Between brief peeks at her cellphone and scanning the vast football facility for an ideal place to stand idly and pose, she picks her head up to say hello to everyone. Because everyone knows her and she still has a job to do. You all may not know her name — she’d very much prefer that — but her work over the past four decades in Salt Lake City has played a key role in the swift rise of Utah athletics. So on this weekday morning, one of her last weeks on the job, the irony is not lost on Liz Abel. She’s trying to think of a spot for a photo that will help tell her story.
For years and years, she often helped facilitate such requests when photojournalists drove up to campus in search of a fresh photo to accompany a profile or feature story of a student-athlete. Now she’s the one in focus. She’d prefer not to be, but she relinquishes any hesitation. After 36 years of doing just about everything, Abel eventually is perched on the winding staircase between the first and second floor of the Eccles Football Complex. When she’s not mocking herself, she points out trivia plastered all over the walls.
She points to the plaque that leads players from the facility to the strength and conditioning facility that former Ute great Alex Smith helped build. Back in 2004, she said, as Urban Meyer and a bunch of eventual household names changed the sports landscape of this state forever, Abel and Smith used to organize blocks of phone interviews with national media members in the wee hours of the night. He had practice and class, but the Utes were inching their way onto the national scene, and Smith was a Heisman Trophy contender, a Salt Lake City-made superstar. So they planned out interview after interview for weeks on end that fall.
Those two seasons under Meyer, Abel says even now, were a brilliant blur — just everything she loved about the job she always coveted from the time she was in her 20s. It was chaotic at times, unexpected as anything, because even now, who thought Utah could go unbeaten? Who thought Utah could go unbeaten twice? After 36 years in Utah red, Abel is stepping away into retirement as senior associate athletics director and director of communications. It’s time, she said. But before her last day on July 31, Abel is asked to rehash four decades of work, of managing relationships between old-school media members vs. the realm of the new-school blogosphere, and all along knowing that she loved every single minute of it.
How did she do it all these years?
Here’s Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who worked alongside Abel since the 1990s: “Wow,” he said. “Where to begin?”
A sports information director, for those unfamiliar with the gray area where the world of college athletics and media intersect, is a primary point of contact. Good news or bad, rumors or truth, that’s where you have to go in order to round out your due diligence.
It’s where you go to pitch a feature story or profile, or a photo portrait of an athlete somewhere after practice or elsewhere. It’s where you request a seat in a press box at home or on the road. The list goes on, too. Now, as she sits on a chair in the same room where Whittingham carries out his weekly news conferences, she can only laugh because when people ask her how she’s managed to do the job and evolve with the advent of various new media outlets, the internet, social media, and just about everything else, she has a go-to answer.
“I say this job is not even remotely the same,” she says.
Not even close, really.
Back in the ’80s, Utah athletics wasn’t exactly a burgeoning beat for any aspiring sports writer. The basketball teams were pretty good. Gymnastics was a contender, as was skiing. But in football, the Utes were second fiddle to LaVell Edwards’ BYU Cougars and were for quite some time. Abel’s first year at Utah was the year BYU won the national title in 1983-84. Sports coverage, of course, wasn’t close to the 24/7 news cycle it is now.
When she became one of the first female SIDs in the country in 1989, she set out to help Utah get more coverage of a football program that didn’t have much of a history of winning consistently. "I hope I wasn’t too much of a pest. I was at everything. I was always in the reporters’ ears,” she said. The sports media realm was ancient compared with what it is now, back when reporters and coaches would often commiserate together in off-the-record scenarios so rarely seen now.
Now? Suffice to say it’s hard to imagine this current media world around college athletics and the Utes 30 years ago when Abel’s first year as football SID began. With Utah’s winning ways came more attention. With more attention came more reporters, and later, more fan-driven blog sites that also wanted in on the Utes’ successes. Utah’s eventual inclusion in the Pac-12 Conference only added to the media hype and more recorders and cameras.
“Obviously,” she said, “it’s become a little bit of a circus.”
ABOUT LIZ ABEL
Title » Senior associate athletics director at the University of Utah
Trail Blazer » After 36 years in the Utah athletics department, Liz Abel is retiring on July 31. Abel has overseen the communications department within the athletic department for decades. She became one of the first female sports information directors for college football in 1989 and has also overseen the Utah gymnastics program since the 1980s as well.
So long gone now are the days of pulling star players off the field during pre-practice stretches for a quick TV, print or radio interview. Protocol has changed as more faces representing sites show up wanting to interview star student-athletes. Expectations are as high as ever, meaning the stakes are, too.
“With so many different mediums out there now, it used to be the newspaper and the 10 o’clock news and that was it,” Whittingham said. “And now, it’s so much more involved. Everything is under a microscope now. Everything you do is under a microscope now. I couldn’t have done it without her. She was the main reason I was able to function in this position in dealing with media and the PR aspect of the job.”
The only time Chris Hill recalls getting into it with Abel was when he told her that she needed to take some time off. Maybe a vacation somewhere. Take a breather.
“Then she told me to take a hike,” said Hill, Utah’s longtime athletic director from 1987 to 2018.
There were, however, several opportunities to go elsewhere over the years. Places with more perceived prestige. Larger cities and student bodies. More money. But Abel said Hill convinced her to stick it out, that if she trusted what they all set out to do decades ago, the Utes could become a player on the national stage. At staff retreats back in the early 90s, Abel said, they used to talk about the required blueprint to, perhaps, get into the then Pac-10 one day.
“It was a big priority and what people don’t know and what I’d like them to know is she was more than just her profession,” said Hill. “She was a key, key person in those decisions we made and just helping me and the university move in the right direction.”
The Pac-12 process was somewhat memorable in that her phone never stopped ringing. National media members and local reporters alike wouldn’t stop dialing, asking for an update or a scoop on the Pac-12 rumors. One writer called one night begging for information, saying that he was getting married in two days time and that if the news broke and he didn’t have a story ready to go, he’d be fired on the spot.
“Now this guy’s life and marriage is on me?” Abel laughed reminiscing.
Managing personalities — from coaches to player to incessant reporters — is and has always been part of the gig. But it stretched so far beyond that, too. There’s having to be an encyclopedia of information and facts, there’s keeping running track of archival statistics and figuring out how to uncover ancient box scores that Abel eventually did back in the ’80s. She started archiving photos of student-athletes over the decades, too. She helped get Utah’s vast internet and social media presence off the ground. (Yes, she even remembers when she had to stress out over athletes’ MySpace pages).
The explosion of social media “rocked our world,” she said. But like everyone else, they rolled with it.
Just like the time a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer would call her home phone at odd hours of the night to gauge a potential Top 25 ranking for the Utah women’s basketball team. Or the time Utah’s pre-fax machine era telecopier caught ablaze because it was being overworked during an NCAA Tournament stop in town. And the time Rick Majerus demanded that Liz oversee basketball when the Runnin’ Utes were king around these parts.
“I just don’t know how she did it all,” Hill said.
In 36 years, Liz Abel helped Utah tell the stories of its athletes, of future Heisman candidates, No. 1 overall picks, BCS busters, Olympic hopefuls, landers of a Perfect 10, of somewhat closed-off head coaches and countless others. She did so by letting others in. Sometimes at arm’s length, sometimes not, but always knowing there was information to be relayed to a fan base so eager for change, so eager for wins and so eager to be entertained.