A change in the Utes’ nonconference scheduling philosophy could be on the way with new AD Mark Harlan

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah's new Athletic Direct, Mark Harlan, talks to reporters after a news conference at the Rice-Eccles Stadium, Monday, June 4, 2018.

Mark Harlan didn’t have much time to soak in the new digs. He was introduced as Utah’s new athletic director, said all the things you say at that kind of event, flashed “the U” a few times and had to hit the airport around 1:30 Monday afternoon. The move to Salt Lake City will soon be underway, but Utah’s new athletic director had to return to Tampa, Fla., with his family to begin the process.

Soon enough, it’ll be time to get to work, time to put his own stamp on a program that for four decades relied on the instincts and direction of Chris Hill, who retired last Friday after 31 years as Utah’s precedent-setting AD. In his limited time with local media Monday, Harlan was asked what he envisions his upcoming tenure looking like in the now and the future.

Harlan has long been an administrator who wants to face the best. During his time as South Florida’s AD, he said the Bulls wanted to get away from scheduling I-AA schools and wanted to beef up USF’s respective nonconference schedules across the board. Harlan had his own podcast as AD there, and during one episode said, “We want to play the best, at all times, whenever and wherever we can.”

How will that philosophy resonate at Utah?

Time will tell. Utah football, outside of its home-and-home series with Michigan in 2014 and 2015, hasn’t scheduled any Power 5 conference teams in nonconference play since joining the Pac-12. In Year 1, Utah faced Pitt of the ACC. The Utes do have an agreement with Baylor for games in 2023 and 2024.

The Runnin’ Utes, who have at times drawn the ire of fans for not scheduling more attractive nonconference games, recently finalized a two-game series with powerhouse Kentucky. Utah will also face Missouri on the road, Tulsa at home, archival BYU in the Beehive Classic and is scheduled to participate in the upcoming Wooden Legacy tournament in Anaheim, Calif., in November, where confirmed teams are Utah, Miami, Northwestern, Seton Hall, LaSalle, Fresno State and Hawaii.

“I can’t wait to talk to the coaches about this,” Harlan said at his introductory press conference, “because I think it’s really, really important to strike that balance in making sure you’re scheduling to make sure you get in the best possible postseason place that you can be.”

Harlan, who was an associate athletic director at UCLA before making the leap to his first athletic director job at USF, helped schedule games for the Bruins and later the Bulls. He said nonconference scheduling in college baskebtall has become “almost algebraic,” which could point to a reason why teams might be reluctant to travel to Salt Lake City and face the Utes in the Huntsman Center.

“When it comes time to select some of those games, we’ve tried to do what’s right for a particular team as you go into it,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said earlier this year.

Harlan’s approach at USF — a non-Power 5 program — was to try and play as many as two to three Power 5 schools a year. Just a few weeks ago, Harlan announced that USF and in-state rival Florida agreed to a three-game series starting in 2022. It was a 2-for-1 agreement, with the Bulls going to Gainesville twice and the Gators hitting Tampa once. Harlan did the same soon after arriving at USF in 2014, organizing a three-game series — also a 2-for-1 — with Texas.

“You’ve got to be really smart about that and then you’ve got to think about the fans and the fans who invest and want to see high-quality opponents,” Harlan said. “So you take all that, you put it in the stew and you work it all out.”

But now that Harlan is in charge of a Power 5 program, will his aggressive demeanor remain the same or will he decide to play it a bit safer? Utah’s situation is unique in college football in that it plays nine conference games, plus an annual meeting with arch-rival rival BYU (through 2022). That makes scheduling the remaining two nonconference games more tricky and more demanding.

“I’ll tell the coaches that I’m an ‘all-comer’ guy and they’re not always going to agree with that,” he said, “but let’s put our young people in front of anybody, and get after them.”

Harlan called BYU AD Tom Holmoe “a good friend” and said he plans on phoning Holmoe soon to discuss the nuances of the rivalry. Harlan, who grew up in Southern California, attended Arizona and later worked at UCLA. He knows rivalries out West.

“Rivalries separate college athletics from really anything else,” he said. “I think there’s something really special about that, but it’s got to work for both schools. I’m going to talk to Tom about that.”