At the Rose Bowl last January, University of Utah director of athletics Mark Harlan and his son, Austin, purposefully walked out on the football field in Pasadena, California, well before pregame warmups began so they could watch Kyle Whittingham walk out for the first time and see the look on the head coach’s face.

They were not disappointed.

“I wanted to see Kyle’s face, because I figured it would be interesting. It was a cool moment,” Harlan said last week, a day after an amendment to Whittingham’s contract came to light. Whittingham received a significant pay raise, which the four-year athletic director said was well-deserved, both in a statement to the media and to the Deseret News in a lengthy interview on June 15.

“I happen to think he is at the very best of what he does. I tend to not think too far into the future. … Not having Kyle (Whittingham) here is not something that enters my mind too much.” — Utah athletic director Mark Harlan

“Once I saw the guys warming up, it became a reality to me that this is where we belong as a program,” Harlan continued. “And I thought about how hard (Whittingham) worked to get here, and the things that he has done. I thought, you know, this isn’t just one time that we are going to play on this field on Jan. 1. We are going to be back.”

Although the amendment to Whittingham’s contract was signed March 15, the coach created a minor stir earlier this month after a charity golf event with BYU coach Kalani Sitake, when he hinted that he may soon follow the lead of Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who had abruptly resigned the previous day.

“There comes a time when you need a new voice and need a new leader, and obviously (Snyder) felt the time was right for him right now, and I am kinda close to that in my career,” Whittingham, 62, said that day.

It didn’t take long for the comment to make its way back to Harlan.

“I figured he just must have had a bad day of golf, coming off the course,” Harlan said. “But then I found out that he actually won.”

How serious was Whittingham? Harlan doesn’t seem overly concerned.

“One of the things I love about working with Kyle is that he just says what he is thinking, and what is on his mind,” Harlan said. “… I thought it was a really honest comment that Quin made (about whether his voice is still relevant), and I thought Kyle did, too. You are always thinking about it: Are you at the very best all the time?”

Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham gets his contract amended. Here are the highlights
‘I am kinda close to that in my career’: Utah’s Whittingham, BYU’s Sitake comment on Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s resignation
‘I am in my dream job’: Mark Harlan’s first four years filled with unparalleled success, unfathomable sorrow

From his perspective, Harlan said that Whittingham’s voice still “resonates throughout his program.” The Utes’ AD since 2018 said he is “excited” that Utah’s head coach since 2005 continues to lead the Utes.

“I happen to think he is at the very best of what he does,” Harlan said. “I tend to not think too far into the future. … Not having Kyle here is not something that enters my mind too much.”

Harlan said he, Whittingham and Jeff Rudy, who was promoted to associate athletics director for football administration in February 2021, are always talking about what the program needs to continue its winning ways.

“I will tell you that whatever happens, and I hope it is many years down the line, because of what Kyle has been able to do, and where he has got the program at, whenever that time comes it will be a very attractive position,” Harlan said. “But he looks younger all the time. He is probably in the best shape of any guy in the whole department. He just seems really, really happy and energized about this team that is coming back and the opportunities that lie head.”

Here’s more from the recent half-hour interview with the leader of Utah’s rising athletics program. Some responses have been edited for clarity and space.

On how his job is different than it was four years ago, particularly with the transfer portal becoming so important:

“It is hard to say that it is totally different. I tend to look at the constant things that we are around every day, which are students, which are coaches, and the things you need to do to keep everyone motivated and excited and enthusiastic about what they are doing. There is more swirling around those constant folks and faces that are around you every day, and it is our job to interpret all these changes and how we can best navigate them at the University of Utah. So myself and my team has been very focused on staying away from complaining about transferring or NIL, and rather, how can we utilize these new rules in the best possible way?

“So I think we have done that. I am very proud of the fact that we have welcomed incredible athletes that have transferred in, that haven’t had to sit out anymore. We have lost a few incredible students, too. We are not immune to that. But I think it is a net gain overall to the department overall as we have looked at our success, in particular this year.”

On if he’s happy with Utah’s place in the NIL world:

“Name, image and likeness, there is so much being said and written about rule breakers. They tend to get the headlines. But again, I am blessed. I sent a letter out this week to our constituent base about our progress, and our partnership with the business school helping with branding and learning about our financial responsibilities to our student-athletes, and a million dollars of contracts, trade, cash, going through. It is pretty awesome to see that.

“That being said, it is certainly causing coaches to really have to navigate the recruiting trail. And it is hard. And in a business that needs to continually look at ways we can get better, the constant recruiting, the constant questions that they get, are something that I know provides a lot of stress in all our lives, but particularly our coaches as they navigate it. We are keeping an eye on that and how we can exist. But yeah, it is definitely changing, but the organization is changing as well to best identify how we can be very good in those spaces.”

On what projects or facility upgrades are on the drawing board for the athletic program: 

“We are always looking at our facilities and our planning as sort of a breathing document. And I like to think that things are donor-ready, so that if we have a certain venue, locker room, whatever it might be, that needs work, I want it to be ready if there are passionate donors that want to help. … We are always looking at different ways to improve and we have a great staff that is always coming forward with different concepts and ideas. And again, coming back to why the University of Utah is so great — we have incredible donors that want to line up and help when we are ready to go with something.”

On whether getting an on-campus baseball stadium is something they are looking at seriously:

“There is no question that playing at the Bees stadium has been good. Our team likes playing at that field. I know opposing teams like playing there, because it is a great field. It gets awards all the time. It is a great partnership down there. We are treated incredibly fairly. But it is not our field.

“And I do believe, if you look at the Pac-12 and the baseball programs, which are all so good and just so dynamic in different ways, we want to win in baseball, and that’s a key piece. So we have been looking for quite some time, the best place to put that, and we have been in communication with donors about it. I think it is important for us to continue to move forward and try to find a solution to build an on-campus baseball stadium. And that is going to be dependent on us getting the location right and also donors coming forward to support.”

On whether he foresee the University of Utah adding any new sports within the decade:

“Not at this time. We are at a good place with who we have and what we have. You want to make sure that the sports that you carry have the investment that you need to be successful. And I think we have hit a really nice place with that. We are still in the early stages of our lacrosse team. And they have come out of the gate so incredibly well, winning the conference this year.

“The A-Sun championship regular season was an incredible accomplishment for that program. And now that we are in a conference — they have an automatic qualifier, so the expectation for that program moving forward is that they will be in the NCAA tournament. 

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“But again, just like anything, you never say no. You are always studying, you are always looking at different things to do. But right now we have no plans to add another sport.”

On what new sports would make sense if Utah decides to add more down the road:

“There is no question that if we really began exploration it would be hard to not mention women’s golf as a possibility. We built a beautiful indoor golf facility, thanks to Mr. Layton, Dave Layton and his family and other incredible people that support golf.

“That was built during the pandemic, which I guess was a theme of ours during that period of time. And I will say that the design of it, we thought that if we added women’s golf it would be very easy to do so. So that would be on the list. But right now with where we are at, in terms of proportionality and what we are trying to do here, we are at a good number.”

University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan poses for a portrait outside of the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, May 30, 2019. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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