinkering with with varied results for several seasons.
"As one of the pioneers of the spread offense, Dave Christensen is an innovative coach and was the architect of one of the top offenses in the country during his time at Missouri,” Whittingham said in a statement from the school. “We feel fortunate he was available and interested in joining our program, and he will be a great fit with our staff. We want an explosive offense and that’s been a trademark of Dave’s throughout his career as an offensive coordinator.”
Whittingham and Christensen worked together at Idaho State in 1989-90. Christensen played offensive line at Washington from 1980-82 before getting his degree in 1985 at Western Washington.
This is a good hire in many ways. Erickson wasn't the long-term answer, and Christensen's availability and willingness to come to Salt Lake probably was too alluring to pass up for Whittingham. Yet six coordinators in six years is pretty extreme turnover. While there are reasonable explanations for each change, it's impossible to not at least raise an eyebrow.
Of course, the way to lower that skeptical eyebrow is the same for Whittingham/Christensen as it is in all things in big-time college football.