Mark Harlan stood in front of another microphone and camera and welcomed his children beneath each arm.
This was the latest interview in the typical parade of interviews that comes during an unveiling of this sort, so Harlan was there, in his crimson red tie with his drum-and-feather pin, as 13-year-old Savannah and 10-year-old Austin peered up at their dad answering yet another question related to something along the lines of: “Why Utah?”
Ten feet away, in front of sea of red and white balloons peppering the University of Utah backdrop, University president Ruth Watkins’ eyes lit up when philanthropist and noted Utah super fan and donor Spence Eccles congratulated her on the hire who now assumes the role held by a now-retired school legend.
Watkins embraced Eccles, smiled and said, “It’s the start of a new era.”
Indeed. It’s the start of the Mark Harlan Era on the hill.
On Monday morning, the successor to longtime Utah AD Chris Hill was officially introduced in front of school administrators, alumni and donors on the sixth floor of the Rice-Eccles Stadium press box. Harlan, the former University of South Florida AD, who just six weeks ago re-signed a three-year extension at the university he helped turn into a perennial winner, said this opening, this chance to get back to the Pac-12, back West, was something he couldn’t let slip by without at least a shot.
“When the situation came about, everything about this place is what I’ve dreamed of in my career,” Harlan said. “The people here, the community, the president, the vision, it was an opportunity I could not pass up.”
After hiring a search firm to help find the next Utah AD, Watkins said the national search led the University to Tampa, Fla., where at USF, Harlan’s four-year tenure was too impressive to ignore.
During Harlan’s time as AD, the Bulls won 12 American Athletic Conference titles and had nine different sports ranked in the Top 25 last year. The department had a 82 percent graduation success rate in 2017, and had four programs earn perfect Academic Progress Report (APR) scores.
Harlan spearheaded record-setting agreements in multimedia rights, which generated close to $53 million in revenue and in 2017, USF athletics increased its donations by 300 percent from the previous calendar year, which doubled the previous-best year in the history of the athletic department.
The guy knows how to network. and most importantly, knows how to fundraise, which in this era of college athletics, is second-to-none. Harlan expects to be briefed on the Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion project in the coming weeks. There is no magic potion to fundraising, he said. It’s about matching the passion for the university with those who want to see it improve.
Watkins said the search was a process “that surfaced Mark as the clear best choice for this position.”
On Monday, his first hour in front of various microphones showed glimpses as to why he was Utah’s first choice.
He said Hill is on “the Mount Rushmore” of college ADs, joked that he was surprised former Utah coach Ron McBride knew how to text (they worked together at Arizona), lauded the passionate Utes fan base, promised transparency, and spoke glowingly of how anytime a team faced off against Utah, the opposition always knew what they were up against.
“You were in for a fight,” Harlan said.
A Pac-12 man at heart having graduated from the University of Arizona and later worked as an associate AD at UCLA, Harlan called the conference “the best league in the country” and said he’s thrilled with the idea of Utah winning several conference titles in the near future. His expectations are in line with a philosophy that he calls The Three C’s: Classroom, community and competition.
Utah, he vowed, must be stellar in all three facets in order to receive a passing grade each year. That’s where he’ll judge himself, first and foremost, he said. Harlan said there will be no sweeping overnight changes in the athletics department and has yet to decide if he plans on bringing any staffers from USF to Salt Lake City with him.
“That’s not my style,” he said. “I told the staff this morning, ‘I want the anxiousness to go. I’m here now.’”
Harlan confirmed that Utah associate AD and former Hill pupil, Kyle Brennan, who was in the running for the Utah AD job will remain on staff. After Hill called to congratulate Harlan on his hiring, Harlan’s next call was to Brennan, who set up the initial staff meeting with coaches and staffers Monday morning before Harlan’s introductory presser.
“Kyle is with me,” Harlan said. “He’s an unbelievable athletic administrator, a top-notch guy and pure class. Can’t wait to work with him.”
As Harlan was preparing for his speech and eventual answers to questions he knew were bound to surface, his daughter Savannah told her dad Sunday night that he shouldn’t let the moment be minimized.
She said, “Don’t forget to tell them how hard you’ve worked to get to this moment.” When the family landed in their new home on Saturday morning, Austin, who had a Utah football jersey on at his dad’s intro, was the first to point out that Harlan’s photo wasn’t all-that-flattering.
Harlan laughed telling that to a floor full of soon-to-be acquaintances instead of strangers. He’s confident. Utah athletics can still rise, Harlan says, and believes it will. Everything is in place for the Utes to take those necessary steps toward joining the Pac-12 elite.
“We know this,” he said, “look out for Utah.”
Standing in front of the backdrop as Harlan made the rounds, Carolyn Harlan stood next to Watkins, Eccles and anyone else who approached her to introduce themselves, congratulate her and her family and welcome them to the city. Change isn’t foreign territory to the Harlans. They’ve been searching for this place, she said, for some time.
“It’s always bittersweet,” she said. “USF is a super special place. It’s just emotional. We’ve worked so hard for this as a family. It’s great to be here. It’s great for us.”
ON THE MARK
• New Utah athletic director Mark Harlan grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Arizona.
• Harlan became the athletic director at South Florida in 2014.
• Before heading to South Florida, Harlan worked for four years at UCLA, where he was the associate athletic director.
• He has a stellar history in fundraising.
• Harlan has also worked at Arizona, San Jose State and Northern Colorado.