When Northwestern and Utah face off on New Year’s Eve, two of the longest tenured Power Five football coaches will also be matching up. Kyle Whittingham, in his 14th full season as the Utah coach, and Pat Fitzgerald, in his 13th season as the main man in Evanston, have never faced each other as head coaches, but the similarities between the men are evident. Both were standout linebackers in college, and both are defensive-minded coaches who focus on discipline and toughness. And in 2018, both coaches made their respective conference championship games for the first time, in somewhat improbable ways. The media wondered if 2018 was the best coaching year yet for Whittingham, and for Fitzgerald.
So let’s make the comparison. Who’s had the better career as a head coach: Whittingham or Fitzgerald?
First, I’ll make the case for Fitz, and then I’ll make the case for Whittingham. Here is some data to guide the analysis:
Whittingham vs. Fitz
|Years as HC||14||13|
|Years above .500||12||8|
|Bowl games (record)||13 (11-1)||9 (3-5)|
|Division titles or co-titles||3||1|
|AP Top 25 finishes||5 (6 if u count 2004)||3|
|Average recruiting class (247 Sports)||47.2||57.5|
|Best recruiting class||33||47|
The case for Pat Fitzgerald
If we’re going to make the case for Pat Fitzgerald, it has to be about legacy. Whittingham has the BCS bowl wins and the unprecedented bowl record that Fitz cannot boast. So has Pat Fitzgerald meant more to Northwestern football than Kyle Whittingham has meant to Utah football? There’s certainly an argument there.
After all, it was Urban Meyer who helped laid the groundwork for Whittingham with back-to-back Mountain West championships and a Fiesta Bowl berth. Credit Whittingham for continuing that success. But the Utes have had sustained success in earlier eras — 10 bowl appearances and 23 conference championships, to be exact. Whittingham isn’t the winningest coach in Utah history, either — that distinction belongs to Ike Armstrong, who coached the Utes from 1925-1949.
Fitz, on the other hand, is Northwestern football. Aside from 1995, 1996 and 2000, Northwestern hadn’t had any modern success before Fitz became the head coach. He’s coached 165 games and won 95 of them, both Northwestern records. In Fitz’s tenure, Northwestern has made nine bowl games after making only seven in the previous 57 years. Fitz owns three of Northwestern’s four bowl wins ever, and three of NU’s four 10-win seasons. He presided over NU’s record-tying eight Big Ten wins this year and earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
Of course, Fitz also presides over the program that was the beneficiary of the $270 million Walter Athletic Center and Ryan Fieldhouse. (Utah built a new football facility in 2013, but NU’s Ryan Fieldhouse is among the crown jewels of the sport). This might be Fitz’s crowning achievement — creating a culture that produced enough winning to garner a massive investment at a university when athletics weren’t taken seriously until very recently.
The case for Kyle Whittingham
Utah’s coach has a couple bullet points in his resume that Fitzgerald just can’t match. First, Whittingham was the national coach of the year in 2008, leading Utah to an unblemished 13-0 record. The Utes competed in the Mountain West conference back then, but they rolled over No. 24 Michigan in Ann Arbor, handled all their conference foes (including No. 11 TCU and No. 14 BYU), then spanked No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after getting disrespected by Nick Saban before the game. Utah walked the walk and was actually one of the best teams in the country, and the Utes finished No. 2 in the AP Poll.
The other remarkable part of Whittingham’s tenure is his postseason record. Whittingham has won 11 of his 12 bowl games as Utah’s coach, which is the best in NCAA history. He’s only one win behind Saban for the most wins among active coaches. Utah isn’t beating up on the Louisiana-Lafayettes of the college football world, either. The Utes have beaten teams from all five Power Conferences in its bowl games during Whittingham’s tenure. They’re 2-0 in BCS bowls if you count the 2004 Fiesta Bowl in which Whittingham and Urban Meyer were co-coaches.
Utah has never won less than five games in Whittingham’s tenure, and the Utes have made a bowl game in all but two of Whittingham’s 14 full seasons. That’s remarkable consistency, even as the Utes have had to compete in the Pac-12 for the past eight seasons.
Whittingham has also improved his recruiting as the Utes transitioned to Power Five play. In his tenure, Whittingham has averaged a recruiting class ranking of 47.2, but the Utes have pulled in top-40 classes from 2016-18.
Who has the edge?
Utah has more historical success as a program, which serves to undermine Whittingham’s achievements a bit, in my opinion. Still, Utah’s head coach has the better “best year”, historically-great postseason success, and better recruiting ratings. Fitz probably means more to Northwestern football than Whittingham does to Utah, but it’s close enough that Whittingham still has the overall edge due to his sustained success on the field.