How Mark Harlan’s career path crisscrossed the country and led him to ‘a dream job’ as Utah’s athletic director

New Ute AD, those close to him say, was destined for a premier job in the Pac-12

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins poses with Mark Harlan, his wife Carolyn, and their children, Savanah 13, and Austin, 10, during a news conference at the Rice-Eccles Stadium, Monday, June 4, 2018.

Some might say it’s a little too serious, a little too silly even, but in college, colors invoke a reaction. You’re either red or you’re blue, gold or orange or green. As an athletics administrator with sky-high ambition, it might behoove you to have a diversified closet because one day, who knows where you’ll land.

Mark Harlan proved as much when he was unveiled as Utah’s first new athletic director in 31 years earlier this week, busting out a crimson red tie he said he had buried somewhere at home. There was a point, during his four years as a senior associate AD at UCLA, where the color simply wasn’t allowed. In Westwood, Calif., there are no red pens. If there was an issue, the athletic department refused to call it “red tape” — instead it was Bruin blue.

Now? “We’re building up the red wardrobe,” Harlan said.

This week was, those close to the 48-year-old Harlan say, a culmination of decades of ambition, of listening to those who needed to be heard, to paying attention to the details when others might be caught looking further forward. Over 25 years ago, Harlan was patrolling the sidelines in Tucson, Ariz., in the desert heat as a graduate assistant in football operations at his alma mater, the University of Arizona.

Three decades later, after stops all over the United States, Harlan’s rise in collegiate athletics was punctuated by a return west. For the past four years, the Southern California native and Arizona graduate was surrounded by the beaches and humidity and palm trees in Tampa, Fla., his first job as an AD at the University of South Florida, where fans and media types were impressed and, at times, frustrated. No AD is given a free pass, and the thirst of a fan base is never fully quenched.

Now, the Harlan family has traded in Bulls green for Utes red, and he picks up where Chris Hill’s landmark tenure ended.

“To be in the Pac-12,” said Carolyn Harlan, “has been the dream always.”

Is Utah a dream job to Harlan?

“I would call it a dream job,” he said. “That’s a very accurate statement.”

• • •

After last week’s press conference finished inside Rice-Eccles Stadium, Mark Harlan walked up to one of the most important people in the room and thanked him profusely. Philanthropist and longtime Utah super donor Spence Eccles welcomed him to the Utah family. Eccles, whose daughter Lisa was on the search committee, said he stayed tuned into the process of finding Hill’s successor from a distance.

But when he heard of Harlan’s resume, Eccles quipped, “My ears perked up.”

Earlier that morning, in his first organized athletics department meeting, Harlan spoke to his new staff about his vision and what lies ahead.

“He was very charismatic,” Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said. “First impression was good.”

Harlan is in a familiar conference, at a Power Five university, with a stable foundation and the opportunity to make good on whatever the future holds. It’ll be a few weeks before he officially gets to work, but one prominent Pac-12 AD knew this day was always going to come.

UCLA AD Dan Guerrero believed Harlan always “had the right stuff.”

“That is why I hired him,” said Guerrero, who got a shoutout from Harlan on Monday as his mentor. “But he had to see that for himself,” Guerrero continued, “and I think he needed to reconcile in his mind that it was something that was important to him personally.”

Harlan helped the University of Northern Colorado transition to compete in Division I and enter the Big Sky Conference, and later became a senior associate AD at San Jose State, working with the legendary football coach Dick Tomey, who gave Harlan his first job at Arizona as a graduate assistant. During those early days in Tucson, Harlan organized game-day operations, managed ticketing, and everything wrapped into the Wildcat experience.

“I was the person he’d call if he needed one more person to score gymnastics or do something,” Carolyn Harlan said. “That was me.”

Eventually, he got his first AD shot at South Florida, after decades of working his way up the ladder, trading in the sunshine of Los Angeles for the sunshine of the Florida coast.

• • •

Somewhat buried in the press release announcing his hire as Utah’s new AD is a sentence which says among Harlan’s tasks at Utah will be playing a key role in planning and fundraising for proposed expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium. That was the last project on Hill’s bucket list, as he vowed to raise millions toward getting off the ground.

At UCLA, Harlan oversaw the Bruins basketball program, the athletic department’s communication, marketing, ticket sales, sponsorships and multimedia rights. He helped raise $125 million in annual funds and campaign gifts in L.A., and helped the completion of the $137 million renovation project of Pauley Pavilion in 2012.

Asked what makes Harlan a fundraiser in his mind, Guerrero said, “He has the knack to communicate well with a broad spectrum of people, and to build real, meaningful relationships. He takes the time to fully understand the institution, learn its history and ask what matters most to is supporters.”

In Tampa, it wasn’t as easy.

At USF, Harlan was exceptional in scheduling, hiring and dismissing coaches — when necessary — athletic compliance and Title IX issues, according to Joey Knight, Bulls beat writer for The Tampa Bay Times. After football coach Willie Taggart bolted for Oregon, Harlan hired former Texas coach Charlie Strong.

“I do not think his forte is as a fundraiser,” Knight said. “You can ask most prominent boosters at this university, and they will tell you that’s where USF has struggled.”

USF remains the only school in the American Athletic Conference without an exclusive on-campus football facility; the Bulls play home games at Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. How much of that falls on Harlan, though? Knight said it’s tricky when assigning the blame, and said the issues with fundraising for massive projects go further beyond the AD position.

Knight’s colleague, Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones, recently wrote Harlan was able to hire good coaches, budget, make sexy scheduling agreements, “But he was never able to do two things USF needed more than anything else: raise money and get the town excited about USF sports. Those two things go hand-in-hand, and neither is easy to do in this market.”

From left, University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft, new football coach Charlie Strong, his wife, Victoria, and daughters Hope and Hailee, and USF Athletic Director Mark Harlan, pose for a picture after an NCAA college football press conference at the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Dec 15, 2016. (Andres Leiva/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Despite signing a three-year contract extension at USF in April, the allure of the Pac-12 and the Utah job “was an opportunity I could not pass up,” Harlan told reporters after his press conference.

As for his his early message to the Utah donors?

“Your investment will continue to improve and we’ll need your help,” Harlan said.

• • •

Mark Harlan inhaled for what he called “a deep-breath moment.” His phone rang, on the other line was Utah president Ruth V. Watkins informing him the job was his if he wanted it.

“Special,” he called it. Which is exactly what Harlan and all Ute fans, administrators and donors want his time as Utah AD to be defined as.

They had it in Hill. Now the hope is a man familiar with the Pac-12 can add to an already good thing.

“It’s a great time to have your hand on the tiller,” Eccles said.

In the weeks and months ahead, Harlan will be swamped with questions regarding his big-picture plans, updates on the stadium expansion, his early relationships with Whittingham and Larry Krystkowiak, how he prioritizes the Utah-BYU rivalry, and more. He said he hasn’t decided if he’s bringing staffers from USF with him to Salt Lake.

So far it’s only Carolyn, 13-year-old Savannah, 10-year-old Austin and the family labradoodle. After the photo-ops trailed off at his presser, Savannah was already talking with Utah gymnastics co-head coaches Megan Marsden and Tom Farden about youth camps.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Megan Marsden Utah's Co-Head Gymnastics Coach chats with University of Utah's new Athletic Director, Mark Harlan's, children, Austin and Savannah, after a news conference at the Rice-Eccles Stadium, Monday, June 4, 2018.

The Harlan kids have never seen snow. Carolyn Harlan said there is a fair share of friends in Tampa and Southern California who vacation in Park City, and the family is looking forward to the easier 90-minute flights to visit extended family instead of the cross-country hauls.

But bouncing around means saying goodbye to an old chapter and starting another new one. It comes with the territory.

“Leaving a place that Mark was able to start his career at South Florida, we owe a lot to them for giving him his first athletic director job because that was his dream,” Carolyn said. “That was a big thing to get us here. We wouldn’t be here without that.”

Harlan delivered a rousing intro speech as most AD’s do when they’re introduced. Utah, he said, won’t take a backseat to anybody in the Pac-12.

Yes, he’s back in familiar territory, no doubt, but this time at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, away from the heat of the desert and breezy beaches and palm trees. A new start in a new home. The settling in begins now.