John Hartwell’s been, well, just about everywhere the last couple of weeks.
He’s been to Arizona, bounced around Southern California, then north to the Bay Area, dropped in on St. George and then Las Vegas, maneuvered around Idaho, then finally traversed to the Pacific Northwest, making stops in Seattle and Portland.
He hasn’t been alone, either. The Utah State athletic director has had some of the school’s biggest names with him during this Aggie Road Trip, in which Hartwell, football coach Gary Andersen, basketball coach Craig Smith and even USU president Noelle Cockett and various assistant coaches are meeting with Aggie alumni, boosters and donors around the West.
The blitz has been to help keep the momentum rolling from USU’s banner 2018-19 athletic year. After all, the Aggies were just one of five programs in collegiate athletics to end the year with both their football team and men’s basketball team ranked in the final AP Top 25 poll. The others: Michigan, Kentucky, LSU and Cincinnati. Each season, Hartwell admits, is its own animal, replete with its own set of achievements and varying adversities to overcome. But what he learned about his department this past year is that there is more to come.
Much more, he believes.
“The foundation is really, really solid in both of those programs,” Hartwell said while in transit to Idaho Falls this past week. “The success in football and in basketball, neither of those were what I would call a one-hit wonder. I think we have every opportunity to be just as successful going into next year. Obviously we are going to be more of the hunted as opposed to an underdog who catches some people by surprise.”
The Aggies have climbed to upper-echelon status in the Mountain West Conference in the school’s money-making sports and are back on the national radar. USU football went 11-2 last year, including a resounding bowl win after the departure of Matt Wells to Texas Tech — then brought back Andersen, who started Utah State’s football rebuild nearly a decade ago, in December.
UTAH STATE’S DOUBLE-DIP
USU Football 2018 • 11-2 (7-1 MW). Beat North Texas 52-13 in the New Mexico Bowl.
USU Men’s Basketball 2018-19 • 28-7 (15-3 MW). Lost to Washington 78-61 in the NCAA Tournament.
A few months later, Smith’s young, unheralded group defied odds, made games at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum a spectacle once again and won the school’s first regular season Mountain West title in basketball, earning its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2011.
What, then, goes into sustaining all of this sudden success in Logan?
Hartwell points to the accomplishments of last year and the other schools nationwide like Michigan, Kentucky, LSU and Cincinnati, and said USU should be proud of where it got and what sort of lofty goals are part of the equation going forward.
“When you look at three of those four schools whose budgets are at least four times what our operating budget is and then you look at Cincinnati’s, who’s about double of what ours is, I tell people that should be our expectation,” Hartwell said. “The reality is, is that going to happen every year? No. But we’ve shown we can do that. Let’s make that the expectation.”
Hartwell also said last year’s successes have allowed the Aggies to now be involved in discussions with prospective student-athletes that, in the past, USU might’ve not been in the running for. That’s a byproduct that could send positive shockwaves throughout the athletics department for seasons to come if the winning continues. There is definitely room at the top for USU to remain a perennial contender in the MWC, to challenge the Boise State’s in football and the Nevada’s and San Diego State’s in basketball.
“Everybody else is aspiring to do the same thing,” Hartwell said. “We’ve got to continue to invest wisely.”
That includes investing in facilities, in coaches and student-athlete welfare initiatives. Hartwell said there are no massive facility upgrades on the horizon, not like the recently-completed $36 million makeover on the west side of Maverik Stadium. But there are some facility projects he estimates in the $2 to $5 million range that USU will look to get underway in the next two to three years. In a bid to boost fundraising, the Aggies added former Weber State AD Jerry Bovee, a USU alumnus, to the mix this spring, as an assistant athletic director.
Additionally, Hartwell said, renovations to the Spectrum will be something the university and the athletic department will pursue going forward. The Spectrum opened in 1970 and the amenities, Hartwell said, need to be improved. It would behoove the university too, he added, to look into making access to seating easier for fans rather than making the long climb up or down the stairwells around the arena.
“The core of our facilities is really good,” Hartwell continued. “We’ve got to make sure we do things operationally to complement facilities, our coaching salaries, find a way to do more charter flights for our men’s and women’s basketball teams.”
The new athletics season begins in a few months, when Andersen’s Aggies take a cross-country flight to take on Wake Forest on August 30. That season opener is a little more than three months away and Hartwell said it’s been easy having Andersen back in his old stomping grounds.
“With him having been here before, there was very little learning curve for him — he was able to pop right in,” Hartwell said. “Some of the things he’s been able to do, get our NFL players and other former players heavily engaged. That’s been tremendous. Just the excitement and the buzz both from current football student-athletes and community and beyond has been great.”
And while football and basketball nab most of the headlines, Hartwell wanted to point out that USU’s success went beyond the gridiron and the hardwood last year. The Aggies had nearly 70 student-athletes graduate and had a 92 percent graduation rate which is part of the MWC’s top graduation percentage.
“All 400 student-athletes have excelled in various ways,” he said.