For U. of U. sports, this is a red-hot year
The moment was a rare burst of exuberance for the man with a carefully guarded persona and a doctorate in educational administration.
"Can you believe this?" the man told a caller to his office. "We're in the Mountain West Conference and we're kicking ass and taking names, buddy."
The man, University of Utah director of athletics Chris Hill. The caller, Urban Meyer, the new football coach at Florida who three months ago led the Utes on a journey that culminated with an undefeated season and Utah becoming the first school from a non-powerhouse athletic conference to play in a Bowl Championship Series game.
On this day, Meyer was calling to congratulate his old boss on another milestone, the basketball team successfully reaching the round of 16 - the Sweet 16 - of the NCAA Tournament. Utah will face Kentucky in Austin, Texas, on Friday.
Only five universities have had their football team and basketball team qualify in the same year for a BCS game and the Sweet 16 - regarded as the barometers of excellence for their respective big-time college sports.
With the Utes' gymnastics team in contention for a national championship and the women's basketball team advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before succumbing earlier this week, Utah is enjoying the most successful year of athletics in its history.
And the key to that success? It starts with Hill's leadership, which is respected nationally.
"It's been that way for many years," Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said. "He's one of the premier AD's in the country."
"He sets the bar high for everyone else in the league," said Mike Bohn, Hill's counterpart at San Diego State.
Utah coaches say Hill, 54, relates to his subordinates in the same way a "players' coach" would deal with his players. His employees say he's friendly, fair and approachable. He puts them in position to succeed and treats everyone with respect.
Mark Driscoll has been Colorado State's athletic director for about 20 months. On one of his first few days at the school, he received a welcome note from Hill.
"I find him to be one of the most gracious and likable guys I've ever been around," Driscoll said. "Even if we're considered rivals, you can go to him with a question and he's willing to share his thoughts with you. I consider him a bit of a mentor. He's a first-class guy all the way."
"The relationships you build with people and people willing to help you are critical," Hill explained. "If you don't have people around you and people that want to be a part of it, you can't get anything done. I'm very appreciative for the all the people that have been around me and that have been helpful."
Hill's formula has allowed him to get things done at Utah. In a profession in which the quality of facilities are key in attracting both top-notch coaches and student-athletes, Hill has continually upgraded Utah's, such as expanding and refurbishing Rice-Eccles Stadium prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics.
And while Hill was under enormous pressure to raise $20 million to expand Rice-Eccles, he managed to simultaneously raise $3 million for a new gymnastics facility.
"He found a way to do both," gymnastics coach Greg Marsden said. "I couldn't have begrudged him if he didn't. To me, that was really something."
Besides the facility upgrades and numerous trophies won during his tenure, Hill has displayed a golden touch in finding coaches. His first two major hires were Rick Majerus and Ron McBride. Both proved to be the right guys at the right time and began the process of putting Utah on the national landscape.
Meyer and first-year basketball coach Ray Giacoletti are the latest gems unearthed by Hill.
"When he hires somebody, he provides them with the wherewithal and means to be successful," Marsden said.
Bill Kinneberg is in his second stint as the Utes' baseball coach. He coached Utah in 1996 and left after just one year to take a coaching position at the University of Arizona. In a rare move, Kinneberg returned to a previous place of employment when he took the Utes job in September.
"He's the only reason I would come back," Kinneberg said. "He's been a great friend and a terrific boss. He allows you to do your job. He listens and he understands what coaches want."
Hill himself says his acumen is overrated.
"We've just tried to have a good job for somebody and attract a good pool of people," Hill said. "You can't hire a good coach unless you have a good opportunity for them."
Hill's modesty is echoed by his office, which isn't decorated with the many reminders of what the Utes have accomplished while he has been at Utah. Pictures of his two young adult children loom larger than the few pieces of athletic memorabilia in his work area.
"It's important for me to understand that I'm the athletic director at Utah, but that's not who I am," Hill said. "I'm a guy that has a wonderful wife and kids and that's what I want to keep balance in."
Over the years, a number of schools, including Duke and Washington, have attempted to lure Hill away. Reportedly, the University of Arizona has a current interest. Hill said it would take a lot to get him away from an institution he loves and the outdoor activities he enjoys.
"It's pretty simple," Hill said. "This is a really great place to work. We like living here. We have a chance to be successful. Supposed prestige and money at another place aren't as important to me as quality of life and feeling like I'm a part of the university. The administration wants us to be successful, and they don't treat us like some outside entity to just win games. It all adds up to this is a good place to work and live."
Plus, how could he ever top reaching the BCS and the Sweet 16 in the same year with a school from the Mountain West Conference?
"It's been a blast," Hill said. "It teaches you should have high expectations and try and reach them."
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