Kragthorpe: Chris Hill’s Ute legacy includes Pac-12 membership and a 30-year tenure that will never be matched

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah Athletics Director Chris Hill does a radio interview following after announcing his plan to retire this spring after 31years. In background are former athletic directors and coaches on display at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on campus on Monday, March 26, 2018. Hill is the longest actively tenured athletics director at the same school in the NCAA FBS.

All of this happened because Chris Hill started driving west on I-80 without a job in the interest of romance, because Olympus High School once chose someone else to coach the Titans’ basketball team and because he liked living in Utah so much that he never left.

Hill’s 30-plus-year tenure as the University of Utah’s athletic director will end later this spring, when he walks out of the Huntsman Center and into retirement. He’ll always believe he was an unlikely choice for his position, but that’s not the biggest improbability of his story.

In the current landscape of college athletics, nobody else ever will thrive — or even survive — in a job like this for so long. The scrutiny, the demands from multiple angles and the inevitable failure to satisfy everyone will reduce the shelf for Hill’s successor or anyone in this business.

The challenge of getting through his emotional farewell news conference Monday was rivaled only by his pursuit of the position in 1987, having worked in the athletic department as a fund-raiser for two years. Informed that Hill got the job, a friend marveled, “They really gave it to you.”

Hill, 68, labeled the AD’s job description “crying in the tough times and celebrating in the good times.” In 30 years, he experienced plenty of moments at each extreme. His legacy? Hill is proud to have created “a culture that we care about each other,” he said, “and we’re not afraid of lofty goals.”

“He’s left a great launching pad for the next AD,” said Spence Eccles, a major donor to the school.

Greg Marsden, formerly the school’s longtime gymnastics coach, credited Hill with “just an amazing career.”

Imperfect, too. 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 the department’s relationship with football coach Kyle Whittingham in recent years.

Not to be lost amid the missteps is a career that featured Utah’s joining the Pac-12 Conference, the biggest athletic accomplishment for any school in the state’s history. Hill helped make that happen. The same is true of all of the Utes’ biggest moments of the past 30 years, with his hiring of Majerus and Urban Meyer transforming the basketball and football programs and positioning Utah for success in a Power Five league.

“Who would have ever believed we’d become part of the Pac-12,” Marsden said, “and be so quickly competitive?”

Hill thought all of that was possible. The part that still seems far-fetched to him is how he ended up in this position at all. He once figured to follow his the career path of his father, a teacher who became a superintendent in New Jersey — at 37, Hill’s age when Utah president Chase Peterson “took an unbelievable risk” to promote him.

A former graduate assistant basketball coach, Hill returned to the campus after being overlooked in Olympus’ coaching search, having done good work for four years at Granger High. Because of love, he originally had come back to the state after planning to do graduate work and coach at Duke. Hill landed a job teaching math at Eisenhower Junior High in Taylorsville, married Kathy Cronin and never left Utah.

The irony of his initial impact as Utah’s athletic director is that everyone who knew him in his brief tenure as the friendly director of the Crimson Club had this view: Nice guy, but is he tough enough to fire people?

Hill’s New Jersey background should have answered that question; any doubt was removed within two years as he replaced Lynn Archibald and Jim Fassel, the basketball and football coaches he inherited, upgrading with Majerus and Ron McBride.

“That’s why he made the University of Utah better,” Marsden said. “He was never satisfied and he was willing to make difficult decisions and take the heat for them.”

The New Jersey nature resurfaced briefly Monday. He ended a story that included the phrase “How the hell do you think I’m doing?” by wryly referencing the Pac-12′s fining him in January for his language in an argument with the coordinator of officials that was overheard in a postgame news conference.

Otherwise, he was reflective and thankful, while promising to finish strong in the next two months by returning to fund-raising roots and targeting $20 million toward the expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium.

After speaking for 20 minutes and fielding a few questions Monday, Hill paused. Having succeeded in staving off some of his emotions, he smiled and said, “I made it through.”

The truth is, Hill did more than merely finish his job. He didn’t do it perfectly, but he did it better and longer than it ever will be done around here again.