After a streaker ran onto the field at halftime, Chris Hill watched Utah State scored 24 straight points in the second half of a football victory. The Aggies celebrated by parading on the “UTAH” painted above the north end zone of the stadium on a sunny, late October afternoon in 1987.
“Very first day on the job,” marveled Hill, who remembered thinking, “It’s going to go up from here, I hope.”
In 30 years, Hill’s trajectory as the University of Utah’s athletic director has been favorable. “He’s gone through a lot of trials and tribulations, but he’s still a man who’s standing,” said Nona Richardson, a longtime college administrator who recently became a Ute senior associate AD.
That’s an achievement in a volatile business. Five years is the average tenure for a Power Five program administrator, in a job where the demands come from every direction. “So many stakeholders are involved with your program,” said UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero. “You can’t appease them all of the time.”
In Hill’s case, those include a rotating cast of school presidents, athletic department employees that now number 180 (roughly quadrupled in 30 years), the school’s 435 student-athletes, major boosters and rank-and-file fans who advocate projects such as the upcoming expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium — and want it done right now (it will happen).
Chris Hill’s 30 years at Utah
• NCAA basketball championship game, 1998.
• Opening of Rice-Eccles Stadium, 1999
• Fiesta Bowl victory to complete 12-0 season, 2005.
• Sugar Bowl victory to complete 13-0 season, 2009.
• Pac-12 membership in 2010
• NCAA skiing championship, 2017.
• Firing of inherited coaches Lynn Archibald (basketball) and Jim Fassel (football), 1989.
• Firing of football coach Ron McBride after 13 seasons, 2002.
• The complicated ending of basketball coach Rick Majerus’ tenure, 2003.
• Admonished for handling of swimming program troubles, 2013.
• Contract issues with football coach Kyle Whittingham his staff, 2014.
Hill needed three attempts to adequately replace basketball coach Rick Majerus, dealt with the fallout of having a swimming coach accused of mistreating athletes and had to mend a relationship with football coach Kyle Whittingham in recent years.
The Utes generally have thrived, though, led by an AD who blended into Salt Lake City as an Irish-Catholic Democrat from New Jersey, with an accent that once made his Granger High School basketball players have trouble understanding him during timeouts. They’ve enjoyed national success in football, basketball, skiing and several women’s sports, notably gymnastics. “He’s definitely left a mark on the department and has done a phenomenal job for the school,” Whittingham said. “He’s just been a great leader.”
Whittingham should value Hill. His own salary has grown exponentially to $3.6 million (Hill earns about $1 million) and so has the size of the football support staff, working in the new Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center. That’s partly a function of competing in the Pac-12, with the league’s 2010 invitation creating a new dynamic for Hill’s program as annual revenue has grown to $76 million.
“The numbers are just mind-boggling,” said Ute women’s soccer coach Rich Manning.
The Utes have loyal donors, although fundraising is not always as easy as the time Hill sought a $100,000 gift from the Dumke family to help build Rice-Eccles Stadium and ended up receiving $1 million for a gymnastics building.
Utah is about to welcome a sixth president to the campus in Hill’s tenure, another changing element of his job. Hill himself could have gone to Washington in 2004, but chose to stay in an athletic department known for stability and a family atmosphere. In Hill’s tenure, football’s Urban Meyer (Florida) and softball’s Jo Evans (Texas A&M) are the only head coaches who left Utah for bigger jobs.
He was 37, eight years removed from teaching math at Granger when Utah president Chase Peterson promoted Hill from director of the Crimson Club. “Oh, I wasn’t prepared at all, in a lot of ways,” he said.
Hill learned from veteran administrators in the Western Athletic Conference. “Guys, I’m going to need some help,” he told San Diego State’s Fred Miller, Hawaii’s Stan Sheriff and others.
Miller’s advice: “You have no rear-view mirror. You’re a fighter pilot.”
Hill keeps looking forward, even after 30 years on the job. Whenever his career ends, the hiring of football coaches Ron McBride, Meyer and Whittingham will rank among Hill’s best moves — mixed in with the firing of the popular McBride, who’s now in the school’s Crimson Club Hall of Fame. Majerus’ successful run as basketball coach preceded the brief stays of Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylen, before Hill landed Larry Krystkowiak in 2011.
Among Hill’s favorite stories is how his wife, Kathy, hired Meyer. During the interview process, she took a call from Meyer and urged him to get to Salt Lake City, because he was the school’s No. 1 choice. She may have weakened the Utes’ bargaining power, Hill jokes, but they got him.
Soon after hiring Majerus, Hill took him to a campus forum. The coach, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, deftly fielded a question about living among Mormons. That’s when Hill knew, “This is going to be an interesting ride.”
Good call. Majerus took the Utes to the 1998 NCAA championship game, during an adventurous, and sometimes controversial, tenure.
Gene Smith, now Ohio State’s AD and a longtime friend of Hill’s, was a member of NCAA Committee on Infractions in 2003 when Majerus’ program committed minor violations. “As challenging as it was to manage him … Chris did a masterful job with that,” said Smith, an admirer of Majerus’ work.
Smith said working at one school for a long time requires “staying cutting-edge,” as Hill has done. The adaptability covers everything from facilities to food.
“All we do is feed the athletes,” Manning joked. “I can’t imagine Chris thought that would be a big part of his job.”
It’s all part of the game now. Academic support, nutrition, psychology and medical care are major issues for student-athletes. Hill “cares about the people,” Richardson said. “He wants them to have the best experience possible.”
Evaluating coaches and keeping them happy are never-ending concerns. “The toughest thing is the coaching stuff, making the changes,” Hill said. “When you let somebody go, if it’s not ripping you apart, if it’s not killing you, if you’re not miserable for weeks when you lead up to that time, you shouldn’t have a job.”
In 2013, the school’s investigation determined that Hill should have acted sooner in firing swimming coach Greg Winslow. “We never run away from things that happen that are not good,” he said. “That’s just something you face head-on.”
Now, at age 67, Hill remains energized by Utah’s future and other issues in athletics. He’s motivated to fix basketball’s recruiting problems, joining Guerrero on a Pac-12 task force.
During a recent interview, a clue about his future came when he said, “The wonderful thing about this university is there’s still a lot ahead of us. … Now, we’ve got a chance to be a national player. That’s what the next five years brings us.”
The quotable Chris Hill
On former gymnastics coach Greg Marsden: “I liked having him around, because he would tell me when I’m full of it.”
His public persona: “The media stuff is interesting for me. I come from a family that arguing is a sport … [but] I can’t get in an argument. That’s why I clam up sometimes … It’s so counter-intuitive for me.”
Having worked for five university presidents: “Every one’s a little different. Some really are dreamers, want to make a difference, want to push the envelope, which is what we have to do here. And others are more conservative. It’s nerve-wracking to get a new person coming in. That’s what ADs will say … you have to somebody who will say, ‘OK, I support you.’ ”
Expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium: “I’ve become very tolerant of people wanting it to be big. [But] I am just bound and determined that we’re not going to have a plan in place that isn’t realistic.”