SALT LAKE CITY — Seven weeks ago, Mark Harlan signed a contract extension with South Florida, and was quoted in the Tampa Bay Times thusly: “I am committed to working hard with the finest staff, coaches and student-athletes in the country as we work to ensure that every student-athlete has a world-class experience at USF."
Nevertheless, last week he left that national/world-class organization to take the athletic director’s job at Utah, which apparently is also national/world class. Monday at Rice-Eccles Stadium he said, “I’m excited to be in the best league in this country — the Conference of Champions. There’s no better league in this country.”
He raved about Utah’s facilities, coaches and academics.
“It’s an unbelievable institution,” he said.
If it seems disingenuous that he would change lanes so quickly, don’t freak out; that’s how everyone rolls nowadays. Urban Meyer said he would stay at Utah as long as the stadium was full and they gave him what he needed to win. Done and done. He left Utah for Florida, anyway, after two seasons. Meyer eventually left Florida, too, citing health and family considerations. Less than a year later, he took the Ohio State job.
In defense of the free-market system, high-stakes college athletics is an uneasy place to work. Administrators voice support for coaches, yet fire them at the end of the same season. Coaches profess love for players and programs, then move elsewhere. Athletic officials sometimes take the fall for rogue programs.
Newly hired coaches and administrators aren’t always lying when they rave about a place and its players. But they’re not always as committed as they say.
John L. Smith set the (low) bar by accepting the football job at Weber State, then grabbing an interim job at Arkansas before he had even coached a game in Ogden. This is what Smith said at his introductory press conference: “I’ve always had a place in my heart for Weber State. You do that naturally. That’s your school, that’s where you graduated from, so that fondness, that love is always with you. And again, to come back to run your own program as a head coach again is crucial for me. This hopefully can serve as an opportunity for me to give back to the university.”
The only thing he gave back was heartburn.
Smith had previously coached at Louisville and Michigan State, but said signing with Weber made him feel “I’ve hit the big time.”
That’s spooning the sugar a little deep, isn’t it?
Lane Kiffin left Tennessee after a year to take the USC job. Bill Belichick led the New York Jets for one day before resigning and moving on to New England. Derek Fisher convinced the Jazz to release him from his contract so his ailing daughter could be closer to doctors outside Utah. Though some of those doctors were in New York, he signed with the Lakers the next season.
Don’t forget the murky circumstances under which Carlos Boozer bamboozled Cleveland.
Not everyone moves around. Kyle Whittingham has been at Utah 24 years, as an assistant and head coach. Chris Hill, Harlan’s predecessor, stayed 31 years before retiring. Stew Morrill spent the last 17 years of his career at Utah State. Jerry Sloan was with the Jazz 25 years as an assistant and head coach.
At practically every introductory press conference, people are simply saying what they’re supposed to, i.e. what donors and ticket holders want to hear. I’ll take Harlan’s arrival for what it’s worth: a dynamic person who really is happy to be here. But it’s also a working arrangement that won’t necessarily last. UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero is 66. How tempting it would be for Harlan to try for the Bruins’ job if that opens? He was raised in Los Angeles.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Tuesday on Twitter, Harlan said, “My family and I so enjoyed the incredibly warm welcome yesterday! Great to spend time with staff and coaches too ... what an amazing University, Athletic Dept and City. I am so excited to get started in a few weeks!!!! Until then, GO UTES!”
I can only conclude in this era of big sports, and big risks, most people intend to be what they say they’ll be, and stay where they say they’ll stay — until they don’t. It’s not personal, just practical. Friday was National Best Friends Day. But in sports, a good rule of thumb is there are few best friends forever, just best friends for now.