Some 35 years ago, Bradley Cook came to Snow College as a nervous freshman ready to play cornerback for the football team but unsure of much else. He had no idea what he was going to study or what he wanted to do with his life or what he needed to do to figure it out.

On Friday, Cook returned to the rural Utah school with more direction: He was named the next president and tasked with leading the campus of 5,500 students.

“This amazing, incredible place gave me a start,” he said after the announcement. “I owe a lot to Snow College, and I commit to give back to it.”

After a monthslong search to fill the position and a week of interviews with four finalists, the Utah Board of Regents, which oversees public higher education in the state, unanimously voted to select Cook to lead the Ephraim college. He’ll relocate from Southern Utah University, where he was serving as provost.

The decision was met with cheers and claps from the crowd waiting in Snow College’s Founders Hall to congratulate him.

“His accomplishments throughout his career show that President Cook will be highly successful in leading this university,” said Harris Simmons, chairman of the board. “He is a dynamic and proven leader that has a commitment to student achievement. … Now, he’ll be the quarterback for all of you.”

Cook will take the helm of the smallest public college in the state — with a rich rural legacy and a unique two-year focus — as its 17th president this summer. He’ll replace Gary Carlston, who’s retiring in May after nearly five years leading the school.

Cook comes in at the tail end of a major shuffling of leadership at universities across Utah, with Snow College becoming the fifth campus in the state to get a new president in the past year. Now, no president at any of the state’s eight public colleges will have been in office for more than five years. SUU’s Scott Wyatt, appointed in 2013, is the longest-serving.

Wyatt said Friday that it will be difficult for his school to “find an equal replacement” for Cook. As provost there, Cook focused on attracting more international and diverse students. He also helped create 25 new academic programs and centers at the Cedar City campus.

Before he walked up to the podium Friday, Cook shook hands and hugged students in the audience and gave a shoutout to the school’s badger mascot. He promised to focus on students while staying true to what the campus was founded on: community and rural growth.

“I’m so excited for what we can do together,” he said, tucking in his striped orange and blue tie to represent the school’s colors. “We’re going to work together to build upon Snow’s rich history and the tradition that we have that is so important to our identity and our sense of place.”

Previously, Cook served as president of the Abu Dhabi Women’s College in the United Arab Emirates, and for eight years — split from 1993 to 1995 and from 1999 to 2006 — as a vice president at then-Utah Valley State College.

He has also worked as a history professor and specializes in Islamic and Middle East studies. And he earned a bachelor’s and master’s from Stanford University and a doctor of philosophy at the University of Oxford.

Cook was previously a presidential finalist for the openings at Utah Valley University last year and at Southern Utah University in 2013. He said that coming on board at Snow as it celebrates its 130-year anniversary feels like coming home.

“This college took me in and helped me see there were some possibilities,” he said. “So let’s be bold. Let’s be imaginative. Let’s be creative and innovative. Let’s be smart. Let’s work hard. And let’s continue to keep students and their successes at the heart of our enterprise.”