During his two-year stint as San Diego State's football coach, Brady Hoke would often make not-so-subtle overtures about his desire to be the head coach at Michigan. On more than one occasion, Hoke said he envisioned his career arc ending in Ann Arbor, where he'd spent eight seasons as an assistant before head coaching stops at Ball State and SDSU. And he made no secret to his employers that if the maize and blue ever called, he'd be gone.
Following the 2010 season, Michigan called. Hoke answered with vigor.
Around that time, Kyle Whittingham and the Utah Utes were wrapping up their final season as a Mountain West team. Utah, just two years removed from a 13-0 season and No. 2 BCS ranking, was regarded as one of the top non-AQ teams in the country and was headed to the newly-branded Pac-12.
Since leaving their old league in their wake, things haven't exactly gone according to script for these former A-list Mountain West coaches. And when their teams meet Saturday at The Big House, it's possible the outcome could alter the trajectories of their respective careers.
Hoke enjoyed an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory in his first year with the Wolverines but has seen declining returns after an 8-5 record in 2012 and a 7-6 mark last year. He sits on one of the hottest coaching seats in America.
Meanwhile, Whittingham and the Utes have struggled to adapt to Pac-12 football. The Utes are just 9-18 in conference play since joining the league (a vicious strain of yearly quarterback injuries doesn't go unnoticed) and have failed to reach a bowl game in consecutive seasons. Whittingham's seat isn't as hot as Hoke's, but if the Utes fail to make the postseason for a third straight year, it will be.
"No coach I know of pays any attention to external chatter," Whittingham said. "We're so focused on what we're doing. That's how you have to be. That's how you have to operate. You can't be distracted."
A victory Saturday puts the Utes at 3-0 heading into conference play and gives them a quality road win over a nationally-relevant opponent. A loss sends a signal that the Utes still aren't ready for Power 5 football.
A Michigan win won't make or break Hoke's career. But a loss could re-ignite an already agitated fan base still smarting from a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame in Week 2.
"They all count as one win," Whittingham said. "If the Michigan game counted as two wins, it would be a lot more important. It's not a conference game, so it obviously doesn't impact what happens in our league. But every game is critical and we're not going to approach this one any differently."
Exactly what you'd expect Whittingham to say. However, after beating up on FCS teams, BYU and Mountain West teams the last three years in nonconference play, this is Utah's biggest non-league test since joining the Pac-12. And it's outside the state of Utah, where the Utes have only won once in the last two seasons.
There really isn't a common denominator for why both coaches have struggled in their new surroundings. Hoke went to an already established Power 5 team, rich in success and tradition. Whittingham was shepherding an entire program into a significantly tougher conference.
Still, Hoke inherited a Rich Rodriguez team that was built for the spread and an odd-front defense. His first three years have been spent trying to install a pro-style attack and an even-front defense.
"When you're changing from a philosophic/schematic standpoint to a four-down front, recruiting those guys you want to play in there, you have to recruit the genetics," Hoke said. "Recruiting is always going to be part of it. The overall philosophy you have as a coach, how you want to develop your program, that's all part of it."
Both coaches concede the obvious -- that the weekly grind in the Power 5 is significantly harder. In the Mountain West, Utah's season usually came down to one big game against TCU. This year they face a four-game stretch of USC, at ASU, Oregon and at Stanford -- four teams currently ranked in the AP top 20.
"Everyone in the Pac-12 has to deal with that, so it's not unique to us," Whittingham said. "It's a big difference from what we experienced at the non-Power 5 level ... The recruiting is better. It's all about players. Coaches are way overrated. It's all about players and personnel. The personnel in the Pac-12 is markedly better than the personnel in the Mountain West across the board."
In their two Mountain West meetings, Whittingham's Utes beat Hoke's Aztecs both times. But given the coaching and personnel changes, those game films are moot. And while Whittingham is trying to bring his team to the next level, Hoke is scrambling to hold on to the position he called his "dream job" a year before he even had it.
"You have to be comfortable with who you are and who you are representing and I think we've got great leadership on this team," Hoke said of the outside noise calling for his ouster. "... We understand how we need to compete every Saturday and go about our business."
For both coaches, Saturday might be just as much about staying in business.