Chris Hill had, I swear, two diminutive apparitions over his opposite shoulders that day nearly eight years ago, the day it was announced in a crowded fourth-level box at Rice-Eccles Stadium that Utah was headed for what would now be known as the Pac-12.
One was an angel, the other a devil.
One represented all the hard work Hill had put in to make that day happen, and the promise of what could come next. The other illustrated the difficult challenge of lifting the Utes to a position of competitive equality in one of the country’s top leagues.
Be careful what you work and wish for because … well, you got it.
As red-and-white balloons glistened in the background, as the governor made an appearance, along with Pac-12 officials, Tournament of Roses officials, prominent boosters, university officials, and hundreds of fans, Hill heard both ghosts whispering in his ears.
Wearing a dark suit and an expression of gratitude, Hill addressed the gathering with a notable measure of humility. In a moment that realized big dreams and more than two decades of prep and labor, that was the overall bearing of the central figure in Utah’s ascension. There was no arrogance. The man of that hour had stuck a large name tag on his lapel, as though nobody would know who he was without it.
The first words out of his mouth at the lectern were: “It’s a great day to be a Ute.” He added: “We just have to keep going.” And: “This is what we hoped for.”
At a press conference on Monday, Hill announced his retirement after 31 years atop Utah’s athletics department with a similar sense of gratitude. And those same two little apparitions were there, again. One representing all the things Hill could look forward to in his golden years, free of the day-to-day grind of running a department, the other with the plumbing backed up in its eyes, all sad and sentimental, saying goodbye to a place where Hill had been longer than any AD anywhere in the land.
But, deep down, Hill doesn’t care so much about that. He loved his job at Utah, and that’s one of the reasons he stayed for so long. He’s proud of the things he helped accomplish, foremost among them the achievement described above. That three-decade span had its highs and lows, its ebbs and flows, its reaps and its sows.
When he was hired as a 37-year-old novice in 1987, with a background as an educator, a fundraiser, and an assistant basketball coach, people — important people around the university — were worried.
“There were those who thought we were crazy,” former Utah vice president Ted Capener once told me. “I took a lot of guff for hiring him.”
Hill rolled straight into his new office, commencing his directorship by firing football coach Jim Fassel and basketball coach Lynn Archibald. When he fired Fassel, Hill said: “I broke out in a cold sweat, got the shakes. I’m quietly an emotional kind of guy. Passionate. It was hard.”
That began a string of undulations that included hiring Rick Majerus — “Not the safest thing to do,” he said — and Ron McBride, and later, after competitively successful runs, unloading them. He hired Urban Meyer and Ray Giacoletti, fired Giacoletti and hired Jim Boylen. He fired Boylen and hired Larry Krystkowiak.
He hired Kyle Whittingham and later feuded with him. He patched that up just enough to keep Whittingham around. And he survived Utah’s swim team coaching scandal. He nearly oversaw the termination of the Utah-BYU rivalry games, but later thought better of it. He ticked off some people, more than a few who worked with and under him, and he made some folks happy.
I was one of the folks who angered him — more than once.
I criticized him for the way he fired McBride. I brought up and underscored the fight he had with Whittingham. I ripped him for the way he was handling the suspension of Utah-BYU rivalry games. Once, I undiplomatically called him a liar on the radio. And he fired off a news release — a first, to my knowledge, for a mad AD — to denounce me.
When I called him to apologize, man to man, for the aggressive language in describing his bending of the truth, he refused to accept my apology.
No hard feelings.
Here’s the real truth: Chris Hill lifted Utah sports in a major way. An important way. A profound way.
My memories of Hill include a long interview I had with him years ago, trying to uncover who he really was, under all the veneer.
“I’m a nondescript guy who likes being in the background, knowing I’m a part of this deal,” he said. “I like being there, having an influence for good or bad, being involved. But I don’t want to go to a restaurant and have everyone know who I am. … It’s just about right. I have a life, my family, my buddies. I have to be more careful in public than I would with another job. I look at it this way: If I come in puking on my shoes, that’s not going to be good.”
He added: “I’m a sarcastic wise-ass person, too.”
One of Hill’s golfing buddies said of him: “He’s got a big heart and an active mind. If we’re playing the sixth hole, he’s not thinking about No. 6, he’s already thinking about No. 13. One time, he told me what his swing thoughts were … my god, it took him two minutes. That’s the way he is, in golf, in his job, and in life.”
Hill was always thinking seven holes ahead.
“Some days, I want to pay the university for letting me do this job,” he said. “Other days, they couldn’t pay me enough.”
The Irish-Catholic kid who grew up near the New Jersey shore, who played basketball — and once was put on academic probation for dialing in too much on his favorite sport, who went to Rutgers before coming to Utah and marrying a local girl, found a home here on the Wasatch Front.
Back then, Hill explained why he stayed at Utah:
“People ask me why, the guys back in Jersey. I tell them, ‘I’m at my office, it’s 5 p.m. I’ll be home in two minutes. I’ll get 18 holes in in three hours. … So, how are you guys doing? Stuck in the middle of traffic on the Garden State Parkway? Eh … eh … eh?’”
He settled for running Utah athletics and loving most parts of his life.
Lastly, looking another seven holes ahead, Hill said: “When I die, I don’t want people to say, ‘He was a good athletic director.’ That’s the last damn thing I want them to say. I want them to say I was a good husband, a good father, a good friend. … I want them to say, I’m a good guy.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.