Mark Harlan’s experience includes working with college football programs that play at the iconic Rose Bowl (UCLA) and a modern NFL stadium (South Florida), giving those schools some distinction in the sport.
Yet the way Rice-Eccles Stadium acts as a centerpiece of the University of Utah campus is “a beautiful thing,” Harlan said after an introduction that made him seem like a perfect fit for the Utes.
“Wow.” That was Harlan’s first word, after the welcome from school president Ruth V. Watkins, and that’s a nice, crisp summary of the first impression he made on the stadium’s press box level Monday. Watkins joked how the Utes were “a little rusty” in searching for an athletic director after Chris Hill’s 31 years on the job. You never would have known that, judging by the results.
A Los Angeles native, Harlan looked and sounded like someone sent over from Central Casting for an AD, complete with a photogenic family and just the right fraction of gray hair. Barely glancing at his notes, he said everything anyone could have wanted to hear from him, while promising to “follow through on everything that [Hill] built here. … I believe strongly that everything’s in place for us.”
Harlan came across as an outsider who will blend in nicely, with a Pac-12 background and the experience of administering a South Florida program that’s just below the Power Five level. By all appearances, Utah got this one right.
The Utes could have promoted deputy AD Kyle Brennan and celebrated the move with the same number of red and white balloons. We all would have repeated football coach Kyle Whittingham’s quote that Brennan is “a superstar in the making.”
Hiring from within has its merits; it sure seems to be working for Utah with Watkins in the Park Building. Yet this was a chance for the Utes to raise their sights for the big office in the Huntsman Center, and that’s what they’ve done. Brennan remains on board, giving the department some continuity and in-house knowledge, while Utah a broader perspective from Harlan.
So this truly was a national search, after all, and it was conducted smoothly. The default position is to deride the value of search firms in these matters, but Ventura Partners executed this one well. Maybe it helped that Brennan or former Ute administrator Doug Knuth of Nevada were provincial favorites, but Harlan’s name never surfaced in connection with this job before Friday, when the announcement came.
Think of the hiring this way: Brennan once briefly took the Montana State job, before choosing to stay at Utah. In the moment he left, it was assumed that he someday would return to Utah. As it turned out, the Utes got an AD from USF, instead of MSU. That’s an upgrade.
It should be said that not everything went perfectly for Harlan in Tampa, with a basketball coach hiring process that was derailed by a falsified resume issue and ultimately resulted in a poor choice. But his hiring of football coach Charlie Strong has worked very well, and USF has enjoyed fund-raising success and broad-based athletic achievement.
The Utes expect more of the same from Harlan, who promised to provide “the very best student-athlete experience in the country” and “the best fan experience in this country.”
Boosters will like this guy. Utah needs to develop the next generation of donors, and Harlan sounds like someone who can make that happen.
Harlan’s ties to the Utes go back to his days as an Arizona football manager, when Ron McBride was the Wildcats’ offensive line coach — just before becoming Utah’s head coach. Harlan laughed about receiving a text message from Mac, trying to picture the old-school guy operating a smartphone.
“I’ve got a lot of Ron McBride stories,” he said, almost mischievously.
And he’s familiar with the Utes, from his recent UCLA tenure. “When you played Utah,” he said, “you were in a fight.”
Harlan scheduled a home-and-home football series between USF and BYU in 2019 and ’21. He hedged slightly regarding the future with the Cougars, saying he needs to know more about each school’s needs. “But I love rivalries,” he said, “and I know it’s great for the state of Utah.”
Utah, the school, expects Harlan to be great for it. He’s eager to learn more about the Utes, promising to do a lot of listening initially. The actions will follow, soon enough.