SALT LAKE CITY — The evidence of Chris Hill’s success may be most evident in the sentiments shared by the coaches who worked for him after they learned he’d be retiring in May.
While most knew that the 68-year-old who has been at the helm of the department for 31 years had been contemplating retirement, they also say the time caught them off guard.
“Yes and no,” said volleyball coach Beth Launiere, who was hired by Hill in 1989. “No because he deserves to do whatever he wants at this point in his career. Yes because he’s been so energized lately. … I’m just happy for him.”
Gymnastics co-head coach Megan Marsden said she was hoping Hill would stay “a little longer.”
“It’s not a complete surprise,” she said. “Chris has been preparing and done so much to put us in a good position that it comes at an OK time. We’re going to miss him. I worry about the transition.”
Marsden said she worries that the person chosen to take Hill’s place may not appreciate the unique atmosphere at Utah.
“He talked about the culture in this department,” she said. “I love the family atmosphere. I love that Chris was someone who was very open and transparent and square with the staff.” She and her co-head coach answer directly to Hill, and she said they never had to wonder where they stood or what he expected.
“I don’t know if everybody in a position of power like that is as transparent,” she said. “So I worry about what’s to come.”
She said Hill wore his heart on his sleeve, and that made it easy to deal with him.
“You knew what you were dealing with,” she said. “That created people within the department who were like that, as well. I just hope it doesn’t go away. … Utah shouldn’t try to be another university. We should continue to try and do it the Utah way.”
Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham sat near the front of the room as Hill offered his emotional 30-minute goodbye. When asked if an administration change made him nervous, he didn’t flinch.
“Not at this stage in my career,” he said. “It’s been great working with Chris. He’s been great support.” Like Marsden, he credits Hill with creating the familial Utah culture.
“Things start at the top and then go downhill,” he said. “They permeate through the rest of the department.”
Women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts praised the way Hill led the department.
“Chris has a way of leading that feels unique at this level,” said Roberts, who was hired three years ago. “It’s never about him. It’s about the athletes first and then the coach — but not him or the administration.”
His leadership style earns him the trust of his staff.
“Therefore, as coaches, (we) respect him so much and trust his vision,” Roberts said. “He is down to earth and humble, but there was no clouding the fact that he is as competitive as they come and is all about winning and moving the needle with our programs. He wants to win, but I always knew he was about doing it the right way.” Hill didn’t just support the high-profile revenue sports like football and men’s basketball. He was a champion of all Utah athletics, and the coaches said they felt supported — financially and emotionally by Hill.
“And all along the way, I feel like he’s always supported us and gave us everything we need to be successful,” Launiere said. “I think he’s always taken Title lX very seriously. He’s always provided us with the resources to be successful. The other thing is, he’s not a micromanager. He was easy to work for in that way. He provided us what we needed, and he didn’t micromanage.”