SALT LAKE CITY — Liz Abel is a trailblazer. She’s made history on a couple of fronts in her 36 years at the University of Utah. In 1989, Abel became one the first women in the nation to be named a primary media contact for football. Two years later, she added the title of sports information director.
“I guess I was so busy with my nose to the grindstone that I wasn’t paying attention,” Abel said of her historic rise in a male-dominated profession. “But probably in some ways I think I’ve opened some doors.”
Abel, who is retiring this summer, has heard from several women who have told her she has given them hope to pursue such a career. Things have changed a lot since females weren’t allowed in press boxes and later had to venture down to the concourse to use the restroom.
Those were among several stumbling blocks along the way.
However, Abel maintained her resolve throughout it all.
“I just went about my business and eventually it just went away,” she said.
Abel recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the College Sports Information Directors of America. It’s among several accolades she has received in her career.
Former Utah athletics director Dr. Chris Hill regularly promoted Abel over the years. She’s currently the senior associate athletics director for communications, overseeing the department’s public relations and publicity efforts, as well as new media, broadcasting and video operations.
Hill said Abel is really smart and has an unbelievable work ethic. He also praised her ability to build relationships with the media and noted that she contributed much to the major vision of the department.
“That whole package added up to wanting her to have the challenges that she wanted and I wanted her to have,” Hill said.
Abel, in turn, considers Hill to be the real trailblazer for being one of the nation’s first athletic directors to give such opportunities to a woman.
“We knew when we put her in charge of football that was something,” Hill said. “But then if you look at her ability it made all the sense in the world to put her in.”
Abel, who is from Bowling Green, Ohio, came to Utah in 1983-84 after a one-year internship at Missouri. She worked alongside Bruce Woodbury and was initially assigned to cover all sports except for football, men’s basketball, baseball, tennis and golf.
As time passed, Abel began to receive job offers from other schools. One in particular, at Washington, led to her becoming Utah’s football contact — taking the position in Jim Fassel’s final season at the helm.
Since then, Abel has worked with Ron McBride, Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham. She has overseen numerous publicity campaigns that have netted All-America recognition and individual awards for several players. One of her favorite success stories was helping Jordan Gross go from being an honorable mention all-conference offensive lineman to an Outland Trophy finalist and a consensus All-American.
Other memorable achievements include Alex Smith becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist, Eric Weddle’s consensus All-America status and national triumphs for punters Tom Hackett and Mitch Wishnowsky (Ray Guy awards) and kicker Matt Gay (Lou Groza Award).
“I can’t tell you how exciting it is,” said Abel, who noted that it all starts with the student-athletes.
As such, Abel insists there’s no boredom factor since there’s always something going on. She was drawn to a career in sports information by Tara VanDerveer, who was her basketball coach at Idaho. After graduating in 1982, Abel accepted an internship at Missouri and covered cross country and swimming. She also assisted with football, basketball and volleyball.
“I realized right then that's really what I wanted to do,” said Abel, who began her career at Utah the following year.
Although Abel has worked with three other athletic directors — Arnie Ferrin, Jim Copeland and Mark Harlan — during her time with the Utes, the majority of time was spent under Hill. She bought into his belief that Utah would eventually end up in the Pac-10. Hill told everyone that as the staff aspired to be ready when the invitation came. It was part of the strategic plan.
“Absolutely,” Abel said. “That’s why I stayed.”
Other job offers, thus, were dismissed. Over the years, Hill gave Abel the opportunity to give Utah a head start in new media expansion. She was also able to go into administration.
“The biggest thing to me is just the incredible friendships I’ve gotten to make,” Abel said.
Favorite memories include NCAA championship-type events and games like the Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl. Abel’s work has been honored often, including a pair of Super 11 awards from the Football Writers Association of America and two “Best in the Nation” accolades for her gymnastics media guides.
A recent source of pride involves having what is believed to be the only all-female sports information staff covering college football. Abel, Brooke Fredrickson and Jordie Lindley handled the media-related duties in recent years.
Although Abel said it was kind of accidental because of moving parts with her staff, she admits “it’s pretty cool.” Abel credits Whittingham, the other coaches and staff, plus the players, for never being a problem and giving them credibility.
The run, though, is coming to an end soon. Former Colorado State sports information director Paul Kirk is now the primary media contact for Utah football. He’s also the department’s new associate athletics director for strategic communications.
To ease her transition to season-ticket holder and first-time tailgater, Abel will be back East when Utah opens the upcoming football campaign Aug. 29 at BYU. She’s taking her mother to Baltimore for a family gathering.
The late kickoff in Provo won’t necessarily be missed. However, Abel noted that saying goodbye isn’t easy.
“I’m obviously struggling,” Abel said. “How many people get to go to a job and love it every day? I can’t imagine any other job you can do that.”