Gordon Monson: When Kyle Whittingham is done at Utah, a coach-in-waiting is there to replace him

USA Utah News

If you, like a lot of other people, don’t enthusiastically endorse the notion of a head coach-in-waiting, there are exceptions to almost everything.

And Morgan Scalley is that exception for the Utes.

It appears they know it, too.

Scalley should be his replacement. If he’s not, someone’s not paying attention.

“I’m grateful to be in this position, and fully committed to the Utah Football Family,” Scalley said.

He fits nicely in that frame, his only disadvantage being that he’s never before run his own program, and there are those who might rightly concern themselves over that lack of experience.

But what Scalley does have is extraordinary. It goes beyond standard stuff you’d see on most coaching resumes, blowing straight through to the exceptional, the kind of attitudes and attributes you would want your kid to play for and be influenced by.

The defensive coordinator is smart and savvy with a strong football background. He has a solid relationship with his players. He’s a good recruiter. He is the right age to move on up, and would like nothing more, as he said, than to coach in his home state at his alma mater, where he was once a star himself. He knows the lay of the land here, every corner of it, fully aware of Utah’s strengths and weaknesses, its idiosyncrasies, its expectations.

He’s not perfect. The defensive game plans this season against USC and Oregon failed. But his D was No. 1 nationally in stopping the run and third overall. He’s a finalist for the 2019 Broyles Award, given to the top assistant in college football.

None of those things separately guarantees or prevents his future success, but taken together, including the few flaws, they represent a strong cluster of characteristics and components for a logical successor.

Not unlike Whittingham, Scalley wouldn’t use the Utah job as a steppingstone.

It is his destination.

And that’s what the Utah program deserves.

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The days of needing an interloper/carpetbagger like Urban Meyer to come in, temporarily kick up the winning, lift the program’s profile, tell a bunch of lies about sticking around as long as boosters pay in loads of cash and the winning is good, are over.

The Utes don’t need to go hire somebody else’s big-name coach. They can grow their own. They have grown their own. Scalley. In his case, as he continues to build on Whittingham’s foundation, Utah will not have to endure the clown show of having administrators from other schools coming into town to lure him away, as helicopters hover overhead.

He won’t go anywhere.

He’s home.

But there are other attributes that make Scalley stand out, foremost among them his insistence that his players on the defensive side play not just with intensity and instincts, but with intelligence. He’s always favored physical guys who use their heads for more than battering rams. He might want them to hit like Neanderthals, but he prefers astute, erudite Neanderthals.

He comes by that honestly, considering that’s the way he played as an academic All-American safety for Ron McBride and Meyer. He was the quarterback on those old Utah defenses, learning not just his own duties, but also the roles of his teammates. He studied the game.

And that was after he initially hesitated to move to that position. He was a great running back at Highland High School, and planned to continue at that position when he arrived at Utah in 1998 — until coaches started arguing over him. He was wanted as a runner, a receiver, and DB.

Secondary coach Bill Busch, who won out, said back then: “He’s a leader on our team because of a combination of his effort level, his physical talents and his intelligence. You draw something up for him on the board one time, and he gets it. That’s rare.”

His long ago teammate, Dave Revill, said this of Scalley: “He has his head screwed on straight. He knows what he wants and he goes and gets it. He’s the hardest worker on our team. That shows in the classroom. He voices his opinion in the locker room and guys listen because everything he does, he does right.”

Scalley was one of a vocal group of players who were upset when McBride was let go, even leading a petition to save the former coach’s job. When Meyer arrived, he immediately noted Scalley’s leadership qualities, and empowered him even more. It paid off with an undefeated season in 2004.

“We’re a bunch of guys who bleed and sweat together,” Scalley said during that season. “We know what has to be done to win.”

Dude was a coach-in-waiting all the way back then.

There’s another thing, as well: Perspective.

When Scalley was a student-athlete at Utah, he worked with disadvantaged kids, three times a week, and led fundraising causes to help those in need, the homeless in Salt Lake City and children lacking vaccinations in the Philippines. He was spotted at various locations, such as at a table at the Huntsman Center during a Utes basketball game, selling wristbands to aid the poor.

“I realize that God’s given me my talents,” he said at that game. “Giving back is my duty. As athletes, we get so many benefits. We work our tails off, but, at the same time, we get so much attention and limelight. Think of the people who don’t have anything, who are in need. I think of them and I feel a responsibility.”

He said that when he was 21. Two decades later, he gets it even more.

That sound like the kind of individual you’d want to run your program?

Before anyone confuses Scalley with Mother Teresa, he also had — and still has — a devilish sense of humor. He once left a note on a player’s locker indicating a radio station wanted an interview with him, insisting that he call in at a certain time. Scalley was lying. And when the show hosts put that player on for an unexpected, impromptu interview, Scalley sat by his radio, listening in, busting a gut.

“Morgan thinks he’s funny,” the player said.

Even now, Scalley maintains that ability to laugh. This season, he said of Leki Fotu, the Utes’ huge defensive lineman: “He’s a big, tough guy and I wouldn’t want to mess with him, so I don’t.”

When Scalley was promoted to defensive coordinator before the 2016 season, he said: “I love the camaraderie. The more guys in their down time are talking to each other about football, that’s a good thing. When they have a love and passion for it, when they’re consumed by it.”

He added: “It’s not about Morgan Scalley. It’s about the players. It’s a players-first program. You want to hold them to a tough standard, but if they think you don’t care about them, they won’t play for you. I think they know I care, but the second I start thinking I’m something special, then … I’m dumb.”

And then, on another occasion, he said: “Football, to me, reflects life. If you screw up, you let down the entire team. Just like when you screw up in life, you let down your family and friends. What it takes to be successful in life, I’ve learned from football. When you’re gassed and bleeding, you go on playing.”

Yeah. As soon as Whittingham is ready, the coach-in-waiting will be, too.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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