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Why Utah athletic director Mark Harlan says his 2½ years on the job have ‘been a ride’

In a recent 25-minute interview with the Deseret News, Mark Harlan fielded questions on an array of topics affecting the athletic department, from the BYU-Utah rivalry, the pandemic, the Pac-12 and more

Mark Harlan, the new athletic director at the University of Utah, poses in front of portraits of former athletic director Isaac Armstrong, left, former head basketball coach Vadal Peterson and former athletic director James Jack at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 29, 2018.
Mark Harlan poses in front of portraits of former athletic director Isaac Armstrong, left, former head basketball coach Vadal Peterson and former athletic director James Jack at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 29, 2018. The Utah A.D. recently met with the Deseret News’ Jeff Call to discuss a wide variety of topics.
James Wooldridge, Deseret News

In the 2½ years since Mark Harlan became Utah’s athletic director, he’s experienced a little bit of everything, including triumph and tragedy.

“It’s been a ride,” Harlan said.

In a recent 25-minute Zoom interview with the Deseret News, Harlan fielded questions on an array of topics affecting the athletic department.

Harlan became emotional when talking about the tragic death of freshman running back Ty Jordan, and he placed much-needed context on the recently concluded, five-game football season.

Answers have been edited for clarity and space.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham walks the sideline during game against Colorado on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Boulder, Colo.
David Zalubowski, Associated Press

Deseret News: How would you assess the job coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff did in managing everything associated with the pandemic?

Mark Harlan: I’m really proud of them. I’m proud that a veteran staff acted like you hoped they would to really deal with the ever-changing landscape that we faced. Every morning was a different challenge, whether it came from test results, whether it came from scheduling, whether it came from an absent player or an absent coach based on those test results. The way that Kyle in particular was able to take a deep breath and just say, ‘OK, let’s see what’s best for the program’ and not get caught into ‘Well, let’s do it how we always do.’ That proved to be really helpful. Football has 45-plus employees, 110 students and the student managers. It’s a big operation. His ability to be cool, calm and collected through all of this was a huge aspect of us emerging, I think, very successfully as we managed COVID. Certainly, missing those two games was incredibly unfortunate. It wasn’t despite a lack of incredible effort from all involved. It just happened. We were able to get things going in the right direction, of course finishing strong as we did. I was very impressed going into COVID with his leadership and extremely so after.

DN: How optimistic are you right now that come fall 2021, things will return to relative normal?

MH: Well, I’m an optimistic person by nature. It’s worked out pretty well for me. I’m going to continue to have that theory as we move forward. I’m excited about the vaccine. We all want everyone to have it by 5 o’clock today. We know it’s an enormous task. But my hope is that by the time we get to the end of the semester and into the summer, that a large segment of our population will be vaccinated, allowing us to open up our gates to have our fans come back to Rice-Eccles Stadium, and the Huntsman Center and all of our venues. If that happens, it will be an incredible moment for our athletes to see the fans again. Certainly from an overall revenue standpoint, it will allow us to move forward and continue to grow. Our trajectory was very strong going into the pandemic. A lot of that momentum stays with us today — particularly looking at our graduation rates, our GPAs, we’re really excited about that. I’m optimistic.

DN: What kind of update can you provide on the financial situation with the athletic department?

MH: We have a lot more data to work with. We had so many unknowns when we put our budget together at the end of the last fiscal year. Now, we really have information that allows us to make decisions. In other words, we know how many football games got in across the conference. We’re just about at the halfway point in terms of overall basketball games and the television contract. We can do the math, divide that by 12, and know what kind of revenue is coming into the conference, from the conference to us. We know where we are with fans. It’s an unfortunate result of all this not having our supporters with us. … Sometimes when you’re in a budget crisis, having information is the best thing you can ask for. That being said, we talked about how the worst-case scenario was going to be $55-60 (million). We’ll definitely be south of that. We’re still looking at all of that. I have a feeling that we’ll be in the $35-40 (million) range. It could be a little bit better. We’re working closely with the university to work out our loan that we’ll obviously need to have to march forward. Those are very cooperative conversations. My goal, as we head into the next fiscal year, is to be beyond furloughs, be beyond hiring freezes, and all of those kinds of things, and get back to a fully operational athletic department for our students. I’ve been impressed with the staff. Furloughs were a department-wide effort from coaches to staff. Everybody’s participated. Mostly, we’re on the other side of furloughs. Some pushed theirs out to the spring, based on their schedules. But by and by, we’re done with that, and that’s a good thing to be done with because it’s a personal hardship. We’re looking forward to getting back to the place where we can have everybody back in terms of their full salary and those kinds of things. But, again, COVID will dictate that and the vaccine will dictate that. We hope to have our revenue streams back to, if not fully operational, close to it this year.

Utah running back Ty Jordan scores against Washington State during game Dec. 19, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Authorities say Jordan died at a hospital in the Dallas area after an accidental shooting. University officials announced Ty Jordan’s death Saturday, the day after he was named Pac-12’s newcomer of the year.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

DN: For a football program to lose a player like Ty, can you put into words how this has affected you and the football program?

MH: Ty was a great young man. He was a really bright light during the difficult struggles of the fall. The great ones, you tend to see early, both on performance and certainly what we’re blessed to see behind the scenes. The last freshman I can remember having that kind of impact that I’ve been around, going back to my University of Arizona days, was Tedy Bruschi. The first time he stepped on the practice field under Dick Tomey, you knew in the first 10 minutes that this was a special talent. By the end of that week, Tedy Bruschi was the leader of that team. Ty had those types of qualities. He was a dynamic person. Our fans saw what he could do on the field. He wasn’t just friendly with the football team. I tell our athletes to make friends and talk to other coaches and athletes. He was doing that. The mayor of the residence hall was a fair title because that’s what he was. An incredible young man. In a short period of time, he left us a lot. It was an honor to be with his family (at the celebration of life in Dallas) with our football team and representatives of the University of Utah. It allowed me to brag on him to them and for us to reminisce and laugh, which we all needed. I’m thrilled that we have a scholarship endowment for him. I’m thrilled that Kyle and Jamie stepped forward as the first gift in that process and others that have come forward to do the same. We’ll remember him. We’re going to continue to think of appropriate ways, working with the family, to make sure our fans remember him as well. It’s a very difficult moment for the University of Utah and the football program. But there’s strength, and love, and a lot of family in that program. They’ll persevere and get through it.

DN: How critical is this upcoming football season for the Pac-12?

MH: Every season is critical. I think the collection of coaches in our league are as good as they’ve been in a long, long time. I have the honor of chairing the football coach committee and I’m a member of the football oversight committee. There was a period of time where I met with our coaches every week. I was impressed with their leadership and their thoughtful approach to getting ready for the season in a very challenging environment. I would say even more so than what other the conferences dealt with some of the restrictions we saw during the summer and into the early fall. I was excited for everyone to take the field and get going. Obviously, we know as a conference, and we’ve said this for years, we’ve got to win more football games. We all have to take upon ourselves to do all we can as administrators, as coaches, as students, to rise to be one of those four at the end. We’ve certainly had some near-misses. Us being one (in 2019). We were four quarters away and we didn’t get it done. There have been other near-misses but we know we can do it. We’ll continue to rely on our recruiting efforts and try to keep as many kids in our conference footprint at home that we can. It’s a critical piece of that. We’ll continue to work with commissioner (Larry) Scott and his team as the next television negotiations come up to increase our revenue opportunities. We know that we’ve got great universities and great coaches. We’ve just got to collectively get on the field and get it done.

Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak talks with his team during a game against UVU at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak talks with his team during a game against UVU at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

DN: How would you evaluate the state of Utah basketball?

MH: It’s a battle every day to practice and play. As I am of all our teams that are competing right now, I’m very proud of the effort. No one wants to win more than Larry Krystkowiak and his staff. I thought Timmy Allen’s comments (last week) were indicative of how that group feels. It’s early; it’s January. A lot of basketball ahead. There have been some exciting moments in there. They’ll keep working to have that game we’re all looking for — playing for 40 minutes. It doesn’t take away anything from the effort and the work that’s going into it on a daily basis. I’m very appreciative.

DN: You seem to get along very well with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. Due to the pandemic, you lost a home game against the Cougars. What’s the status of that game, future games, and the rivalry?

MH: I have great respect for Tom. I’ve known him for many years prior to coming into this position. Of course, since I’ve been here, we’ve had regular communication, particularly at the start of the pandemic, asking ‘What are you doing?’ back and forth, with medical advisors talking together about different aspects. We compete at the highest of levels. But off the field, we certainly all care about the same things — our student-athletes and our programs. We bounce ideas off each other all the time. Specifically, we lost the game at Rice-Eccles this year. We plan on putting that game back in the continuum of games in the future. We have not solidified that date. We will be resuming the series in 2021 in Provo, as the contract originally stated. It’s difficult to move home games and away games. We have our schedule set for next year. Then we will take a break and play the University of Florida in 2022 and 2023. Then we’ll resume the (BYU) series in 2024. Tom has stated, and I have too, that if we’re talking about football scheduling, we want to stay close to communicating with each other and our staffs when there’s an opportunity that comes to either program. That was the case with the Florida series. I told Tom that I was really impressed with the scheduling dynamics he had as an independent athletic director. He hasn’t told me all of the inside stories but I’ll get them out of him in short order.

Work is progressing nicely on the Ken Garff Performance Zone at Rice-Eccles Stadium, as can be seen from this picture taken Jan. 15, 2021.
Courtesy Layton Construction/Utah Athletics

DN: Can you provide an update on Rice-Eccles Stadium renovations? How excited are you to have that completed and have fans filling it next fall?

MH: I’m excited for both. I’m excited that we’re right on schedule. The weather has allowed us to stay on schedule. We factored in some winter days but we’ve definitely been a beneficiary of the weather. Layton Construction has done a phenomenal job of coming through with everything they said they would. So we’re right on schedule to finish in July. We’re selling those seats very well. We slowed down during the pandemic but we’ve been able to really pick up speed again. We anticipate being finished with all of those sales before we open. It will be great, with our new 52,444 number. (seating capacity). We hope that through the vaccine and other things, that’s what we’ll see when we take the field again. The project’s going very well. We’re grateful to a lot of people that made it happen, that’s for sure.