Utah athletic director Mark Harlan stood on the Levi's Stadium sideline during the Pac-12 football championship game, with several thousand Ute fans behind him. In the third quarter of a tie game with Washington, Harlan could picture those people following the team to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
An hour later, his thoughts turned fully to a destination farther south.
Harlan had spent an awkward final week of November hoping Utah would qualify for the Rose Bowl as conference champion, while knowing his job required making backup plans. The campaign that ended with the Holiday Bowl giving the Utes their most prestigious postseason invitation of the school’s Pac-12 era required some effort.
Harlan was “a superstar through this whole process,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It's awesome that he was able to get that done, because there was some talk of us sliding down the chain.”
More work remains between now and New Year’s Eve. With an official allotment of 7,000 tickets, Harlan’s department has an ambitious target of 14,000 fans in San Diego, where the Utes will meet the Big Ten’s Northwestern at SDCCU Stadium.
Harlan believes a big response would help the Utes in bowl selections and possibly season-kickoff games in the future. Even in an era of conference tie-ins for bowl games, an element of the old system remains intact, with schools having to market themselves. In Utah's case, conversations that week with Holiday Bowl CEO Mark Neville surprised Harlan, who said, “I realized that we had an uphill battle.”
In a Pac-12 bowl structure that offers no protection for a division champion (something Harlan is determined to address), the Holiday Bowl initially favored Oregon. “When you’re in these situations, all you need is honesty. Tell me the truth,” Harlan said, praising Neville’s direct approach. But “was there a pause on the phone between San Diego and Salt Lake? Yes. It told me what we needed to do, which was fire up the Ute army.”
Harlan succeeded in stopping what he labeled a “free fall” in the bowl landscape, with the potential for Utah’s dropping to the Pac-12′s No. 5 game, the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The Utes' problem stemmed from the Pac-12′s failing to land a second team in New Year’s Six games, beyond Washington’s advancement to the Rose Bowl via a 10-3 win over Utah. That made Washington State an obvious choice for the Alamo Bowl and gave the Holiday Bowl multiple choices, with “so many variables,” Neville said. “Every year, the priority could be different.”
The constant is the bowl's mission to drive tourism in San Diego, and organizers had reason to wonder about Utah's level of support. As a Mountain West member, Utah played in the 2007 and '09 Poinsettia Bowls, formerly staged by the same group. The Utes sold fewer than 5,000 tickets for each of those games. Fans stayed home, citing reasons that included a date too close to Christmas, the disappointment of losses to BYU to end those regular seasons and the absence of glamour, compared with the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls of that decade.
So how would Utah’s fan base respond to a loss in the Pac-12 title game, with an estimated 8,000-plus supporters having gone to Levi’s Stadium? Harlan made that show of support a selling point, and some key figures he describes as “Utah angels” joined in the lobbying effort, along with university President Ruth V. Watkins.
So did hundreds of rank-and-file fans, who sent emails. In an ESPN 700 interview, Neville labeled some of them “entertaining,” acknowledging the grass-roots effort “didn’t hurt.”
The Holiday Bowl's board picked Utah in a close vote, Neville has said, noting that the Utes' football credentials gave them a “pretty clear” advantage. Yet that part alone was insufficient, and Harlan intends to pursue that subject within the Pac-12. He believes there should be more value in a division title, with one bowl or another becoming a guaranteed, lowest landing spot for the loser of the championship game.
Winning the division, Harlan said, is “an incredible accomplishment.”
Whittingham's team will be rewarded with a top-tier bowl appearance, after a process that made Harlan agonize to the end. He was told to expect a call between 1:25 and 1:35 p.m. MST on Dec. 2, if the Holiday Bowl had chosen his school. The minutes slowly ticked by, and he worried the Utes had been overlooked. And then the call came from a Pac-12 administrator, with Neville on the line. Harlan's phone dropped the call, but only after he had heard what he need to hear.
He called back, accepting the invitation.