Utah athletic director Mark Harlan plans to spend a football game in the student section and make his stadium expansion decision soon

After 90 days on the job, the Utes' football atmosphere has made a big impression on him.

Mark Harlan is so impressed with Utah's football fans that he wants to meet them in the MUSS.

He’s continuing to study the potential expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium, intending to make a decision sometime during this season.

At the 90-day mark of his tenure as the Utes' athletic director, Harlan cited the football environment as making the strongest impact on his view of the job. “I had such high expectations of these home football games, but everything had far exceeded anything that I could have hoped for,” Harlan said in an interview Thursday. “The energy at the games, it’s just been overwhelming.”

He’s intending to immerse himself in it, joining the Mighty Utah Student Section for an upcoming game. During the Aug. 30 season opener vs. Weber State, Harlan marveled about a full venue for a 6 p.m. weeknight kickoff against an FCS opponent, wondering where else in the country that could happen.

So he’s following through with an expansion study that he inherited from Chris Hill’s administration and has taken “the lion’s share of my time” since his arrival. Harlan is close to reaching a conclusion after extensive meetings with consulting groups that have studied how fans would support it.

“It's a massive project,” he said, and he's encouraged by meeting donors. “We have a lot of investors who care a lot about us, and that bodes well for what we're doing.”

Having worked at South Florida in a Tampa Bay sports market where the Bulls competed for attention with three professional teams, Harlan now operates an athletic program with a built-in following. Yet he worries about a slight drop in men’s basketball attendance. The Utes went from average attendance of 12,000-plus to 11,710 in 2017-18.

“When I see that,” he said, “we attack it.”

His marketing strategy is based on improving the experience for fans, once they're in the building. “We want to have the best in-game atmosphere that we possibly can have,” Harlan said, wanting Utah to be “an elite school when it comes to the experience for our fans.”

As of one of three new athletic directors in the conference, Harlan recently was invited to the Pac-12 office in San Francisco for an introduction that included a 90-minute visit with commissioner Larry Scott. Harlan worked at UCLA when Utah came into the league. The session with Scott assured him “how much value Utah brings to the league,” academically and athletically.

One of the projects the Utes will join the conference in tackling involves feedback from fans about what brings them to events and keeps them coming back.