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Utah athletic director Chris Hill looks back on a long, successful tenure

The Utes won 10 national championships during his time as AD and 3 of his hires were named national coach of the year

Dr. Chris Hill poses at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. Hill will retire as athletic director.
Dr. Chris Hill poses at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. Hill will retire as athletic director.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Chris Hill’s tenure as Utah’s athletic director got off to a less-than-stellar start. His first football game featured a streaker and a 41-36 loss at home to Utah State. The Aggies scored three touchdowns in a span of just over five minutes in the fourth quarter to earn the win.

“So that was down pretty low,” Hill said.

There are other early memories as well.

On the day he was chosen to replace Jim Copeland in October 1987, Hill was pulled over by police for a traffic violation on 1500 East. He and his wife, Kathy, were headed for McDonald’s. Fortunately for them, the officer making the stop was a fan of the Utes and recognized Chris. They were allowed to proceed to the golden arches without a citation.

In the 30-plus years that followed, things got even better for Hill — perhaps a zillion times better. He oversaw Utah’s shift to the Pac-12 in 2011. The move put the Utes in a Power-5 conference with Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State.

Before that, Hill’s tenure included the men’s basketball team reaching the 1998 national championship game. Two undefeated football seasons followed. The Utes capped the 2004 campaign with a Fiesta Bowl title. Four years later, they upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Overall, the Utes won 10 national championships — women’s gymnastics and skiing — with Hill leading the department. The teams also finished second in the country a combined 14 times.

In addition, both the men’s and women’s basketball squads have participated in 15 NCAA tournaments with Hill as athletic director. Women’s volleyball and softball have made 14 appearances each.

Hill’s hires include three national coaches of the year — Rick Majerus (1998), Urban Meyer (2004) and Kyle Whittingham (2008).

Seventeen new athletic facilities have been built during Hill’s reign. They include a revamped Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Burbidge Academic Center, the McCarthey Family Track and Field facility, the Dumke Softball Stadium, the Spencer and Cleone Eccles Football Center, the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Center and the Spence Eccles Ski Building.

Utah added women’s soccer and men’s lacrosse as sports under Hill’s leadership. As an administrator, he served on several different boards. From 2004-09, Hill was on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee.

New Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus, left, was introduced to the media by athletic director Chris Hill. April 4,1989.
New Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus, left, was introduced to the media by athletic director Chris Hill. April 4,1989.
Tom Smart

As his retirement approaches, Hill is the longest tenured leader among Football Bowl Subdivision schools. He took the helm when he was just 37 years old.

"Chris Hill has been one of the most successful athletic directors in collegiate sports for over three decades, and all of us at the Pac-12 wish him the best in retirement,” said conference Commissioner Larry Scott. “His passion and commitment to student-athletes, and his ability to develop and deliver a vision for a successful athletic program that supports both the university academic mission and the local community, will be at the heart of his legacy.

“So, too, will the critically important role that Chris played in developing an athletic program that paved the way for Utah's joining the Pac-12 Conference," Scott continued.

Hill’s legacy, though, isn’t something he’s necessarily concerned about.

“I always tease people that a legacy is like a nickname. You can’t give yourself a nickname and you can’t define your own legacy,” Hill said. “That’s for other people to do that.”

Such accolades are plentiful.

Megan Marsden, the co-head coach of the women’s gymnastics team, acknowledged it’s going to be a difficult transition.

“I have to say that I’m not looking forward to it,” said Marsden, who explained that she and her husband, Greg, and now current co-coach Tom Farden, have worked well with Hill over the years.

“I know where I stand and I know how he feels about our program,” Marsden said. “I also feel like the culture of our athletics department is something I enjoy being a part of. I’m just not absolutely sure if we’ll continue to have that without Chris.”

The search for Hill’s replacement is ongoing, producing plenty of speculation and reflection around town.

“It’s a real kind of melancholy situation for me. I know that he’s probably ready for the next chapter,” said men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak, who added that Hill has definitely earned retirement after all the work he’s done in the past 31 years. “We’re going to miss him. I’ve had a great relationship with him.”

From left to right: University of Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill, University of Utah President Michael Young, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Thomas S. Monson, and Deseret News Publisher Jim Wall honor President Monson as the Univ
From left to right: University of Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill, University of Utah President Michael Young, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Thomas S. Monson, and Deseret News Publisher Jim Wall honor President Monson as the University of Utah and the Air Force Academy play Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

Senior associate athletics director Liz Abel noted several things most people don’t know about Hill. She said he is one of the hardest working people in the department and is often the first to arrive and the last one to leave the office. He even makes coffee in the morning.

Abel added that Hill has never pulled rank and that he had an open-door policy.

“His door was never shut unless he was in a meeting, and any staff member could come to him with questions or concerns,” Abel said. “He knew the names of practically everyone on our staff, from student assistants and the janitorial/maintenance crew on up. Many times, he knew things about their interests as well.”

Hill, she continued, often helped staff members in need.

“He visited people in the hospital without any fanfare and I know for a fact he donated some of his vacation days on at least one occasion to a staff member who didn’t have enough sick time to cover the time she needed,” Abel said.

At home sporting events, Hill often dressed down in old sweats and a baseball hat and sat in the stands with the fans. In the office, he avoided “any appearance of financial improprieties.” Abel noted that Hill gave his assistant Kris Gross a check each month to cover any stamps he used.

As a side note, Hill is a Yogi Berra fan and has a dog-eared book of “Berra-isms” that he uses for quotes. Abel also points out that Hill was offered many Power-5 jobs during his time at Utah. Duke and Washington were among the potential suitors.

Staying put, though, is the path Hill chose.

“I think we’ve created a culture that’s a good family atmosphere,” he said. “I think we’ve created a culture — and that’s all of us buying in — it’s a great place to work.”

Hill added that Utah is a heck of a place to live and that the Utes always have a chance to get better. The coaches, he explained, believe so as well — realizing the university is a “sleeping giant.”

Marsden was appreciative of Hill’s support, even though gymnastics wasn’t a sport she said he could really understand very well or feel a love for.

“Neither Greg nor I held that against him at all,” said Marsden, who explained that they kind of let Hill off the hook in that regard. They are grateful that the program was always supported with a budget needed to continually compete at the highest level.

Marsden said that Hill was very much an athletic director who allowed coaches to do their thing and was “not always looking over their shoulder.”

Micromanaging was never an issue with Hill, who was once as assistant basketball coach for the Utes.

“He leaves it in the hands of the coach and you need to do a good job,” Marsden said. “You can’t do anything stupid or you’ll be out.”

Hill was always there to provide backing, Marsden noted, as long as you managed your own program the right way.

“I thought that was a brilliant way to handle it,” she said. “If you can surround yourself with some decent coaches, they’ll continue to work for somebody like that, I think, and not look for the next stepping stone.”

Krystkowiak also expressed appreciation for Hill’s management approach.

“I would never be where I am without him and his belief in me seven years ago,” Krystkowiak said. “I just think he’s one of the best people in the business that you can come across. Not only from a business point of view but from a human being point of view.”

Utah athletic directors since 1925

Ike Armstrong, 1925-50

Jack Curtice, 1950-57

Bud Jack, 1958-76

Arnie Ferrin, 1976-85

Jim Copeland, 1985-87

Chris Hill, 1987-2018

Hill was in the business for the right reasons, Krystkowiak continued, and the coach thinks the world of him. The men attended a lot of functions together and Krystkowiak said Hill was always the most excited about the annual scholarship dinner at the president’s house and the end-of-the-year “Senior Night.” Both centered around the student-athlete.

On Friday, a big red bus will pull up to the circle in front of the Huntsman Center to pick up Hill and deliver him to retirement. As he reflects on the job he’s leaving, Hill offered a bottom line of sorts.

“It allowed me to be passionate, deal with a lot of people and have a shared vision,” he said. “I leave here feeling like we were good to each other.”

Hill may get an office downtown and do some consulting. Being with family is a big priority. What he doesn’t want to become, however, is a guy that is always racing around.

“I tease everybody I’m going to learn to slow down at a yellow light and stop,” Hill said. “I’m going to learn that a four-way stop is not for the other three people.”

Even so, Hill admits to being a little nervous about retirement.

“It’s a major change in my life,” he said.

Although Hill will continue to root for the Utes — securing good tickets and parking for games — he doesn’t want to hover around the athletic program.

“I’ve had my day in the sun,” he said.