SALT LAKE CITY — In the last several years, sports radio people started referring to Chris Hill as Dr. Hill, even though he acquired his Ph.D. decades ago.
Before that, it was as casual as a family reunion.
I knew him when he was 37, a newly hired athletics director straight from running the Crimson Club at the University of Utah. Now he’s a former member of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee and retiring boss at a power conference program.
So for today, I’m going with Dr. Hill.
He’s earned a doctorate in headache management over the last three-plus decades.
Got an athlete in trouble? Call Dr. Hill. Is a coach leveraging another offer? Get Dr. Hill on the phone. Need to get your name circulated? Dr. Hill can do that.
But if you’ve got a weekend family reunion, don’t plan on him.
As with most doctors, it was never a 9-to-5 job.
At his farewell press conference Monday, Hill told of squeezing in a day off to attend the movies with his son. Hill had been in the midst of hiring “one of my most dynamic coaches,” but the coach wouldn’t be in Salt Lake for a second interview for a couple of days. But when Hill arrived home, his wife Kathy said, “Red alert! Red alert!”
When Hill inquired, she said the coach was on his way to Salt Lake immediately.
“I told him he was our No. 1 choice,” she said.
“That really helped with my negotiating job," Hill said Monday. "That really helped a lot.”
Undoubtedly the choice was a good one. It likely was Urban Meyer or Rick Majerus. “Dynamic” nicely describes either. But it wouldn’t have much to do with the Utah program when Hill — looking young enough to buy discount tickets — was hired in 1987.
“They really gave (the job) to you?” a friend said.
What Hill didn’t know at the time was how far he would take the program.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Hill said, 31 years later.
Hill didn’t wait to jump in. He fired basketball coach Lynn Archibald two years into the job and hired Majerus, who took his team to the national championship game. That same year, Hill jettisoned Jim Fassel — experiencing his first real booster blowback — and hired Ron McBride.
The McBride dismissal in 2002 was widely criticized — especially by McBride. But that led to the hire that changed Ute sports history. Meyer’s teams went 22-2 in two years. Although Hill couldn’t dissuade him from leaving for Florida, the sea change had happened. The Utes had been to a BCS bowl and were angling toward the Pac-12.
After hiring Kyle Whittingham, it was only a short time before the Utes were in the big leagues.
That alone would warrant Hill’s place in the state’s sports history.
By his own admission, Hill was imperfect. A profanity-laced outburst directed at Pac-12 director of officials Bobby Dibler was overheard during a Larry Krystkowiak press conference in January. Hill said Monday he made the decision to retire the same month.
In 2013, he met criticism for not taking quick action against a swim coach who was eventually fired over a drinking problem. Hill said he was not made aware of the problems by the associate A.D. who was in charge of swimming. Fans at Utah State and BYU vilified Hill for not aggressively pushing traditional rivalries. The basketball hirings of Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylen went nowhere.
At the same time, the steady rise of Ute athletics was impressive and unprecedented in program history. In 1987, the Utes were an awful football team in the lightly regarded Western Athletic Conference. Hill fired Fassel in 1989 after the team went 11-25 in three seasons. Fassel blasted Hill and the administration in a private press conference, calling it "hypocrisy."
Almost every issue is debatable when you run an athletic department, but Hill’s success isn’t. His football teams won two BCS bowls, his gymnastics and ski teams won a combined 10 national championships, his men’s basketball team made the national championship game. He renovated the football stadium before the 2002 Olympics, and said Monday that modern stadium expansion will happen. In 2011, the same year Utah joined the Pac-12, he was named the region’s top A.D.
Just call him “Big Thrill Hill.”
Monday it was a thrill of a different kind — a stepping-down excitement. Family members sat at the front row, while his wife sat beside him. He began by saying he would “try to be relatively charming.”
That he was.
“I gave it my best shot,” he said, his voice growing husky.
“You get married because your heart tells you to,” he said, explaining his decision. “You have children … because your heart tells you to … you get in a car and drive down I-80 to Salt Lake City without a job because your heart tells you to.”
He’s retiring for the same reason.
It doesn’t take a doctor to know these things.