Utah AD Mark Harlan on voluntary workouts, college football starting on time, potential crowd models and more

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah's new Athletic Direct, Mark Harlan, talks to reporters after a news conference at the Rice-Eccles Stadium, Monday, June 4, 2018.

From getting student-athletes back on campus for voluntary workouts, to whether or not college football will happen this fall, to whether or not the season will start on time, University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan has a lot on his plate.

Along with deputy athletic director Kyle Brennan, director of athletic training Trevor Jameson, and head team physician Dr. David Petron, Harlan unveiled Utah’s phased reopening for athletic facilities for student-athletes.

Afterward, Harlan conducted a one-on-one Q&A with The Salt Lake Tribune. The interview below has been edited for clarity.

Salt Lake Tribune: “Have any student-athletes or parents of student-athletes given you any feedback or expressed any type of concern about what you and your staff have laid out to this point?”

Harlan: “My senior staff and myself, we have not received any concern, but we also know that we are entering into a new phase where they’re coming back. With that could come concern and could come questions. What we want to be able to do is be very accessible to them and to be great listeners to any concerns they may have. I’m a parent, many of our coaches and administrators are parents, and we understand that we need to be available for those. That’s a big part of it, so that’s why it’s important that, as we rolled out our plans, we wanted our parents to see this, it was sent out today, and have clear communication lines open for anything that may have questions on. It’s the same thing with our students. We have our student-athlete group here called the Crimson Council. We’re in close work with them, we’ll see them again tomorrow (Friday) to really dive deep into all of this, and that’s going to be our pattern going forward, very open and very accessible to anything they have questions about.”

Tribune: The Pac-12 obviously has a wide footprint in six states and not every state is on the same page in the terms of stay-at-home order and social distancing. With three months until the season starts, what is your confidence level that the 2020 season will start on time?”

Harlan: “I remain very hopeful. Following the data all along the way, particularly in the last bit showing a slow reopening in our footprint, the fact we’re able to come together and look at a date of June 15, I think that will allow many schools in our conference to, if not on that date, then close to that date, allow their voluntary workouts. Even in Los Angeles with the recent announcement of [NBA] practice, we’re seeing signs, so I remain hopeful, but as always, very realistic to the data and the health professionals with their recommendations. Today, I am very hopeful, but all the same time, realistic.”

Tribune: “You have modeled for many scenarios, on-time start, late start to the season, etc. Have you worked into any of these models, the possibility of a midseason stoppage if there is a spike in positive cases, either here or elsewhere in the country?”

Harlan: I think within the Pac-12 conference, in the football working group, there have been multiple schedules that have come forward from that group and the conference. They contemplate everything from 10-game conference schedules to, if you’re not able to get your non-conference games in, moving them to later in the season if you could possibly do that. There has been a look at possible breaks as well, that’s one of the many elements that you have to look at. We understand that if we have an issue, you can’t predict when that will happen, so it’s difficult to have a model that puts it on week. I think it gets back to us being realistic that we have to put out multiple models and the situation you’re in, be able to activate that particular model.”

Tribune: “I think the Pac-12, up to this point, has done a nice job of having a unified front, acting as one and trying to come up with what’s best for everybody. Do you get a sense that [Pac-12 commissioner] Larry Scott, or even your fellow-athletic directors would be OK with potentially moving forward with an on-time start even if all 12 members were not ready to go?”

Harlan: “We haven’t gotten to that. We’ve been focusing in on being incredibly collaborative. I’ve said before that in my many years in the Pac-12 in various different positions at three institutions [Arizona, SVP for Central Development; UCLA, Senior Associate AD], I’ve never seen more alignment with the conference office with presidents and chancellors, athletic directors and the medical groups that have been formed out of this crisis. We’re working so closely together, we’re sharing best practices, meeting with our football coaches, I could go on and on. In all of those meetings, they’ve been about where we are, what we’re trying to do in forecasting for the fall. We have not spent any time talking about that particular issue you’re referring to. If the time comes and we get to that July point, and it’s clear we’re really going to operate off a six-week schedule, and we’re not able to all do that at that time, we will have conversations prior to that on various different routes to take. We have not gotten to that point.”

Tribune: “There has been a great deal of talk, especially over the last week, from Power Five schools about crowd models and how many fans you can fit into a stadium. Are you able to share some of what some of your crowd models look like?”

Harlan: “We’re spending a lot more time this week than we did last week, and I’m sure that pattern will continue, in looking at different crowd sizes, trying to estimate what would be allowable at that particular date. In our case, our home opener vs. BYU during the first week of September. Kyle Brennan, our Deputy COO, and Scott Kull, our Deputy AD for External Operations, are leading those efforts, along with the auxiliary service team that operates Rice-Eccles Stadium. Obviously, we’re having a lot of conversations with other institutions. We’re all in the same boat in this crisis. We’re learning from what we hear, and our plan is to be ready for what we hope to be a full crowd, but realistic to whatever is allowable at that time. We’re going to look at everything that makes sense and as we proceed with that, similar to what we’ve shown today with our opening of athletic facilities for volunteer workouts, we’ll share that when we have a little bit more time and effort on that particular project.”

Tribune: “Just to be clear, you guys have not ruled out a full stadium for Sept. 3?”

Harlan: “I don’t think anybody can rule that out as a possibility at this point in time in late May. You just don’t know where things will go, but again, you have to be realistic that it’s a good possibility that we will not be allowed, so we have to be prepared with crowds that are less than that, down to whatever number would be allowed. We’re going to model a lot of different crowd sizes, but we’re so pleased that our fans have renewed at about a 93-percent rate as I talk to you today. That shows an incredible appetite for Utah football, and we’re honored those folks have done that, but we have to continue to look at different options as they present themselves for September.”

Tribune: “Has there been any discussion about tailgating policies as they pertain to social-distancing?”

Harlan: “I think tailgating is part of the entire scenario, looking at various abilities we would have based on the guidelines at that time. Certainly tailgating, which is an important and great part of attending a college football game, that will not be overlooked in our planning and we structure that. We know how important that is and we want to have a really good path forward there as well.”

Tribune: “Have salary givebacks inside the athletic department been an option, whether it be you, Larry [Krytskowiak], Kyle [Whittingham]? I know that’s been a popular cost-saving measure across the country thus far.”

Harlan: “I think right now, we’re looking to close this fiscal year budget, we’ve been spending a lot of time on that. We feel very strongly that we’re going to end in a good position. Now, we’re really putting the final touches on the budget for next year in multiple scenarios based on crowd size, based on the number of football games. Each of those models has different elements to it and at this point, as we go through it, whether it be operational or FTE-type adjustments, as we go through the process and make more decisions on what we’re going to do, we can be more specific at a later time.”

Tribune: “At this point, do you expect to maintain all of your non-revenue sports?”

Harlan: “I think it’s really important that all the sports we have continue, but as you go through your budget, you have to be open-minded to everything. When it comes to sports and our student-athletes at the University of Utah, they are very important to us and that would be something we would look to as a very last resort. I think when you’re going through a budget process, it is disingenuous to take anything off the table, but I would say it would be the very last thing we would want to contemplate.”

Tribune: “Larry [Krystkowiak] recently floated the idea of a 22-game basketball schedule if non-conference games couldn’t take place. Has that gained any steam as a real possibility?”

Harlan: “I have not gotten a briefing from the basketball working group that has also been established by the Pac-12. I do believe there will be more updates from that group in the coming weeks. We’ll wait to see what that group comes forward with, but again, kind of in the same mantra as everything else, everything needs to be on the table and talked through.”

Tribune: “Whenever basketball-related decisions are made down the road, are those at all dependent upon to an extent on football decisions? If football starts on time? If there’s a stoppage?”

Harlan: “To take that a step further, I think all of our sports are in some ways intertwined together at a lot of different points. I think as our fall semester gets started in whatever form it looks like will certainly provide roadmaps for our winter sports, which basketball is a part of. We’ll learn things over the course of conducting our fall sports that will apply to winter and again, I’m sure there will be various roadmaps to follow if we have a delay or if we have to do a different type of structure with our winter sports. Certainly, anything that happens in the fall will help us manage the rest of the way.”