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Utah athletic director Mark Harlan lauds Utes’ administration as it navigates issues amid COVID-19 pandemic: ‘We’ll be prepared for whatever comes’

Mark Harlan, athletic director at the University of Utah, talks during an interview at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 29, 2018.
James Wooldridge, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mark Harlan, the University of Utah’s athletic director, offered some insight on several topics Friday.

On March 13, the Utes had all practices and organized athletic activities suspended for an indefinite period of time. The official announcement said the decision was made “in the best interests of the health of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, in an attempt to help limit the spread of coronavirus.”

Harlan said the current state of Utah athletics is good as they close in on what he refers to as Week 2 of the new dynamic.

“We have a real good sense of where all our student-athletes are living at present, albeit all over from Puerto Rico all the way to California and parts in-between,” he said. “But very pleased with our coaches’ communication pattern with all of them, primarily the new technology — video conferencing, etc.”

Harlan said all messaging that has gotten back to him has been strong and the kids are in a good place, especially knowing that students at other places have had positive tests of the coronavirus.

“So far we’re not in that space and we hope to remain so,” Harlan added. “But, yeah, I feel good that we’re at a place now where the kids are in online classes and taking those seriously and knowing that they need to be held accountable to those things. We have to finish the semester strong.”

Other topics addressed by Harlan include:

Less financial distribution

The NCAA announced Thursday that its distribution to Division I schools in June would be less than half originally anticipated (from $600 million to $225 million), primarily because of basketball tournaments being canceled.

“I was not surprised on the number yesterday because our conference has done a very good job of keeping us informed on a daily basis as those conversations were on-going with the board of directors within the NCAA. So the number was in the range of what we were to have expected. So I’m pleased that we now know what it is. We know how it will be distributed and know as a conference we can begin the business of how we manage that and how that will look on a per school basis. The Pac-12 does have reserves for situations like this and so we’ll look to those reserves to fill the hole as much as possible, and I’m confident that we’ll be able to do so.”

Eligibility issues

The cancellation of winter championships and spring sports has schools seeking clarification on eligibility for student-athletes on those teams.

“Let’s start first with the winter sports. It breaks my heart that those young people were not able to compete in their championships. We know skiing was two-fourths of the way done into their championship and leading at that time and so I’m heartbroken for them. I think as we’ve had a chance over the last two weeks to really look at the data on the winter sports, it would suggest that it’s probably not a possibility that those students will regain their eligibility based on a large percentage of the winter sports teams having already completed their season. Of course the spring sports is a different matter and that has taken a lot of time, energy and proper effort to really examine the implication of those spring sports having their eligibility back. And as a matter of fact on Monday it is expected that the NCAA council, again which is the deliberative body represented by the various conferences, will vote to decide on that matter and it could either come down to the seniors having that opportunity or all of the athletes that compete in the spring having that opportunity. We’ll have to wait-and-see where that goes.”

Harlan made his stance on the situation known.

“I think our seniors really deserve the opportunity to decide if he or she wants to come back. I’m still having to really look at data on the implications if everybody this year freezes. I think it does have some long-lasting implications that I’m still trying to study and work with my team and the conference on, but I’m very passionate about the seniors having the opportunity to come back.”

Looking ahead

Should coronavirus concerns extend into summer or fall and the football season is altered, Harlan was asked about contingency plans in terms of budget.

“So, yes, we will start to model various different possibilities knowing that so much is unknown. But I do think it’s very important for us to be prepared for whatever happens and then be able to best respond to it. ... We will begin looking into those possibilities with all our fall sports beginning next week.”

Any optimism?

Does Harlan see an “all clear” coming any time soon when it comes to things getting back to normal.

“I think everything we’ve learned over the last two to three weeks is that you just have to be prepared for whatever might come. I’m an eternal optimist so my hopes are that we are able to return with our fall sports under the timelines that are typical. But also know that we have to be prepared for whatever might come.”

Men’s basketball

Harlan shared his general thoughts on how things went and his faith in head coach Larry Krystkowiak moving forward. The Utes went 16-15 overall.

“I thought the season was filled with a lot of really exciting moments, particularly some really, really good basketball games at the Huntsman Center this year — highlighted, by obviously, victories over BYU and a lot of our Pac-12 opponents that came in. And obviously the Kentucky game in Las Vegas where I was able to attend was really exciting and of course also watching, like everybody, our struggles on the road. I had to remind myself that the team is very young and going through a lot of these experiences for the first time. So I’m very excited about what the future will bring because I think we saw really good glimpses during the season. I’m excited about Larry’s plan and his continuing plan to teach these young people as they head into their next year of their adventure. I continue to believe that Larry and his staff are some of the best teachers in the country as it relates to college basketball. So we’re all aligned and excited about moving forward into the next year.”

Ongoing construction

Will the loss of some revenue lead to any building projects being put on the back burner?

“We certainly know that we have a very important project ongoing in the south end zone. The latest reports I have this week is that they’re making great progress and we have not seen any loss of work in that area. We’re obviously understanding that things could change as the environment changes. But that project is ongoing. We are still scheduled to break ground later this spring on a new golf facility, indoor golf facility, for our men’s golf team. So those projects are all still being planned and will go forward as we sit today. But again we understand that we have to be flexible on those projects as they move forward.”

Black and red

The Utah athletic department is currently operating in the black, Harlan acknowledged.

“Yes. We are very blessed to, thanks to great supporters and other revenues, to be in a very good position as we sit today — knowing that the future could be challenging. But we’ll be prepared for whatever comes.”

Any concern about eventually operating in the red based on hypotheticals concerning the next football season?

“I think any athletic director in the country right now that sponsors football is obviously going to have concerns about a delay or an adjustment in that schedule for many reasons. But from the financial perspective it’s obviously a critical part of funding not only a football program but all our sports here. So obviously we would be concerned about that and that’s what our planning that we’re going to be going through over the next few weeks to look at different opportunities that we have. What I know about University of Utah is we have incredible people who support this program on a year-in and-year-out basis. We have about the best administrative support from the president on down and we know that when you get in a crisis just like this and you have those kind of people around you, you’ve got a chance to get through anything.”