On Friday morning, a red Ute-branded coach bus will open its doors, and when Chris Hill eventually takes his first step on, it officially signals the end to the most important era in the history of Utah athletics.
It’s his official au revoir as the history-making athletic director waves goodbye to the job he’s held for the last 31 years.
When the bus pulls out of the circle on the south side of the Huntsman Center, it will take with it all modern Utah athletics has ever known, taking with it a principal portion of the university’s identity into the sunset.
So, where does Utah go from here? It waits.
The search firm hired by the school in early May remains in the process of gathering potential candidates to present to Utah President Ruth V. Watkins. Chad Chatlos, a partner at the Ventura Partners firm hired by the university said the firm is “very happy with the process,” but due to the confidential nature of the search, was not able to expand on potential candidates or timelines.
What Hill leaves behind is a department in tiptop shape, with proven coaches in vital positions, key facility upgrades finished and a longtime stadium expansion plan underway. What kind of new AD does a Utah need to fill the shoes Hill will vacate on Friday?
To Jon Wilner, a leading expert on the Pac-12 for the Bay Area News Group, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be all that difficult. Utah is a school on the rise in the Pac-12, competitive on all crucial fronts, but as Wilner explained, it remains a unique situation due to its cultural backdrop, and unique situations demand familiarity.
“They’re in a pretty good place, and if you’re in a pretty good place, don’t you usually aim for continuity?” Wilner said. “When Utah football was rolling and [Urban] Meyer left, they promoted from within … To me, it’s the same thing with the AD as a coach, in a lot of respects. If things are going right, why change?”
Deputy athletics director Kyle Brennan, who has worked with Hill at Utah since 2008, would be the most logical choice, Wilner said. Brennan accepted the AD job at Montana State two years ago before a change of heart brought him back to Salt Lake City. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called Brennan “a superstar in the making” the day Hill announced his impending retirement in March.
Sources close to the situation say there has been significant interest in the Utah AD job from all levels across the country. The job Hill has done ushering the Utes into the Pac-12 and maintaining a competitive culture — all while managing the department in a fiscally responsible way — is appealing, sources say.
“It’s not a win-at-all-costs type mentality [at Utah],” said one source, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic. “I think that has made the job very attractive.”
The foundation is solid, but the next AD will have to tackle challenges, said FOX Sports national reporter Bruce Feldman. The Pac-12 is struggling at the moment, having belly-flopped both during the bowl season (a combined 1-8 record) and in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (three teams out before the second round). The under-performing Pac-12 Network also remains a hot-button issue, as always.
“I think the question is going to be, how do you balance the university’s interest with the conference and taking leadership with the conference and taking that voice,” Feldman said. “Whoever gets this job, I think, is going to have to balance being a visionary and running the business of University of Utah athletics with also being a leader in where does the Pac-12 go? To me, it’s a lot of moving parts.”
The next AD will certainly have the benefit of having of having proven head coaches in place in the school’s revenue-generated programs such as football, basketball and gymnastics. While much of the Pac-12 has experienced its share of upheaval in the office and on the sidelines recent years, Utah’s remained the example of consistency.
Hill retires as the longest-tenured AD at a Division I school. Whittingham, who enters his 14th season as head coach at Utah, is the longest-tenured coach in the conference and tied for the third longest-tenured coach in college football behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and TCU’s Gary Patterson. Feldman said Utah should be inviting, first and foremost, because of the culture that has been cultivated in Salt Lake.
“There’s an element to it that has an SEC-feel in terms of passionate fan base that takes pride in what they have — an identity,” Feldman said.
Stewart Mandel, the editor of The All-American at The Athletic, said one pitfall Utah should avoid is searching out potential ADs who get “bogged down by the business side” athletics.
“That can come at the expense of the actual teams and the performance of the teams,” Mandel said. “As important as fundraising and marketing and all those things are in today’s college landscape, at the end of the day, Utah’s success as an athletic department will be determined by how good they are on the field and how good they are on the court.”
A priority, Wilner warns, should be finding someone who views the Utah gig as a destination job, not as a stepping stone. Kind of like Hill, who had several top-tier schools come calling over the decades, but after 31 years, will step on the red coach bus Friday morning leaving behind a legacy and something different forthcoming for his beloved Utes.