LOGAN — It was actually just happenstance that an opportunity to speak with Utah State athletic director John Hartwell opened up late Thursday morning.

But the date was July 1.

By the time of the late-morning interview in his Smith Spectrum office rolled around, numerous college athletes had already signed financially beneficial deals thanks to the NCAA’s new policy toward allowing athletes to control their name, image and likeness (NIL). And a handful of Aggie athletes, including basketball players Justin Bean and Rylan Jones, had already let it be known on social media that they were available and ready to capitalize on the huge shift in rules.

The front of the lone folder on top of Hartwell’s desk stated: Names, Images and Likeness. So, the first questions of the interview naturally gravitated toward the subject of NIL rather than those involving the pandemic, financial issues and recent coaching hires:

Deseret News: It would seem that the abrupt change allowing college athletes to suddenly benefit financially from their name, image and likeness is a continuation of what has been a very different time period for college athletics?

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John Hartwell: You just think about what has transpired in our business in the last 16 to 17 months. Since the start of COVID, you’ve got COVID and all of the impacts of that. Then you’ve got social justice and a lot of things happening surrounding that. And you’ve got the transfer portal, and what has transpired with that, as well as name, image and likeness and the (NCAA v.) Alston case. A lot of times people say to me, “You work in college athletics. That must be the greatest thing in the world.” Let me say, I would not trade my profession or my job for anything in the world, but the challenges of it in the last 16 to 17 months have gotten much greater. I think our future’s bright, but do we have challenges? Yes. Is college athletics going to survive this transformation? Yes, absolutely. But it will be different and some of those changes that are happening, we don’t have all of the answers to. We will wade our way through it. But the opportunities for young men and young women to compete while also getting a world-class education wearing the Aggie blue, nothing has changed with that.

DN: I honestly can’t imagine anyone was really ready for the NIL change to take effect today.

JH: I don’t know that anyone is totally prepared because I don’t think any of us fully grasp all the nuances there are. Sure, you can have student-athletes going and doing clinics and camps, which is permissible now, and to get paid for it. And you can have student-athletes getting paid for autograph sessions. Those are kind of the clear items; those will be pretty easy to navigate. It’s some of the one-offs that are out there, and some of the things that may compete with sponsorship or advertising dollars that were already coming into athletics or potentially coming into athletics through our multimedia rights holders. Is there going to be cannibalization of some of those dollars? And if so, where do we replace those dollars from within the athletic department? And how are some of the peripheral issues handled that surround those, not the least of which is Title IX. Are all of our female student-athletes getting the same opportunities as the male student-athletes? Certainly, we will make sure that through our education and training process for student-athletes — when they come back here in the next month or so — that we provide the information to everybody. What a lot of people don’t understand, though, is that the university can’t have anything to do with going out and, for lack of a better term, brokering a name, image and likeness deal for a student-athlete with a local car dealership or a local retail store or whatever it may be. So, how we monitor all of those things and navigate it here over the next few months is going to be interesting.

DN: Do you anticipate having to hire additional personnel to help keep track of things and make certain that everyone is remaining compliant?

USU’s John Hartwell, who will celebrate his sixth year as athletic director in Logan this month, answers a question during an interview in his office, July 1. | Jeff Hunter for the Deseret News

JH: Potentially, yeah. Whether from a software perspective, or an input perspective. Because in a 10,000-foot view of our policy, we do have a form that we are requiring student-athletes to fill out and provide to Jake Garlock and our compliance department in advance to say, “Yes, this is within our parameters, based on guidelines that the NCAA has put out.” … And some of the guidance and the decisions have literally been made in the last 48 hours, and so we put out a letter last night to all of our student-athletes and to all of our coaches that kind of gave the parameters of ours. But that’s somewhat of a working document, and it’s interim. It’s not a fully in-depth set of policies and procedures, although we are working on that. It’s new territory for us, so it’s kind of a work in progress. … But it’s really about fair market value and that somebody’s not getting paid an extraordinary amount of money for not legitimately doing something. So, that it’s not truly “pay for play.” And I do think it’s very important. We’ve got to continue to try and find opportunities, including income opportunities for student-athletes, but within the parameters of protecting the amateur model of collegiate athletics. Because again, if all of a sudden we truly go to “pay for play,” you’ve got all other kinds of issues that come up.

DN: Do you have concerns about student-athletes becoming distracted by the type of financial deals that have already been signed around the country this morning, and perhaps neglecting their academics and/or their athletic commitments?

JH: It could be a problem, where their priorities are. Are your priorities in studying and getting your degree? Are your priorities in conditioning and workouts and practice? Trying to be the best you can be for yourself and for your teammates? Or is it, “Hey, how much money can I generate over here?” And that’s for young men and young women from 18 to 22-23 years old. And it’s sometimes hard to prioritize those things when you’re 40, much less 18 to 22-23 years old. And so yeah, that’s something that we’re going to have to help educate and monitor and hopefully make sure that the right decisions are made. And I think that most of the policies that you see starting to come out are going to say: “You can’t miss class time to undertake these pursuits, and you can’t miss practice.” They can’t be detrimental to your academic or athletic practices and opportunities.

DN: A year ago at this time, you were in the midst of a whole lot of uncertainty due to the rise of COVID-19 and trying to deal with constant changes to seasons and schedules. What you didn’t know is that within nine months, you would also be hiring a new football coach and a new men’s basketball coach. How do you feel about (head football coach) Blake Anderson and (head basketball coach) Ryan Odom so far?

Blake Anderson coaches the USU football team during a spring football scrimmage at Maverik Stadium in April 2021. | Utah State Athletics

JH: The honeymoon is still on for both Blake and Ryan; both are undefeated. But six-plus months into the Blake Anderson regime and three months into the Ryan Odom regime, I’m very happy with both of them in terms of recruiting and the culture that they’re building in those programs. There seems to be a very positive vibe. I think they both embraced the community and Aggie Nation and they walked into two totally different situations — but I think both of them, and the staffs that they have built, have done a really good job. And so, I’m looking forward to kickoff in Pullman (Washington) in two months, and then the tipoff for basketball another two months and a week or so.  

DN: Do you feel like the football program is successfully moving past the disappointing and awkward end to the 2020 season?

JH: I do. I think that from talking to our student-athletes and seeing the culture that’s there in the program. I think it’s in a very positive place and continuing that positive trajectory. And again, a lot of credit for that goes to Blake and his staff, coming into a difficult situation and literally, within a matter of weeks and months, flipping that culture into a very positive thing.

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DN: Like you said, it was a very different situation with basketball, having to replace a coach in Craig Smith who had been so successful during his three years here before moving on to the University of Utah.

JH: I mean, that’s a heck of an achievement to qualify for the NCAA Tournament three years in a row. Obviously, the asterisk there is that in 2020, we didn’t actually get to compete because the tournament didn’t occur. But that certainly wasn’t lost on me what Craig had done and knowing that there were going to be potential suitors coming after him. And honestly, I thought we had kind of weathered the storm once Minnesota came and went in terms of that opportunity. But as I’ve said before, I’ve never begrudged Craig’s opportunity to go to the University of Utah. He and I had a great relationship, not just as athletic director and basketball coach, but a real friendship, too. We were neighbors within a couple of streets of each other, and that friendship will continue forever.

Utah State athletic director John Hartwell introduces new head basketball coach Ryan Odom Wednesday in Logan. | Jeff Hunter for Deseret News

DN: But having him so close by makes it a little more awkward, I would have to think?

JH: (Laughs) When you’re reading about it every day or turn on the local news, yeah, that’s a little different.

DN: Kind of like running into an ex-girlfriend all the time?

JH: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s probably a pretty good analogy. And then having two Aggie players go there, and two Utah players come here — two for two — that’s a whole other concept.

DN: It’s still a good time for Aggie basketball, though, with (former USU guard) Sam Merrill possibly headed to the NBA Finals with the Milwaukee Bucks, and (former USU center) Neemias Queta drawing positive reviews for his play at the NBA combine and looking likely to get drafted?

JH: That’s great notoriety and recognition for our basketball program. Those kinds of things help build tradition and do nothing but help promote our program and our athletics department and our university. I had the opportunity to go see Sam play Sunday night in Game 3 (in Atlanta with Ryan Odom) and got to visit with him for a while before the game. And I got to watch his workout and talk to a couple of Bucks staff members, and they’re extremely pleased with Sam and the way he’s improved and progressed and they’re optimistic about him having a very bright future going forward in the NBA. I asked him, “Hey are you going to be able to get back to Cache Valley at all after the season’s over?” and he said, “You know what? I wouldn’t trade it for the world advancing in the playoffs, but what it’s going to mean is, I’m going to have a pretty quick turnaround time going to Vegas for the summer league.” So, he’s doing great and is in great shape. But the one thing about Sam Merrill is, the guy hasn’t changed at all. He’s very grounded, he knows where he came from, and he was so humble and glad to see us the other night and spend time with us. I cannot say enough good things about Sam Merrill, not just the basketball player or the student he was here, but the person. I’m so happy for his success.

Former Utah State star and current Milwaukee Bucks forward Sam Merrill dribbles during game against the Miami Heat, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Miami. Merrill is currently participating in the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns. | Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

DN: Do you know what percentage of current USU student-athletes have received the COVID-19 vaccine thus far?

JH: It’s hard to say. I ask (USU director for sports medicine) Mike Williams that periodically, and it’s obviously rising. But while football and men’s and women’s basketball players are primarily here, a lot of student-athletes are not on campus right now. I would feel comfortable saying that it’s less than 50%, at least that’s what we’ve documented. But I think that number will rise significantly between now and this time next month when practice start for our fall sports.

DN: Considering that happened a few days ago at the College World Series (NC State had to drop out following eight positive COVID tests), would you prefer to see Aggie athletes get vaccinated?

JH: Yeah. I mean, I know why some student-athletes don’t — and I certainly respect that and will honor that — but we can’t force them to get vaccinated. But the fewer tests that have to be done certainly makes it a lot easier for them and for us. … The NCAA is still tweaking the protocols, but I think they’re clearly incentivized to get the vaccine based on the current testing protocol, which basically says if you’ve got a certificate of immunization, you can exempt out of testing. If not, then you’re probably going to have to be tested three times a week, just like we did last year.

DN: While the pandemic certainly isn’t completely over and the financial repercussions are likely to be felt for years to come throughout college athletics, how do you feel like the Utah State athletic department weathered what was likely the worst part of the storm?

Utah State Aggies and New Mexico Lobos compete in an NCAA football game with only family members allowed in the stadium at Maverik Stadium in Logan on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

JH: I think we’re in a much better position than a lot of people. Once we saw that we weren’t going to have fans or a very limited number of fans, we asked all of our sports and all of our operations area to cut back and basically shut down expenses, except necessary ones. And with our year ending (June 30), we still don’t have final numbers, but I would say our negative gap between revenues and expenses is probably somewhere in the $3 million range, maybe a little less. But we feel like through some use of the CARES Act money and subsequent things that we’re going to be able to come out at or very close to break-even perspective, and so we feel pretty good about that. And we’ve been working very closely with (USU vice president for business and finance) Dave Cowley and the folks in the university finance and administration, so we feel much better about that than a lot of our peers do. And I’m cautiously optimistic about the coming year. Right now, I think we’re well above 90% on football season-ticket renewals to numbers from two years ago. As we’ve talked about before, there is a cylindrical nature of our season ticket sales. And in those years when Boise and BYU are at home, we tend to have an uptick, and fortunately the coming year is one of those. And I think there are some other factors that will help us, like having more home games on the front end of the football season — we only have one home game in November — and some daytime kicks. And we also know all of our home kick times with our new television package, so people can plan in advance instead of having to decide like 12 days out.

DN: You’re now heading into your seventh year as athletic director, and unlike practically all of your predecessors in recent decades, the Aggies’ conference situation has remained constant during that period of time. Do you anticipate any changes to the Mountain West in the near future?

Fans walk by an inflated MWC logo before the Mountain West Conference championship game between Fresno State and Boise State in Boise, Idaho, on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. Utah State athletic director John Hartwell sees the conference as “a very solid, very competitive league, across all of our sports.” | Otto Kitsinger, Associated Press

JH: Obviously the talk of Boise looking at other opportunities, potentially the American Athletic Conference, has been out there for a year or so now. You never say never, but I just think that if or when there’s going to be another shift in conference affiliation, it’s probably going to be around 2026 when the current television deals are up. And I’m not so sure that the American Athletic is a fit for them, you know? If it is, do they go in football or do they go in all of their sports? And if they don’t go in all of their sports, what other league takes them? So, there’s a lot of questions there. And geographically, if you look at the American Athletic Conference — and I think geographically, maybe Tulsa is the westernmost institution they have — there’s a lot of ground to cover between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Boise, Idaho. But I think we’re a very solid, very competitive league, across all of our sports, with football and men’s basketball being the marquee sports and that we’re in a good place. So, I feel good about it. A lot of people like to speculate about conference affiliation and changes, but I don’t see it in the immediate future.

DN: How do you feel like the USU athletics department has handled all of the challenges of the past 15 to 16 months?

JH: It’s been a grind, but we’re obviously on a positive trajectory out of that. But the starts and the stops and unknowns, and, “Hey, here’s what are policies and practices are,” coming from the CDC or the state or the NCAA or whomever else, and how all that information could change two hours later. It took a lot of perseverance and resolve from our student-athletes, our coaches and our staff. So, just their willingness to be flexible and to work hard. … I can’t say enough good things about our entire department. I wouldn’t want to go to war with anyone else, and I look forward to hopefully (Hartwell knocks on the top of his wooden desk) a new normal for the 2021-22 academic and athletic year for the Aggies.

Jeff Hunter is a contributor for the Deseret News.