Utah AD Mark Harlan thrilled Utes are playing, but says budget challenges remain in shortened football season

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) University of Utah president, Ruth Watkins, left, with head football coach Kyle Whittingham, center, and athletic director Mark Harlan, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

Operating with his normally steadfast, even-keeled public demeanor, Mark Harlan opened a Zoom call with the assembled media Friday afternoon by leaving no doubt about how he was feeling.

In the wake of the Pac-12 announcing its plans for a fall football season less than 24 hours earlier, Harlan said delivering that news Thursday to his student-athletes and coaches was “really one of the best moments of my entire career.”

Harlan’s stance is not an overreaction, but a justifiable embrace of positive news after what has been an awfully-tough six months for him and his athletic department.

The Pac-12 will open a seven-games-in-seven-weeks schedule the weekend of Nov. 6-7. The schedule is not complete, but Harlan expects it to be done by the end of next week. While Thursday brought the news that Utah will play the other five South Division opponents, Friday brought further clarity that the Utes will host Arizona and USC, while traveling to Colorado, UCLA and Arizona State. Utah’s sixth regular-season game will be a crossover game vs. a North opponent. Harlan indicated that it will be a home game to give Utah three home and three away. The location of the seventh game, also against a crossover foe, is yet to be determined.

Training camp will begin Oct. 9 or 10. Before camp starts, the Utes can stay in the NCAA-mandated 12-hour work window for teams affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, or switch to the normal in-season 20-hour work window. Kyle Whittingham and his staff are working through that decision.

“I can’t speak for all my colleagues, but where I came to on this matter is, we don’t know how many games we’re going to get in,” said Harlan, implying that case spikes within the Pac-12 footprint may still dictate scheduling moving forward. “We may lose games along the way, the way it’s set up. There is no place to put the games. So if we’re playing a Pac-12 game and it so happens to be a crossover, they’ve got to count. And I think that’s where our coaches and athletic directors, by and by, netted out, too.”

The Pac-12 has given itself no wiggle room to move games around if any have to be called off because of the pandemic. That is a realistic negative factor Utah now must face, as is the fact that, while its athletic department projects to be in a better spot financially with football being played this fall, the situation still appears to be quite dire.

Without football of any kind, Harlan last month was projecting a deficit of $50-60 million in his fiscal 2021 operating budget. As a result, there have been departmental layoffs, while the entire 200-plus person group is part of a furlough program, ranging from 2-9 weeks. The furloughs, Harlan said, will continue as to not stray from his budgeting plan that is now in motion.

Each football game Utah plays means there is broadcast revenue coming into the athletic department. Best-case scenario now, the Utes play seven games plus a bowl game, but there is simply no way to determine right now how many games they, not to mention the rest of the Pac-12, will ultimately play.

“We can pull out our abacus, and look how many games are on our schedule, and do the average television number, but we just don’t know how many of those games are going to get in,” Harlan said. “We have to go in with the assumption that that’s a great unknown and as such, we need to stay the course as it relates to our budget management.”

While the football schedule is expected to be released by the end of next week, Harlan is hopeful decisions can be made for basketball under the same timetable.

Pac-12 coaches had a call with league commissioner Larry Scott Thursday evening to discuss the parameters of the conference schedule. Models of 18 and 20 games are on the table, but it is believed that the 20-game model is preferred. The league was set to move to 20 league games for the first time this winter before the pandemic hit.

Once that is settled, assuming 20 league games, the Utes can finalize the non-conference portion of the schedule, which can include up to seven games. The prestigious Battle 4 Atlantis is off, but the majority of that eight-team field will reportedly participate in an event still being discussed by the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Fall, S.D. Sioux Falls-based Sanford Health would handle the testing, making it a viable option for the Utes.

“We know within our league that anybody that we play out of conference in basketball or others as we move forward is going to have an expectation of testing 24 hours before a contest,” Harlan said. “So, we’re going to have to align with nonconference teams that have to adhere to that to be able to play, whether it’s home on the road.”

On Utah’s original nonconference schedule, aside from Atlantis, the Utes had seven other games, but only one of those opponents, Missouri, would have to adhere to a Power Five level of testing. Utah also had BYU on the original schedule, but it’s unclear if that game will take place in 2020-21.