If Chris Hill had it his way, this story would end right about here.
Because for as much as he wants next week be a normal one, just like all the thousands of normal work weeks that preceded, it won’t be. And to Hill, that’s probably his last fight: Making sure there isn’t a fuss. He does not want any sort of fuss. If he could, he’d hit the light switch in his office one last time, walk out to his car and drive to his grandkids’ ballgame, and that’d be that.
But June 1 will be an event either way. When you’ve done what Hill’s done, when you’ve transformed an entire institution the way Hill has in his 31 years as athletic director at the University of Utah, your so long, your farewell, won’t be without an outpouring of sentiment.
As Hill readies for his last week on the job, he’s got his checklist of to-dos, including the promise he made when he surprisingly announced his retirement on March 26. He still wants to hit the $20 million mark to help fund the impending Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion project, the last project on his lengthy career bucket list.
“Well,” Hill said before taking a deep breath, “I have nothing to lose by putting myself under the gun. Part of it was me just saying I need to focus a little bit on my way out and I’ll do the best I can and then we’ll move on.”
His poker face is impressive.
Admittedly, he has already wrestled with bouts of nostalgia — and expects to again in the next week — but says he doesn’t expect to be overcome with emotion. But those close to Hill already are. Colleagues of his are happy to reflect on his landscape-altering tenure at a university that wouldn’t be where it is today without the foresight of this energetic, determined New Jersey guy.
Steve Hess, the chief information officer at Utah, arrived at the university around the same time as Hill. And the two have remained confidants ever since. Hess’s first impression of Hill still rings true to this day: Enthusiastic, passionate, a Utah-man first.
“There was never anything in his mind that wasn’t an action the next day,” said Hess. “He coalesced people around an idea, and then boom, it happened. That’s quite a talent. It was fun to watch. He thought he could do anything. He thought he could take the university to where it needed to be. And he stuck with the university. He got all kinds of offers and he’d always analyze them. He just loved the place and cared about the place. We’re so glad he did.”
The Hill Effect will always revolve around his landmark moves, around his maneuvering to get Utah to join the Pac-12 Conference, to hire superstar coaches like Rick Majerus, Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham. Since joining the Pac-12, Utah has built four state-of-the-art facilities for football, basketball, softball and skiing.
But his friends say it’s easy to point at what he was able to accomplish, because while it’s set in stone and part of Utah history, it’s his work behind-the-scenes, beyond the news clips, that they believe define Hill as a person.
“He doesn’t need the limelight,” said Barbara Snyder, vice president of student affairs who has worked closely with Hill for the past 14 years.
When Hill was needed to be a sounding board, he dove in head-first the way he did with his own aspirations as athletic director. If there was an issue requiring some advice, Hess or Snyder would dial Hill’s extension first.
“He’s someone who has always tried to make things better, take them to the next level,” said Fred Esplin, vice president of university relations at Utah, who like Hess, started at the school with Hill around the same time. “Let’s not be satisfied and rest on our laurels. That’s just who the man is.”
One of Snyder’s favorite stories transpired just last August as the rare solar eclipse was taking place. Snyder and Hill had a meeting planned around the time the eclipse was ready to be viewed. Hill was making his way to her office, but before he did, she phoned to see if he could bring over some extra glasses. It was that day, Snyder said, that she saw how much he loved his job, because while the meeting was important, he took some time to stand outside the university bookstore and glance up at the sky alongside a chunk of the student body like anyone else.
“He said, ‘I live in my athletic world and I don’t get to see this part of the campus. This is something I’ll never forget,’” Snyder recalled.
It isn’t far-fetched to say Utah will never have another like Chris Hill. For one more week, he’s the longest-tenured Division I athletic director at the same school.
“Will we ever again? I’m not sure,” Hess said. “They say millennials just don’t stick around. And, many times, they just want a notch here and then to go up the ladder themselves, but Chris was not like that.”
Hill stuck it out, because as his close friends say, he had something to prove, to the rest of college athletics, but to himself, too. Esplin said Hill was never satisfied with average, and took pride in weathering the tough days that always accompany a job of such stature.
“You know how hazardous that job can be,” Esplin said, “even if you’re doing it well.”
For another week, Hill is looking for things to get done. As he vowed when he announced his retirement in March, he’s staying away from the ongoing search process for his own replacement. He even said May is a tortuous month, because it’s when everything winds down, it gets down to snail mode. All the spring sports are either done or close to being done. Utah got through its budget calendar fine, Hill said.
“It’s just that time of year I have the most trouble with because it’s just a full-speed thing until right about now,” he said. “It’s just a regular job.”
No matter how hard he tries to downplay his departure, they can’t let Hill slip away without commemorating his career at the U. There’s a small event planned for next week — “but very small,” said Snyder — because as Hill has noted, “If you have something big, I won’t be there.” That’s about the extent of his final weak plea.
Honor his time in red with him, not for him.
“We’re going to quietly celebrate him,” Snyder said.