Mark Harlan took a peek out the window of the private plane as he flew south and got a panoramic glimpse of Zion National Park as his flight descended. Minutes later, he stepped off onto the runway and went to work. Four days into his job as Utah’s new athletic director, Harlan flew to St. George for an alumni event held at Dixie State University.
That’s part of the gig, getting to meet and greet the vastness of your fan base, and as Harlan notes, it stretches far beyond the views provided at the University of Utah. On the final day of his first week as Utah’s AD, Harlan sat down with the The Salt Lake Tribune for a 30-minute interview in his office, which he admits, is still in the process of being pieced together.
There has been some adjusting.
Harlan found out that, you can’t turn left on South Campus Drive when leaving the Huntsman Center. He learned the hard way. He is leaning on the expertise of his new right-hand man, deputy athletic director Kyle Brennan, who Harlan says he converses with probably 20 times a day. Harlan also has plans to carry over a tradition started during his time as AD at the University of South Florida, which is hosting a podcast where he provides updates on the department and interview student-athletes.
The Q&A below has been edited for clarity.
What have you learned since starting this job?
Harlan: “Well, this is probably the first time I’ve sat at this desk for more than 25 minutes. I heard about the passion of the people that work here, how much they enjoy being here and I heard about the passion of our fan base. So if you look at this week and the way it’s gone out, I felt all that and I’ve seen it with my own eyes and it makes me realize that as I look at creating aggressive goals for this department, which is, quite candidly, winning more championships in competition and continued academic success. We’re going to need all these people with us in order to do that. But the passion is there. I’m very confident we can do so.”
How is this start different from your start at USF and UCLA before that?
Harlan: “They’re all a little unique in their nature. There’s great people at those places and great donors and great leadership. I think probably more than anything, it’s almost like a time of year. It’s interesting to start a job when you’re in the thick of summer. Those jobs you mentioned were right in the middle of a competitive season and so right now the pace is a little bit slower and I think it allows for a little bit more strategy. I think it’s great. I think it’s a good time to be here. I think it’s easier to get a parking spot. I tried to figure out how to turn left out of here. I tried. That’s a whole other story.”
How much of a priority is it for you to establish a connection with guys like Kyle Whittingham and Larry Krystkowiak?
Harlan: “Big-time. Partnerships is going to be critical with those guys going forward. It’s really hard to do what they do. They need a partner and I’m new and they’ve worked with one other guy in their career in terms of college [at Utah], so because of vacations and back and forth, we’ve just had a lot of phone interaction. But we’ve had a lot of conversations. Those guys are terrific. Their vision is really clear as we talk on the phone and what we’re trying to do. I’m really excited about working with them.”
How often is the Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion thing brought up to you by donors or fans?
Harlan: “It’s fair to say that it’s been brought up. You guys brought it up certainly a lot in the press conference, and I think people are more asking about my process with it rather than status or this, that or the other. What I’ve said to them is I think any big opportunity, big project, whatever it might be, my approach to things is to learn, understand and make a decision. That’s what I plan on doing with that project and other projects that are up ahead. We’ll work with President [Ruth V.] Watkins and her team and make the best decision. We’re going to do anything here that’s going to make us better. If that project fits all of those things, then we’ll launch forward, but we’ll continue to look at that, but yes, it is brought up frequently.”
You’ve always said you want to schedule the best of the best, but how does that change now that you’re in a Power 5 Conference?
Harlan: “My tendency is I want the student-athletes that I’m around and the coaches that I’m around, we want to play the best. We want to get after it and compete because we work so hard and we do want to go after the best. I just think we also have to be very strategic on a year-to-year basis so that you don’t overload, but you also don’t want to under-load, so to speak. I think it’s finding that balance. We see now in basketball, both men and women, it is [difficult]. It’s an algorithm to make sure you have the right tiers and oh, by the way, some kids might transfer and that team on the schedule might not be what you thought they were. So all that goes into it. But what I do know in my first week is we have some big-time competitors, both as coaches and student-athletes. I would think that they want to get after it. That is part of the question with every coach or otherwise, we’re starting to get into scheduling philosophy.”
Chris Hill wanted to work on the baseball stadium project over near Sunnyside Park. Is there anything that you’ve been briefed on regarding that and where that may or may not stand?
Harlan: “I will tell you this in terms of general, there are facility projects that are in the docket here in terms of they present it to me for my input, my understanding, all of those things. Certainly baseball is one that is being examined, along with others. That’s really exciting, because that tells me again, Chris was always thinking ahead, what’s it going to take to make sure that this program is going to advance? I’m going through all of that right now. I had a great talk with coach [Bill] Kinneberg yesterday about the program, we go way back to his assistant days at the University of Arizona. I’m going through all of the different facility opportunities. Because we’re not going to sit still here. We’re not going to assume because this is built or that is built that we’re going to stop. We’re going to continue to look at things and if it makes sense for the program, we’re going to go find great people to invest in it and get it done.”
Down at USF, you had your own podcast. That was your own way of getting your word out and connecting with people. Do you plan on doing anything like that here?
Harlan: “I just kind of feel like people need to hear from the athletic director and what he’s thinking and I think it’s important that folks who invest, buy tickets, want to know what’s going on. I met with the communication leadership here the last few days and I said let’s put it together. Different concepts, video, podcasts, social media, that enable me to get the message out, but more importantly, our whole messaging out. The podcast was great at South Florida in that we always had a student-athlete involved with it. I got to be you and interview them. Whatever we do, as I told the team, we want to put forth the great stories of our young people.”
It seems like that’s a way you can get down on the ground level with people and show them you’re more than just a guy behind a desk, right?
Harlan: “Listen, I’m a fan. I grew up a fan of college athletics. Then you get to be blessed to be a part of it as you work your way through a career, and I started in the equipment room and have been in all these different departments throughout my career. I kind of get it in terms of people want to know what I’m thinking, and on Twitter the other day, I was going back and forth [with people] and I told them I want to get into the student section at football, because I want to have fun. I want to learn, but I also want to have some fun, too. I think we have to not take ourselves too seriously and I think it’s important to be transparent to people that invest or have care about our program.”