‘I am in my dream job’: Mark Harlan’s first four years filled with unparalleled success, unfathomable sorrow
Having succeeded 31-year athletic director Chris Hill four years ago, Harlan has guided University of Utah sports and student-athlete academics to unprecedented heights
On March 1, 2021, University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan quietly signed an amendment to his original employment contract that extended his agreement, bumped his base salary in 2022, provided more deferred compensation, and included some bonuses based on fundraising achievements and how the school’s student-athletes performed in competition and the classroom.
Add it all up, and Harlan, who recently hit his four-year anniversary milestone on the Hill after being hired to replace longtime Utah AD Chris Hill on June 1, 2018, is now making around $1 million a year to guide the Pac-12 school’s 20 varsity sports teams and a staff of more than 200 employees.
That figure does not include a salary cut in July 2020 agreed to by “top earners” in the athletic department such as Harlan, football coach Kyle Whittingham and then-basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak to aid Utah’s budget during the pandemic.
So put Harlan’s name up there among the most highly paid employees of the state of Utah. But realize that one would be hard-pressed to find a person in the know who believes he hasn’t earned it.
The recently completed competition year (2021-22) was easily the most successful since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2021, and arguably the most successful in school history.
“It is certainly right up there,” Harlan said, deflecting praise. “This year has been an extraordinary year across the platform for all of our sports.”
Hill’s successor, however, has proven he’s not a one-year wonder. His four-year tenure, made even more challenging by an unprecedented pandemic and highlighted by the Utes’ Rose Bowl berth, has to be seen as an unmitigated success, by almost any measure or metric.
With the 2021 Pac-12 champion football program clearly emerging as the school’s most-recognizable athletic product, Utah has won four Pac-12 championships the past four years, after winning only four Pac-12 titles in the previous seven years.
Many have said over the years that Utah is a slumbering athletic giant; it appears that Harlan has finally awakened it.
The Utes the past four years have also won five league crowns in skiing and lacrosse, which aren’t in the Pac-12, and three national championships in skiing since Harlan made director of skiing Fredrik Landstedt his first hire. He’s also hired new head coaches in women’s tennis, women’s soccer, baseball, lacrosse, swimming and diving and men’s basketball.
Then-Utah president Ruth V. Watkins seemingly hit a home run the summer of 2018 when she lured him away from a similar position at the University of South Florida, paying the Bulls a $262,500 buyout, and announcing that “after an extensive national search during which we spoke with a number of outstanding candidates, Mark emerged as our clear top choice.”
Harlan recently sat down with the Deseret News to discuss the highs and lows of his four years so far, the athletic department’s success and future, and his own future.
A ‘fast’ four years
Harlan grew up in Southern California, then earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in education from the University of Arizona. He worked in sports administration at San Jose State, Northern Colorado, Arizona and UCLA before becoming an AD at South Florida in March 2014.
When Hill retired after 31 years, many believed U. deputy athletics director Kyle Brennan would get the nod, but the school went with Harlan, whose family consists of his wife, Carolyn and children Savannah and Austin.
“Fast. Very, very fast,” is the way Harlan describes the four years from his office in the Burbidge Athletics Academic Center on campus.
“It is hard not to think about all of the incredible moments, certainly in competition, that we have had across so many sports,” he said, several times crediting Hill’s administration for getting the proverbial ball rolling in not just athletics, but student-athlete academics. “Football gets a lot of the attention, and rightly so, but to see so much growth across our Olympic sports in the last few years has been really gratifying.”
Football, skiing and gymnastics have been at the forefront of the climb, making the most impact on a national level the past four years, followed by women’s volleyball and women’s basketball.
“From the (entirety) of the four years, it has been incredible, but the No. 1 thing is watching these student-athletes succeed,” Harlan said. “There have been a lot of really great moments, and certainly the success of our students is what it is all about.”
A grand accomplishment for a grand reopening
Asked which accomplishment stand out from the past four years, Harlan points to the completion of the $80 million Ken Garff Red Zone at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The massive project that enclosed the south end of the stadium, provided new premium seating experiences, new team locker rooms and increased seating capacity to 51,444, was finished last summer.
“It is something I am very proud of, because it really required so many people to come together very strategically to get the project done,” he said. “… The incredible fundraising by so many people, the administration’s work, the work done by the groups within the football program, and obviously the lead gift ($21.5 million) by the Garff family, it all came together.”
Before he left, Hill commissioned a feasibility study on the project and had it waiting on Harlan’s desk for his predecessor to review and study.
“The data was so compelling to go forward with it, because of the waiting list for tickets and other factors,” Harlan said. “We pressure-tested some (issues), taking a look at if people had the appetite to pay for it in terms of donations and those things to see where we stood there. And then when we felt like we were ready, we took it to the legislature and got the approval for the bonding.”
Then the pandemic hit. Layton Construction was still able to hit all the deadlines, and the project was finished in time for the Utes to host Weber State in their 2021 opener, the first time fans were back in the seats since the pre-pandemic 2019 season.
“To emerge last summer, to have it fully sold out, was something that everyone here that was involved should be proud of forever,” Harlan said. “It has elevated our customer experience. … It complemented Rice-Eccles Stadium, which I believe is the best college football stadium in the West, and perhaps even beyond. It has set the stage for our expectations when we build things going forward. So we are very, very proud of that because of the collective team effort with everything involved in that.”
All told, Utah Athletics has raised more than $60 million for capital projects in Harlan’s tenure, according to the school. Also, the department has finished fundraising for the expansion of the Dumke Gymnastics Center, breaking ground last March. The $2.9 million David S. Layton Golf Academy opened on campus in 2020 and covers 7,000 square feet.
‘We will get through it’
Of course, Harlan has also had to deal with unimaginable tragedy and sorrow; three student-athletes have died the past four years, including one — track and field athlete Lauren McCluskey — on the U.’s campus a few months after Harlan got the job.
Football star Ty Jordan accidentally shot himself on Christmas night, 2020, in Denton, Texas, and fellow Texan Aaron Lowe, a defensive back, was killed in a shooting at a house party in Salt Lake City in September 2021.
“There’s no question, the biggest challenge, the biggest disappointment, is that we have lost three student-athletes,” Harlan said. “As a leader of an organization, you don’t ever fully recover from that, nor will anybody associated with those three ever fully recover. … It has been very challenging for everybody and we continue to do everything we do in their memories.”
Harlan said nothing could have prepared him, university administrators, track and field coaches, or head football coach Kyle Whittingham for the loss of the young people. There’s no manual for it, no playbook.
“Looking back, where I tend to look is the support system of the department, and at how we were able to respond to those incredible tragedies,” he said. “Kyle Whittingham likes to say that we will never get over it, but we will get through it. Looking back, but never forgetting, that’s what comes to mind.”
Playing through a pandemic
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, canceling national championship chances for the U.’s gymnastic and ski teams, among other heartbreaks, Harlan’s message to athletes, coaches and his staff was clear: Stay together and make the most of it.
“I remember clearly telling (them) that we must emerge from this a better version of ourselves. And stay tethered and communicate at a very high level as we navigate these waters,” Harlan said.
“We are a proud member of the Pac-12 Conference. We abided by those decisions that were made via our medical representatives to our presidents and chancellors and athletic directors to not play for a bit,” he continued. “It was difficult when BYU was competing, and that was a real challenge for highly competitive people to watch them compete and see the success they had. But rather than complaining, we continued to work (and some employees were furloughed and/or took salary cuts) and our fall sports were delayed, or started late, or what have you.”
Harlan said everyone associated with Utah athletics “grew during that period,” and “there was a certain closeness that developed. And it is our job going forward to keep everybody that close as we continue to move the organization forward.”
Is Harlan a Utah lifer?
Hired as Utah’s athletic director in 1987 after serving as the school’s Crimson Club director in 1985-86, Hill became a lifer at the U., turning down other administrative opportunities throughout the country and guiding Utah to Pac-12 membership during the course of his 31 years in Salt Lake City.
How long will Harlan stay aboard?
“I feel like I am in my dream job,” he told the Deseret News. “As I sit here today, I believe I am running the best Pac-12 program out there. Our success is proving that. Our sold-out stadium, our graduate rates, prove that. … I am living the dream right here in Salt Lake City.”
So you are saying there’s not a chance?
Never say never, Harlan says, but quickly jumps into more reasons why he feel like this could be the place for a long, long time.
He grew up in “the Pac-12 footprint” in the Los Angeles area, spent a lot of time in Tucson, Arizona, at the U of A, and always dreamed of leading a Pac-12 program, he said.
“That was kinda my professional dream,” he said. “We love living here. This is a town that has really embraced my family. My wife Carolyn, my daughter Savannah and son Austin are thriving in their respective things that they are doing. I live five minutes from campus. I didn’t really realize what a big deal that is. My commutes at other institutions have been much longer than that.”
For instance, Harlan says he can put in a day’s work, go home for dinner, then come back for a meeting or game.
“The lifestyle here has really been fascinating to me,” he said, downplaying a suggestion that his next step might be as a conference commissioner. “And so my aspirations continue to be, ‘What more can we do here? What more can we do to prove that this isn’t just a great season that we are having, that this is a great program?’ To win things, you are going to have to beat the Utes.”
Reaping the financial rewards
Harlan’s annual salary at South Florida was $525,000, and he received an extension and $25,000 raise in April 2018, just months before he was hired by the U. He received a five-year contract from Utah, which included a “three-year rolling horizon agreement” that kicked in in July 2021, and a $120,000 signing bonus.
His base annual salary in years 1-3 was $700,000, jumping to $750,000 in years 4-5. He also received the usual perks — Country Club membership, $600 monthly automobile allowance, free spousal/family travel to events — and “performance compensation” up to $175,000 per year based on the academic and competition success of Utah’s teams.
According to the “contract amendment” referenced at the beginning of this article, which was obtained by the Deseret News five months ago via an open records request and confirmed by Harlan to be the most recent changes to his contract, the athletic director’s base annual salary will kick up to $800,000 on July 1, to $825,000 on July 1, 2023, and to $850,000 in 2024 and beyond.
Harlan’s performance compensation agreement was changed to earn him a maximum of $100,000 a year; for instance, he earned $5,000 for Utah’s 10-win football season, $5,000 because the Utes placed first in the Pac-12’s South division and $10,000 because the Utes won the Pac-12 championship. Utah’s national skiing championship pocketed him $20,000.
If the Utes make it to the College Football Playoff this fall, Harlan will get an additional $15,000. If they win the national championship, he will make $25,000 more.
Also, the new amendment calls for Harlan to receive “total deferred compensation” of $550,000 (between $100,000 and $175,000 per year from 2021-24) that will vest on June 30, 2024.
A season to remember
Whatever happens with Utah athletics moving forward, the 2021-22 school year will never be forgotten — for the reasons already mentioned and because the Utes rose to unprecedented heights in the Pac-12 and throughout the country. At the time of this publication, Utah staffers were eagerly awaiting the release of the final Learfield Directors Cup standings and anticipating one of the Utes’ highest finishes ever.
The standings measure overall success in college athletics.
“We were the highest we have ever been at the completion of winter sports,” Harlan said. “It is our best year competitively in the Pac-12, and I think it is attributed to incredible coaches and student-athletes who really stayed tethered together, worked really hard during the pandemic.
“A lot of student-athletes took advantage of the (extra) COVID-19 year because their experiences are good and they wanted to stay here, and we just had a phenomenal year,” he continued.
Harlan said it is also gratifying for everyone involved in coaching and administration that Utah student-athletes had a fantastic year in the classroom, as Utah was at 93% or higher in the NCAA graduate success rate (GSR) measurement for the fourth straight year. Utah’s student-athletes recorded a combined grade point average of 3.315 in 2021-22, just shy of the record 3.407 set last year at the height of the pandemic.
“Again, Dr. Hill had really invested in our academic area knowing that was something we needed to continue to rise in,” Harlan said.
On the fields, courts, courses and tracks, and in the pools, the Utes cut into rival BYU’s grip on the throne as the state’s top all-around athletic program despite, ironically, losing to the Cougars 26-17 in football last September.
Along with the aforementioned success of the skiing, gymnastics and football teams, Utah continued its upward climb in women’s basketball, which made it to the Pac-12 tournament final and then defeated Arkansas in an NCAA Tournament game.
Also, men’s golf qualified for the NCAA championships for the first time since 1988, women’s volleyball qualified for the Big Dance for the sixth-straight year, and women’s cross-country finished 20th at the NCAA championships.
“It was a good year to be a Ute,” said Harlan, the most recent architect of it all.
Highlights at the U. under Mark Harlan’s watch
• The Utes’ recently completed competition year (2021-22) was their most successful since joining the Pac-12, arguably their most successful ever. Thanks to football’s Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl berth, three other conference championships and their 15th national championship in NCAA skiing, they will likely finish second among Pac-12 programs in the Learfield Director’s Cup final standings, behind only Stanford.
• Utah has won three NCAA skiing championships since Harlan hired director of skiing Fredrik Landstedt, Harlan’s first hire.
• Utah has won four Pac-12 championships the past four years, matching the number of Pac-12 titles it won the previous seven years in the Pac-12. It also won five other conference titles in skiing and lacrosse leagues.
• Utah’s first-ever Rose Bowl appearance was viewed by 16.6 million, the largest television audience on record for a Utah football game.
• Harlan has hired seven head coaches since coming aboard in June 2018, introducing new leadership for skiing, women’s tennis, men’s basketball, women’s soccer, baseball, lacrosse and swimming and diving.
Academics, student-athlete experience
• Utah recorded its fourth consecutive year at 93% or higher in the NCAA Graduation Success Rate report for 2021, with its 93% score ranking second among Pac-12 departments behind Stanford. This record stretch includes a school-record 95% figure in 2018, followed by 94% rates in 2019 and 2020.
• Utah’s student-athletes recorded a combined average GPA of 3.315 for the 2021-22 school year, just shy of the record 3.407 set in 2020-21. The 3.30 semester GPA for spring 2022 is the seventh-highest on record for Utah, and follows a stretch of four consecutive semesters in which Utah’s student-athletes recorded the four highest semester GPAs in department history — a stretch that included a school-record 3.573 in spring 2020, and the fourth-highest, 3.329, in fall 2021.
• Launched the student-athlete NIL program known as “Elevate U” to help student-athletes maximize their NIL opportunities under new NCAA legislation, in partnership with Utah’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and the David S. Eccles School of Business.
• Raised more than $60 million for capital projects.
• Expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium with the opening in 2021 of the Ken Garff Red Zone, which includes new locker rooms, recruiting lounges, suites, club spaces and other VIP amenities, while increasing stadium seating capacity to 51,444.
• Finished fundraising for expansion of the Dumke Gymnastics Center, which broke ground in March 2022.
• Opened the on-campus golf training center, the $2.9 million David S. Layton Golf Academy, which covers 7,000-square feet and provides state-of-the-art technology for Utah’s student-athletes to enhance their golf performances.
Best year ever?
• Through the final winter standings in the Learfield Director’s Cup, Utah ranked 25th, its highest ranking since 1997-98. The final standings will be released July 1.
• Eight of Utah’s sport programs, nearly half, earned NCAA postseason berths or played in a bowl game, the most since joining the Pac-12 in 2011-12.
• For the first time since joining the Pac-12, four sports earned conference championships, including two Pac-12 titles (football and gymnastics), one RMISA crown (skiing) and one ASUN regular season title (lacrosse).
• Seven Utah sports teams finished in the top third of their respective conferences.
• Novie McCabe and Sophia Laukli won individual national titles and Utah skiing won its 15th national team title.
• Utah gymnastics won the Pac-12 regular season and championship meet titles and finished third at the NCAA championships.
• Utah football won its first Pac-12 championship and played in its first Rose Bowl, falling 48-45 on Jan. 1, 2022, to Ohio State; linebacker Devin Lloyd became the Utes’ 10th consensus All-American and was selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
• Utah women’s basketball made it to the Pac-12 tournament championship game and defeated Arkansas in an NCAA Tournament game.
• Utah women’s volleyball qualified for the NCAA tournament for the sixth-straight year.
• Utah men’s golf qualified for the NCAA championships for the first time since 1988 after placing fifth at the NCAA regional.
• Utah men’s tennis earned a berth in the NCAA championships for the first time since 2019 and defeated Ole Miss in a first-round match.
• Utah women’s cross-country finished 20th at the NCAA championships.
Source: University of Utah Athletics