Chris Hill will pack up his things and leave his office inside the Huntsman Center this spring after three decades as the University of Utah’s athletics director. And when he does, Hill doesn’t plan on coming back often to visit.
“I’m not going to be somebody who’s going to be around a lot,” he said when he announced his retirement earlier this month. “… I won’t be hovering over somebody.”
The department’s longtime leader, however, will leave a list for whoever moves in next.
The university has yet to officially begin searching for Hill’s replacement. University president Ruth Watkins is in the process of forming a search committee to vet potential hires, which could include current assistant athletics director Kyle Brennan.
“I think the program’s in pretty good shape,” Hill said. “I think we’ve got good things going.”
But after navigating the U. through three decades, multiple conferences, coaches, and construction projects, Hill knows there’s always something that needs to be done.
Whenever the new AD does arrive, these are the issues Hill believes will be the most pressing in the coming years:
Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion and other capital projects
The university’s football stadium is getting a makeover, possibly as early as 2021. The Utes have sold out the 45,000-seat stadium (one of the smallest in the Pac-12 Conference) for 51 straight football games, and officials already have begun making plans for expanding seating in the south end zone.
Hill says he is on track to raise $20 million for the project before he retires. The new athletics director will be tasked with raising at least another $5 million and seeing the job — one Hill has called “the biggest, the most important project and the most expensive project we’re going to do in the next 20 years” — to completion.
The university additionally will need new facilities for soccer, lacrosse and baseball in the near future.
The Pac-12 Network and TV rights
The Pac-12 Network continues to be a disappointment. Each school in the conference received about $2.5 million from the network’s revenues, according to one recent analysis. Compare that to the $8 million the schools in the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences earned from their own networks, and it becomes clear how the Pac-12 has fallen behind.
“That has got to be solved,” Hill said. “As a league, we’re starting to slip behind in finances. … Unfortunately, from my standpoint, I don’t see it changing much until the contract is up” in 2023-24.
Hill also worries about cord-cutters and the potential for the TV bubble to burst, leaving conferences and schools to deal with revenue cuts in the next round of network negotiations.
Head injuries in football
With lawsuits pending against nearly every major collegiate athletics conference in the country and a growing body of research, the long-term effects of concussions and head trauma have become apparent.
“It is a huge, national concern,” Hill said.
Utah and the Pac-12 have taken some steps to address safety and further concussion research. What more can be done? And what is football’s future in a world where the reality of concussions and CTE are part of the collective conscience?
Paying the players
The FBI’s probe into college athletics has touched programs across the country — including at Utah, where former star forward Kyle Kuzma reportedly took $9,500 in loans and cash advances from agents while in school.
The sweeping investigations have dug up a number of allegations, but it also has reignited the debate over the value of the NCAA’s amateur model. Whoever replaces Hill will have to navigate changes in the system, which could impact revenue sports such as football and basketball as well as the university’s Olympic sports.
“That’s one of the huge challenges,” Hill said. “From my standpoint, the colleges have to get together with the different pro leagues and make a viable minor league, where kids who don’t want to be in college can play and get paid.”
Hill pointed to the escalating cost of coaching salaries as a major issue in the case for amateurism in college sports.
“We wouldn’t have this much debate if the salaries for coaches and conference commissioners and administrators weren’t so high,” he said. “There’s so much money there. All of us have that challenge and nobody wants to unilaterally disarm.”
Can the U. be elite?
When Hill finalized Utah’s move to the Pac-12, it was a game-changer for the university’s athletics program. The school went from about $31 million in athletics revenue in FY2010 to more than $80 million in revenue in FY2017.
That alone, Hill said, is not enough.
“You’re either going up or you’re going down,” he said. “Where do we go from here with the Pac-12? I think we’ve established ourselves as a solid program that can do some good things. But are you making the moves to get to the highest level and be a true national player and a national champion in different sports? It’s a big challenge. I’m hoping there won’t be complacency in the university.”
Prepare for high-profile coaching changes
Kyle Whittingham happily is preparing for the fall. At some point, though, the face of Utah football will change. The 58-year-old Whittingham already has negotiated what amounts to a retirement plan into his contract with the university. That deal runs through the 2021 season.
“Nothing affects a program more than a good coach,” Hill said.
The future of the rivalry with BYU
Hill has dealt with a changing dynamic as Utah settles into the Pac-12 and BYU navigates independence.
Hill calls the rivalry “a big part of our fabric”.
“I think it will be fine for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Will the next AD share his sentiments?