LOGAN — As a native of southern Alabama who has spent the majority of his 50 years living in “the Heart of Dixie” and places like South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi, John Hartwell didn’t know much about the state of Utah until December 2013.
That’s when the then-athletic director at Troy University, his wife, Heather, and their two young daughters accommodated the Trojans’ basketball team to Logan for the annual Gossner Foods Classic. Hoping to see some snow for the holidays, the Hartwells were disappointed to find there wasn’t any white stuff in Cache Valley when they arrived and even found Logan Canyon to be virtually bare all the way up to Beaver Mountain Ski Area.
But then came the pre-Christmas miracle.
“The next morning we wake up, and there’s five inches on the ground, and it’s still snowing. And I think about two days later, it snowed about another eight or nine inches,” Hartwell recounted during Wednesday’s press conference at the Wayne Estes Center where he was introduced as Utah State’s new athletic director.
“We ended up having a tremendous five days here, and as we were leaving Logan and driving back to Salt Lake City to go to the airport, Heather turned to me in the car and goes, ‘That’s a really neat place. I think I could live there.’
“Lo and behold … as fate, fortune and faith play into it, we couldn't be any happier than to be standing here today."
Hartwell takes over the reins of the Aggie athletic program from Scott Barnes, who left on April 24 after seven years in Logan to assume the athletic director position at the University of Pittsburgh.
Prior to introducing Hartwell as the school’s 11th athletic director, USU President Stan Albrecht made it clear that he felt a “great foundation” had already been estabished by Barnes and his successor, Randy Spetman.
“We weren’t looking to fix something. We are in a really good place,” Albrecht declared. “We wanted someone who would recognize that foundation that was in place, and then really take us to the next level.”
Acknowledging that he and the USU search committee “did move quickly,” Albrecht added, “We had a lot of folks who wanted this job, and we had a lot of folks who were really prepared and brought exceptional credentials. It certainly wasn’t a matter of there not being a wealth of talent, and individuals who wanted to be a part of the Utah State University system and the things that are happening here.
“… I had the assignment to make some very difficult calls and indicate that we were going in a different direction, and I think we actually broke some hearts. Some of those folks would have given anything to come to Utah State and be a part of the Utah State team.”
Hartwell comes to Logan after three years as the athletic director at Troy, located about three hours northeast of his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. A former high school teammate of North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried, the 6-foot-7 Hartwell played basketball at The Citadel in South Carolina before graduating in 1987.
A self-proclaimed “recovering CPA,” Hartwell spent four years working for Ernst & Young before returning to The Citadel to serve as his alma mater’s director of internal audit. He then labored for four years as the CFO of a beverage distributor before being encouraged by former Bulldogs basketball coach Les Robinson to get into athletics administration.
Despite taking a 50 percent reduction in pay, Hartwell accepted the position of assistant athletic director for business at Georgia State in 1997.
“It was a total 180-change,” Hartwell stated. “… It is not your stereotypical career path in athletic administration.”
After six years at GSU, Hartwell was hired as the senior executive associate athletics director at Mississippi, and he remained at Ole Miss for nearly a decade before leaving for Troy in 2012.
Hartwell said after years of being in the SEC, as well as competing in his home state against powerhouse institutions like Alabama and Auburn, he likes “to operate with a little chip on our shoulder.”
“And I like our staff and our student-athletes to operate with a little chip on their shoulders,” he continued. “Our budget may not be as large as the University of Utah, but we are going to find ways to not only compete, but to beat them and all of the big boys. We are going to be creative, but we are going to be smart with how we do things.”
Hartwell also said he’s impressed with the academic success of Utah State’s scholar-athletes, and that good grades will remain a priority for the Aggie athletic program.
“Winning is important and we are going to win,” he added. “But a caveat to that is we are going to win the right way. We are not going to cut corners, we are going to do things the right way on a compliance standpoint.”
Hartwell, who said he will spend a few more days in Logan before returning for good in July, also declared that he wants to meet with all of USU’s head coaches within his first 30 days on the job.
“I’ll sit down and have conversations with them, and part of that analysis will include the top three things that they need to win a championship,” Hartwell explained. “I want all of our head coaches to have that mindset that we won’t just be competitive in our league, but we will operate at the top of our league. If we operate at the top of the Mountain West we will have success on a national scale, as well.”
Hartwell said he’s been asked, ‘Why in the world would a guy, who is the director of athletics in south Alabama, come to Utah?’ And I would turn around and say, ‘Why not?’ Hartwell noted. “There are two things that are consistent whether you are in south Alabama or in Logan, Utah. Family values and conservative nature and I pride myself on that.”
“You will hear me talk a lot about the family. That expands to the Utah State athletic family, the Utah State University family, to the Logan community and to the Cache Valley. To me, that is all a part of our family.”
As if to emphasize that, Hartwell was accompanied on Wednesday by Heather, her parents, and his daughters, 6-year-old Lauren and 3-year-old Madison. Hartwell also has a 23-year-old son, Hunter, who is a recent Vanderbilt graduate now working out of Atlanta.
Both Lauren and Madison attended the press conference wearing Aggie cheerleader outfits, and Lauren even briefly took the mic to share some thoughts she had written down that morning in the her family’s hotel room.
“It is an honor to be an Aggie. I’m an Aggie. Go Aggies!” Lauren read to huge applause.