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Utes to honor the banner career of Chris Hill, under whom Utah’s athletic program soared to unprecedented heights

Former athletics director lauded for more than three decades of contributions.

Former University of Utah athletic director Chris Hill in his Salt Lake City home on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.
Former University of Utah athletic director Chris Hill in his Salt Lake City home on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Chris Hill remembers the first time he walked into the Special Events Center. It was in the summer of 1973 when the former Rutgers basketball player arrived for a graduate assistant position on Bill Foster’s University of Utah staff.

The arena, now known as the Huntsman Center, was the first building Hill entered after making the cross-country journey from New Jersey. He got into the facility with the help of a secretary because Foster and the other coaches were out of town recruiting. After trying to get settled, Hill went over the HPER and played a little basketball. He didn’t know anyone in Utah and wasn’t even sure of the address where he was going to live.

The Huntsman Center, as it turned out, wound up being a special place for Hill. Including two stints as a basketball coach, time overseeing the Crimson Club and nearly 31 years as athletics director, he had an office in the building for nearly four decades before retiring in 2018.

“That’s been my home away from home I would say,” said Hill, who will be honored with the unveiling of a banner at Saturday’s men’s basketball game between Utah and California.

Hill is being recognized for his contributions to the university.

“It’s about as good as it gets for me. This is a wonderful honor,” Hill said. “When I came out here I thought I would be here for a year, two years max.”

Now there will be a permanent marker, of sorts, to commemorate Hill’s time with the Utes.

“I never thought that I would be at the University of Utah this long, or the state of Utah this long,” said Hill, who decided to put down roots after marrying his wife Kathy.

Hill acknowledged that the banner is a cool thing for a variety of reasons.

The first, he noted, involves his grandfather who was the basketball coach at Rutgers from 1915-16 through 1942-43. He also coached at Seton Hall for several years, running both programs at the same time for 13 seasons. Rutgers wound up honoring the elder Hill with a plaque inscribed: Frank J. Hill, grand old man of Rutgers basketball.” Chris passed by it every day in practice during his playing career, reminding teammates that it was his grandfather.

“In a certain corny sense and it sounds a little trite, my family and my grandkids may be able to go into the Huntsman Center some day and tell their friends ‘well that’s my Poppy,’” Hill said. “You know, it’s kind of a sentimental thing. I haven’t thought about that much but I did since this all came about.”

As for his own accolade, Hill is mindful that it represents work within the entire athletic department and not just basketball. However, he can’t think of a better place to be remembered than in the Huntsman Center.

“It’s like so special. That means so much to me,” Hill said. “We have three generation of Hills that have been in that arena and watched games. So there’s just a lot there.”

Hill also wants folks to understand that other people over the years are part of the banner as well.

“That’s important for people to know because you don’t do that without great co-workers, coaches, student-athletes and staff,” he said.

When it comes to defining his legacy, Hill explained that it’s kind of like giving yourself a nickname. He noted that his contributions to the U. may be comparable to those of Frank Layden with the Utah Jazz, a friend who has a banner honoring him at Vivint Arena.

Hill insists he wasn’t expecting any of this. He claims the application pool when he became the athletic director wasn’t exactly the most difficult one in the world. The job, he explained, wasn’t that good at the time.

“But we had so much room for growth as you know and I benefitted from that,” Hill said. “And I benefitted just from the fact that we had good people. People wanted to be here, so it was real fun.”

The lengthy tenure, though, wasn’t a dream come true. Hill never thought things would turn out this way. He once told Arnie Ferrin he didn’t take the job to keep it. Initially, it was more about doing something.

Speaking of which, Hill did plenty during his tenure. He’s credited for putting Utah in position to receive an invitation to join the Pac-12 in 2011. In addition, advocating improved experiences for student-athletes, hiring top coaches and upgrading athletic facilities were priorities. Also topping the list was continued success in basketball, gymnastics and skiing.

Utah’s Athletic director Dr. Chris Hill (left) and coach Kyle Wittingham walk towards the podium as the “U” announces a new contract with head football coach Kyle Whittingham at the team hotel in New Orleans as the team prepares for the Sugar Bowl. The contract is for 5 years and 6 million dollars. Dec. 29, 2008.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Football, meanwhile, underwent a redefinition and now performs at the highest level. The program became the original “BCS Busters” by going 12-0 and winning the Fiesta Bowl under Urban Meyer in 2004. Four seasons later, Kyle Whittingham guided the Utes to a 13-0 mark and a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Both coaches won national accolades. So, too, did Rick Majerus after Utah reached the NCAA Tournament championship game in 1998. Hill’s tenure also included a combined 10 national titles in gymnastics and skiing. Men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and softball made several deep tourney runs when Hill was Utah’s athletics director. Women’s soccer was added and went on to make seven NCAA tournaments. Men’s lacrosse is the other sport established under his lead.

New and/or refurbished facilities — 17 as a matter if fact — were created during Hill’s tenure. They include Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Burbidge Athletics Academic Center, the McCarthey Family Track & Field complex, the Dumke Family Softball Stadium, the Spence & Cleone Eccles Football Center, the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Center and the Spence Eccles Ski Building.

“I enjoyed all the sports that we had, excited about what we got accomplished,” said Hill, who represented Utah on numerous national committees and won several awards.

The Utes hosted college basketball’s Final Four in 1979.

Since retiring, Hill admits to missing the people but not the stress involved with the job although he acknowledged loving it at the time and that it was energizing and exciting.

Hill said that spending time and doing the little things with his grandkids is huge. They’re a gigantic part of his life. He has three in Utah and two in California.

A lasting legacy

Hill reflects on his time at Utah with great fondness. There’s great events and the building of facilities that proved meaningful. However, he noted several games proved significant along the way that nobody would even think about that he considered turning points.

The raising on a banner in his honor, Hill continued, is a really nice thing.

“It’s a wonderful recognition from a great university,” he said. “I don’t want to make it bigger than it is, but it was 31 years and we did a lot of good stuff. So it’s nice that they’re willing to honor me in that way. I think it was very clever.”

Hill considers it a unique and meaningful way for the university to recognize his contributions.

“They knew me and they knew this would be a pretty special thing for me,” he said. “It’s cool.”

Mark Harlan, Hill’s replacement as Utah’s director of athletics, explained that the recognition is well deserved.

“He didn’t just do nice things at the U. He did remarkable things at the University of Utah,” Harlan said. “I think in the press conference I said he is on the Mount Rushmore of collegiate athletic directors. I meant it then and I even mean it more so after being here for just under two years. He turned over such an incredible department with great people, in great shape.”

The handoff, Harlan continued, couldn’t have been more smooth.

“It’s a testament to his incredible care for Utah, his love of the coaches and certainly the student-athletes,” Harlan said. “But this was one of those no-brainer decisions by not only myself but a collective group of people who understand what he did for the university was really, maybe, one of the more remarkable stories in college athletics over the last 30 years — if you consider how far the department came upon his arrival until his retirement.”

University of Utah’s Chris Hill poses for a portrait at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Harlan added that he’s really excited for Hill and his family.

Utah volleyball coach Beth Launiere, who was hired by Hill in 1990, agreed that the contributions are legendary.

“You don’t find these kind of length of tenures. But it was more than that. It was more than his length of tenure. It was truly like the amount that he accomplished over that time,” Launiere said. “The building of the facilities and getting us in the Pac-12, it’s just quite a legacy. I felt like he always tried to do things the right way. I felt that he was very supportive.”

The thing about Hill, Launiere explained, where he didn’t get involved with the X’s and O’s of coaching. There was no micromanaging in that regard.

“His whole goal was to provide us with what we need to be successful at whatever level was agreed upon,” Launiere said. “There always wasn’t enough money, but if you went to him and you felt like you really needed something he would find it.”

Launiere added that Hill did things very diligently.

“It was really quite remarkable to see the process and the progress over time,” she said.

Hill’s support of women’s athletics was appreciated. Lauinere noted that they kind of grew up together. The volleyball program kind of evolved with Hill. They worked together closely to build it up.

Utah men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak also had kind things to say about his former boss.

“He’s an amazing leader and always about the people — selfless foxhole man with great humility,” Krystkowiak said. “Loved looking out for the students. Great family man and friend, had the whole package.”

Hill’s banner will join tributes to Majerus, Andrew Bogut, Arnie Ferrin, Vern Gardner, Billy McGill, Andre Miller, Kim Smith, Keith Van Horn and Danny Vranes to hang from the Huntsman Center rafters.