Mark Harlan remembers the rallies. Utah’s athletic director is convinced the Rice-Eccles Stadium crowd influenced the fourth quarters of November football games vs. Oregon and BYU, and those snapshots of his first year on the job will stick with him.
“I knew there was incredible passion here … but until you come and live it and learn it, it’s not real,” Harlan said, describing the atmosphere as “more than anything I could have expected — and I expected a lot.”
Every school year is eventful for a college athletic department, yet the 2018-19 calendar produced more major developments than usual for the Utes as Harlan followed Chris Hill’s tenure. The on-campus death of track and field athlete Lauren McCluskey, the approval of stadium expansion plans, Utah’s first appearance in the Pac-12 football championship game and an NCAA skiing title illustrate the tragic, historic extremes of the year for the school’s first athletic director to be hired in three decades.
Nobody experienced all of it quite like Harlan. He’ll never forget being on the field as fans filed into the stadium for the Division I debut of Utah’s lacrosse team and seeing tears in the eyes coaches and players – never mind that the Utes would lose 21-6 to Vermont.
The lacrosse players showed improvement as the season progressed, a trait shared by most of Utah’s teams. Harlan admired how Ute athletes came together during a campus vigil honoring McCluskey in October and how they posted a cumulative 3.25 GPA, a department record, in 2018-19. “They went through a lot this year, losing one of their own — something they should never have to experience,” said Harlan, who hopes they’re “proud of the way this department responded to their grief.”
In May, Harlan lost a longtime mentor, former Arizona football coach Dick Tomey, who died at age 80. Among the lessons he learned from Tomey, starting as a Wildcat student manager: “If you're going to hold people accountable, you've got to love 'em too. That's what really resonates for me.” And “don't let anyone outwork you.”
Harlan is investing in personnel, having made Kyle Whittingham and his two coordinators among the Pac-12's highest-paid coaches. He's also raising expectations in the department. “There's definitely change going on,” said Beth Launiere, Utah's longtime women's volleyball coach. “I wouldn't expect Mark to come in and do things the same way. I think he's come in and challenged all of us in a good way. … I think it's been uncomfortable at times, but I think it's been positive. I don't know everybody's experience, but for me, he's been very supportive.”
Harlan deals with a continually evolving set of issues. These are only a few of them:
The state of men’s basketball
Utah is the Pac-12′s most consistent program lately, with five consecutive top-four finishes. The Utes also have missed three straight NCAA Tournaments, thanks partly to three quarterfinal losses in the Pac-12 tournament after receiving first-round byes. Making the NCAA field will be very difficult, with eight freshmen, three sophomores and one junior accounting for the current 12 scholarship athletes — with junior forward Donnie Tillman taking a leave of absence in 2019-20 for personal reasons, as announced Friday.
Basketball is Utah’s highest-performing men’s program in the Pac-12 era, though, based on an average finish of a tie for fifth place.
After extended conversations with coach Larry Krystkowiak, “I’m excited about what’s ahead, excited for the incoming group,” Harlan said. “I got a chance to watch our team get better as the year went on. I think that bodes well for our future. We know it is a crown-jewel program here, and we understand the importance of [basketball], and other teams, competing in the postseason. … Larry and I both share the desire to do that.”
Notable developments in Utah Athletics during 2018-19, the first school year of Mark Harlan's administration:
• NCAA combined men’s/women’s skiing championship.
• The football program’s first Pac-12 South title and first appearance in one of the conference’s top-tier bowls (Holiday).
• Approval of Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion, with half of private funding component provided by the Garff family ($17.5 million).
• On-campus death of track and field athlete Lauren McCluskey.
• Intercollegiate debut of men’s lacrosse.
• NCAA second-round advancement for the women’s volleyball team.
• Parker Van Dyke’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer completes a rally from 22 points down at UCLA.
• Contracts awarded to football coach Kyle Whittingham and his two coordinators that make them among the Pac-12′s highest-paid coaches.
• Retirement of gymnastics co-head coach Megan Marsden.
• Dismissal of women’s tennis coach Mat Iandolo after 12 years.
• Student-athletes’ cumulative 3.25 GPA, a department record.
Amid questions about Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott's performance, the conference's lagging behind other Power Five league financially and the failure to produce College Football Playoff and basketball Final Four teams, Harlan feels more empowered as an athletic director in the conference.
“I know that I'm very pleased with the voice that president [Ruth] Watkins and I have at these meetings,” Harlan said. “Out of crisis can come some really effective things. And I think what we're seeing now is a really inclusive environment … to really look at key issues. There's some real conversation about decisions that can help us get better.”
Harlan continued, “There's been conflict in that room, and conflict's a good thing. Conflict can brings ideas, and it also tells me that no one's holding back on what his or her beliefs are. We have big decisions ahead, and we have to make big decisions regarding our football and basketball programs. We know that they have not competed at a national level the way that this conference is accustomed to. That is incumbent on each of the individual institutions to get better. But we also have to, administratively, look at things to aid that process.”
That may involve bringing in a major investor in the Pac-12 Networks, infusing money into each school's athletic department and positioning the conference for media moves in 2024.
“We are at a really important moment for the league,” Harlan said. “I think we can look back at this coming year, years from now ... as a real turning point.”
Name almost any sport at Utah, and Harlan envisions new or improved facilities. The Rice-Eccles Stadium study he inherited from Hill has turned into a major project to be completed by August 2021, and much more is in the works. The 50-year-old Huntsman Center is being evaluated, a new soccer/lacrosse stadium is scheduled to open in August and Harlan is looking into an on-campus baseball park, although the Guardsman Way site of the current practice field comes with a perplexing question: “Is there enough room there?”
Having spent the first winter of his life in a cold climate, followed by the baseball team's 10th-place finish in the Pac-12, Harlan is determined to address indoor facilities. Multiple teams share the Eccles Field House.
“What's clear to me is we have to look at more indoor practice space for our 20 teams,” he said.
And in 2021, there will be room for another 5,000 fans in Rice-Eccles Stadium, where Utah joined Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska and Oklahoma as the only schools to average a sellout crowd last season.
By coming back to beat Oregon, the Utes improved to 18-18 in Pac-12 home games over eight seasons. That’s one more sign of Utah’s growth in the conference, and Harlan wants more of it.
UTES IN THE PAC-12
Conference finishes in 2018-19 for Utah athletic teams, with their average finishes over eight years of membership:
Baseball • 10th of 11 teams; average of 8.9.
Men’s basketball • Third of 12 teams; average of 5.6.
Women’s basketball • Tie for sixth of 12 teams; average of 8.5.
Women’s cross country • Seventh of 12 teams; average of 6.9.
Football • Tie for third; average of 7.0 (combining divisions).
Men’s golf • Tie for fifth of 12 teams; average of 11.2.
Women’s Gymnastics* • Second of eight teams; average of 1.9.
Women’s soccer • Fourth of 12 teams; average of 7.3.
Women’s softball • Seventh of nine teams; average of 6.6.
Men’s swimming* • Sixth of six teams; average of 5.6.
Women’s swimming* • Seventh of nine teams; average of 6.6.
Women’s track and field* • 12th of 12 teams; average of 11.3.
Women’s volleyball • Seventh of 12 teams; average of 7.6.
* Placement based on conference meet.