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Lee Benson: Hill's a fixture on The Hill

SALT LAKE CITY — Chris Hill is an institution at an institution. Heading into his 28th year as director of athletics, he’s been the face of University of Utah sports longer than any man in the school’s 165-year history. Two years ago he passed Ike Armstrong (25 years as AD, 1925-1950) on the all-time longevity list. He’s The Hill on The Hill.

He’s accomplished all this in a profession where sticking around is hardly the norm. Search the nation’s top universities and no one comes close to Chris Hill’s endurance. Of the 129 schools that play major college football in America, Jeremy Foley, at the University of Florida, is the second-longest tenured athletics director ­— and Foley started in 1992, five years AFTER Hill took over at the U.

And to think, he almost left after one Utah winter.

Actually, he did leave after one Utah winter. But he came back.

Hill was first lured to the Wasatch in 1973 by Bill Foster, the coach Hill had played basketball for at the University of Rutgers and who was hired by the Utes to take over its basketball program after the legendary Jack Gardner retired. Hill, a New Jersey native who had never before been to Utah, joined Foster’s staff as a graduate assistant. After the 1973-74 Runnin’ Utes went 22-8 and finished runner-up in the NIT, Foster was hired by Duke (where he preceded another legend, Mike Krzyzewski) and Hill went with him.

But he was conflicted. His heart was still in Utah. Not long after his arrival in Salt Lake he’d gone on a double date. It was a lineup, so expectations were low, but he found himself intrigued … by the other guy’s date.

Her name was Kathy Cronin. This year will mark their 40th wedding anniversary.

On a recent summer afternoon, the dean of America’s athletic directors agreed to sit down with the Deseret News at his Huntsman Center office and talk about his life and times as a Utahn, a Ute and an athletic director with uncommon staying power.

DN: Thank you for your time today. So you came to Utah for basketball, but you stayed for love?

CH: That’s true, Kathy was the big draw. I was at Duke for just a little while and I said (to Coach Foster), Bill, I want to go back. I went in to talk to Carl James, the athletic director, about what I wanted to do and he said, “You know, this only has to make sense to you but I have this strange feeling you know what you’re doing and it’s all going to work out.” I went home to New Jersey to see my family, they thought I was crazy, and I drove out here without a job. I put an ad in the paper that I could paint, so I got a job at a place called Bar Tile, on the road to Bountiful. The owner was a Ute fan and I don’t think to this day he realizes it was me who was painting his place. Then I got a job at Eisenhower Junior High teaching math and after that I got the job at Granger High School where I taught math and coached the basketball team for four years.

DN: Is the New Jersey in you surprised you’re still here?

CH: I would say there was a zero percent chance when I was 20 years old that I would live in Utah. Zero. But the job kept getting better and Kathy’s family is here and I really like the West. It’s so nice here, the people, the surroundings, it’s wonderful. I miss the diversity (in the East); I missed that a lot for a while, although it’s getting much better here.

DN: In a profession not noted for longevity, how do you account for yours?

CH: I think the big thing for me is having a real relationship with people on campus. I think you have to understand your place, understand that you’re replaceable. Of course part of it is getting good coaches. I do know the job is getting much different in terms of pressure. Over the past eight years, only two AD's in the Pac-12 remain at their schools. Of those who left, one retired, one went to the Big 12. The other eight were essentially pushed out or fired. The job is a lot more precarious than people think. But I think it goes back to knowing where you fit, don’t try to be a big shot, understand in athletics you have a lot of power and you have a lot of opportunities to think a lot of yourself. I’ve watched the ones in leadership who don’t do that are the ones that become very successful. I remember when I was hired I sat here with Arnie Ferrin and he told me all the ways I could get fired. I was an excited, aggressive 37-year-old and I said Arnie, I didn’t take this job to keep it, I took it to do something with it. I look back and think, well, I hope I did both.

DN: Is “night and day” a fair characterization of how much University of Utah athletics has changed since your first day as athletic director in 1987?

CH: I would definitely say it’s different. The whole university is different in so many ways. I really felt we were a sleeping giant when I got the job, that we had the opportunity to just keep getting better. A lot of people sit at their place and act like they can get better but they really can’t. They are who they are. But we’re not who we were, we’re somebody different, and it keeps evolving. I mean, we just went over the Grand Canyon in this league we’re in and people on campus are excited. There’s a lot more work to do, but now there are no barriers to being great. Nobody’s going to steal our coaches. Five years ago they could, but not now.

DN: What about your job brings you the most satisfaction?

CH: It’s the relationships. Every day I work with a very, very passionate group of people — players, coaches and staff. That’s the upside. The excitement in this business really gives you your juice.

DN: And the most headaches?

CH: I would say it’s the challenges that come with increased visibility. You’re either going this way or that way in athletics. It’s either win or lose. And with more visibility the pressure to win gets even greater. Where you used to get five phone calls, now you get 15.

DN: You’ve hired more than your fair share of successful coaches, including three who have been named national coach of the year (Rick Majerus, Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham). What’s your formula?

CH: There are two types of coaches. There’s the ones on the one side of the room going over their contracts and there’s the guys on the other side running out-of-bounds plays. I want the guys running out-of-bounds plays. Those are the guys who really love coaching. You also want the ones who want to make their mark here. Rick Majerus made his mark here, of all the places he’d been. Urban was here a short time but he made his mark here. That’s what you want, you want somebody who is about to slam it in their career and this is the place they can do it.

DN: How do you manage coaches?

CH: Someone once told me treating everybody the same is the greatest form of discrimination. I try to treat everybody different. I adjust how I deal with coaches to make sure they know they really matter. Some like regular meetings, some don’t. So I have regular meetings with some, and not with others. My philosophy is that five times a year you can say no to a coach, but not six. You better give in on some things.

DN: The best part about being in the Pac-12?

CH: It puts our university in a place where we can be the very best. We can be great. You can come in third in this league and win the national championship in something. You are well-respected and you’re solid and you’re around some of the great institutions in the country. So it gives you a chance to really dream about where you can be. Realistically you can say that. That hasn’t always been the case. Several years ago in football it was like we were running the 100-yard dash and all the big leagues had a 15-yard head start. Now, there’s nothing in our way.

DN: Your reasoning about not wanting to expand Rice-Eccles Stadium despite repeated sellouts?

CH: I think sometimes people think when you’re involved in the athletic department you lose IQ points and don’t do it professionally. We’ve done a lot of looking at other situations, we’ve looked at attendance around the country, especially the West, talked to a lot of people in my business or close to my business, and the trend is going the other direction. Arizona State is going from 75,000 to 58,000, Stanford went from 85,000 to 50,000. I’m not so stubborn that I would say never, but I don’t know too many people in our business who would recommend expanding our stadium. That’s not the way the market is. It doesn’t pencil out at all. And the atmosphere at our place, 20 years ago nobody would have believed it could be like this. I want seats to be at a premium. I don’t want that to change.

DN: Given the controversy it stirred up, do you ever revisit your decision to not play BYU in football every year?

CH: Not too much. The deep, dark dirty secret is our fans are not disappointed. That’s a hard thing to say, right? There are three groups. There’s our fans, who say it’s only two years (off), we get to play Michigan here, it’s not like every year we’re not going to play them, it’s not that big a deal. Then there’s the media, bless their hearts, but it kills their self-serving jobs. What are you going to talk about on the radio if you don’t have the BYU-Utah game? What are you going to write about? And of course BYU wants us to play every year. But my job is what’s in the best interest of the University of Utah, and the Michigan game this year at our place will be the most-watched game out of Salt Lake City ever.

DN: You’ve had offers to go elsewhere, to bigger schools for higher pay. What’s kept you from not moving on?

CH: I would say that part of it is this is a growing place, so you can make a difference. If you go to Duke, what are you going to change? And this is a great place to live. So many people in athletics, their kids go, where’s home? Well, our home is here. So my kids, they have a home. I wanted to get out of coaching because I wanted to control where I live and my own future. I like making my own mistakes and making decisions. I get to do things in this job. Chase Peterson, when he hired me, he said a lot of people can do a lot of great things at the university, but it’s at glacial speed. But in athletics you can do things right now. I always thought money and prestige are bad reasons to take jobs. You find yourself someplace and go why did I do that? You make your big decisions with your heart and your small ones with Consumer Reports. You marry your wife because you’re in love, you buy a house because it has wonderful street appeal, and then you buy your bicycle because you’ve looked at Consumer Reports for a month. I stayed here because my heart was like, uh, I don’t want to leave.

DN: How do you feel about some of your coaches making more money — a lot more money — than you?

CH: Doesn’t bother me a bit.

DN: Is money hurting college sports?

CH: It’s a big problem. Coaches are making big money, and AD’s are too, and commissioners, and it’s put a sour taste in the mouth of the common fan and on campuses. I’m being brutally honest. An AD friend of mine in the Big 12 had a coach who was doing great in football and everybody’s after him. One Monday morning the president calls and says, "I’ve offered the coach another million dollars a year to stay because we’ve got a $3 billion budget and if you think I’m going to upset our fans over a million dollars you’re crazy." I mean, that’s the question. If you’ve got a great coach do you really want to lose him for money? Because good coaches are hard to find. So it’s a runaway train and we don’t know how to stop it.

DN: You played college basketball at Rutgers in the 1970s. Were times better for college athletics then or now?

CH: It was easier then. You had a lot more time and didn’t have as many people hovering over you. But you also didn’t have as much support as you do now. That’s a hard question because I haven’t played in this day and age, so I don’t know. I do know if I could play on the end of the bench I’d quit my job and do that right now. I’d rather play than be an administrator.

DN: Future plans for University of Utah athletics?

CH: I’m most excited about the next four years to see what we can do. Can we move even further and establish ourselves even better in the league? That juices me and gets me excited.

DN: Your future plans?

CH: Any man that’s in my age bracket has to think about that, but at the same time, no person in athletics goes out at the right time, you just don’t. It’s such a powerful energizer that you don’t want to leave. I think I’ll be here for the next phase I’m talking about, and see from there. I like what I do. I have a great staff that takes a lot off my plate and lets me do the things an AD needs to do. I don’t have a point in time for stepping down. I’m energized. That’s the key. I have a love-hate relationship with stress. If you don’t have some stress, what’s the point in getting up?

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com