It would have been a fitting tribute to outgoing University of Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill if Utah’s men’s basketball team had managed to win the National Invitational Tournament the same week he announced his retirement.
On the other hand, maybe Thursday night’s second-place finish is the most fitting tribute. He can put the almost trophy alongside the Utes’ second-ranked finish in the 2009 AP football poll and the second place finish in the 1998 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
No. Hill never made it to the pinnacle of either of those mountains, but he made it so that one day the Utes may reach the top. Hill’s time at the University of Utah has been all about aiming high, raising the U.’s sports profile from regional to national.
If college athletics is a snake pit (and it is), then Hill is a snake charmer. To spend 31 years in the hot seat known as athletic director at a Division I school is to suspend reality. It’s a system that fires people on the bounce of a ball or the whim of a booster.
It can be argued that an AD’s highest purpose is to hire coaches. To that end, Hill scattered some game-changing coaches across his tenure.
It started in 1989 with a basketball savant known as Rick Majerus. Mentored by the legendary Al McGuire at Marquette University, Majerus and his giant sweaters brought Utah men’s basketball a national identity, culminating in that 1998 loss to Kentucky in the championship game.
In 1990, Hill brought back a former assistant coach, Ron McBride, to take over a football program that hadn’t been to a bowl game in 24 years. McBride took them to six bowls in his 13 years.
Next was Urban Meyer. In that case, the hiring was more like catching a rocket. In two short years, Meyer took the Utes to a 11-0 record and a win in the Fiesta Bowl.
And if Meyer’s tenure was over in a flash, Hill knew enough to realize that Meyer’s assistant, Kyle Whittingham, could maintain the momentum. Whittingham managed his own undefeated season in 2008 – and a shocking Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in 2009 that resulted in that No. 2 finish in the AP poll.
For all that, Hill’s crowning achievement wasn’t a hire. It was passage into the Pac 12, the top college athletic conference west of the Mississippi. Taking its place alongside USC and Stanford in 2011, the university secured its position as a national player and left longtime rival Brigham Young University in the rearview mirror.
The Pac 12 also brought a boatload of money. The years since the U. joined has seen millions of dollars in athletic facilities built on campus to benefit both major and minor college sports.
Here’s to you, Dr. Hill, for getting the Utes to the big show.