SALT LAKE CITY — Long ago and about 165 miles up the road, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen began their Division I careers at Idaho State in Pocatello. They both worked on Garth Hall’s staff in 1990 and 1991. Whittingham oversaw the Bengals’ linebackers and special teams, while Christensen coached the offensive line and running backs.
The two-year stretch was the only time the coaches worked together until now. Their reunion game will be against Idaho State — Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“I guess that is ironic,” Whittingham said. “We had a good time up there.”
Whittingham, who eventually became Idaho State’s defensive coordinator before leaving for Utah in 1994, spent a total of six seasons with the Bengals. Although Christensen’s stay in Pocatello was comparatively brief, the coaches and their wives — Jamie and Susie — formed a lasting bond.
“That’s where we first met and the friendship started,” Whittingham said. “Our wives hit it off right off the bat. That was something that was very apparent, that they were very compatible.”
Although Christensen went on to work at Toledo, Missouri and Wyoming, the relationship with the Whittinghams remained intact. And it all began at Idaho State.
“It was both of our first jobs — our first experience, full-time at the D-1 level and your first opportunity is probably the one you remember the most,” Whittingham said. “And so I know that I was excited to be there and have an opportunity to coach, and I think Dave probably felt the same way.”
Christensen does, acknowledging that his first full-time job was “kind of a cool deal.” Even so, he notes that a lot of time has passed.
“It’s been so long,” Christensen said. “I have not been back to Pocatello since the day I left.”
The Christensens, though, will always have an important tie to the community. It’s where their son D.J. was born 23 years ago.
As for the game and the irony associated with teaming with Whittingham against their former employer in their initial Utah outing, Christensen admits he hasn’t really thought about all that kind of stuff. He even joked about not being on the same sideline as Whittingham for the game. Christensen will be calling plays from the booth.
That said, though, Christensen admitted he’s looking forward to the game.
Whittingham said the coaches are the same guys personality wise as they were back in the day.
“Obviously with 20-something years of coaching under our belt — between that point and time — hopefully we’re a little more experienced and know a little bit more about the profession,” he added. “But you’re constantly learning. You’ve never arrived as a coach, but hopefully we’re further along now than we were then.”
When they were at Idaho State, Whittingham said that he knew that Christensen was a “bright, young coach.” He noted that Christensen had a heck of an infrastructure on how to operate after playing for and serving as a graduate assistant under legendary Washington coach Don James.
Now, more than two decades later, Whittingham is predicting big things for a couple of other guys beginning their careers in Pocatello — former Utes Spencer Toone and Steve Fifita. Toone is Idaho State’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. Fifita directs the Bengals’ defensive line.
"Spencer and Steve are both young coaches just getting started and I think they’re both doing a fine job. They come down here a lot and clinic with us,” said Whittingham, who enjoyed his time at Idaho State and added that it’s a good place for a young coach to start. “There’s a lot to learn and a lot of good things, especially in the Big Sky. The Big Sky can be a very good conference and so it’s a good place for a young coach to get his career off the starting blocks.”
Could Toone and Fifita follow in the footsteps of Whittingham and Christensen?
Although it’s something Whittingham hadn’t thought of, he acknowledged it could be — noting that they're doing a nice job and have the right temperament, personality, and discipline to do just fine.
“Time will tell. I don’t know,” Whittingham said. “They are at the same point right now that we were 20-something years ago.”