‘It’s about individual safety right now’: Former Utah AD Chris Hill gives perspective on the program’s future amid conference realignment

Stay in the Pac-12? Make a play for the Big Ten? Head over to the Big 12? Which option is the best for the Utes

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune File Photo) Utah Athletic Director, Dr. Chris Hill speaks on his phone as the Utes practice at the Moda Center in Portland, Wednesday, March 18, 2015.

When Chris Hill woke up Friday morning and looked out at the landscape of college football, he couldn’t say he was surprised by anything he saw.

Utah’s former athletic director, who shepherded the Utes into the Pac-12 in 2011, always viewed the state of college athletics as slowly marching toward the creation of a few, powerful super leagues.

In his 31 years in the AD chair, he saw how it went from six powerful conferences, down to four. And then this week — as UCLA and USC jumped ship to the Big Ten — that number plummeted to just two.

And because the tectonic plates of college football are shifting to create such disparity — where it will be the Big Ten and the SEC and then everyone else — Hill sees the same strategy now as he did a decade ago when navigating conference realignment. It is about positioning yourself in a world of have and have nots.

“It’s all about your own individual safety right now,” Hill said. “Trying to make sure you take care of your home base, and then figure out what’s best for you. There’s lots of different options out there.”

For a school like Utah, stuck in what appears to be a conference destined for the abyss, current athletic director Mark Harlan will be poring through those options over the next several weeks.

A lot of it involves prediction. What will happen to the Pac-12? If Utah jumps to the Big 12, what will that conference look like in 2026? Is it possible for Utah to make a play for the Big Ten? And, if Utah stays in the Pac-12, can it bank on a Big 12 and Pac-12 merger?

While Hill does not pretend to know exactly what Harlan should do, he sees the landscape fairly well.

The most attractive option for Utah would be to move to the Big Ten. That’s where all the power will be, and it is a conference looking to expand to upward of 20 teams. According to one study, future Big Ten members could annually make $100 million in revenue by the end of the decade.

“There’s no question nationally that if anybody can get into the Big Ten or SEC, they’re gonna go,” Hill said. “It’s like when we went to the Pac-12, there was no question that that was a good choice.”

However, Utah is likely a tertiary candidate for Big Ten membership. If the conference is looking out West again, it still has the options of Oregon and Washington. Oregon is a football power backed by Phil Knight. And Washington is a big-market school on the West Coast.

The Big Ten will also likely pursue Notre Dame ahead of Utah. With college football positioning to a Power 2 format, it has never looked more likely for Notre Dame to move away from independence. And with USC coming to the Big Ten — a long-standing football scheduling partner for the Irish — Notre Dame could find the conference more attractive.

So, if the Big Ten is not on the table, the options for Utah get more muddled.

The next natural step could be to go to the Big 12. As of right now, the Big 12 is going on the offensive in realignment and exploring options for expansion. Utah is on the list of candidates the conference is interested in, along with Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado.

Utah would give the Big 12 a natural rivalry game with BYU, which will be especially important as the conference loses its biggest rivalries with Texas and Oklahoma leaving in 2025.

Utah’s addition would also give the Big 12 another team in the Mountain time zone. As the Big 12 gears up for media rights negotiations in 2025, having multiple teams in the late television window is a strong selling point to potential partners like ESPN and FOX.

“It makes a lot of sense. We all know what the [BYU-Utah] game means. It will enhance the league,” Hill said. “I don’t know if there’d be another rivalry that would be that attractive. And the reality is, our state’s growing. Some of these [conferences] are going to wish they were in more growing areas.”

But there are also drawbacks. The Big 12 will have depleted power once Texas and Oklahoma leave for the SEC in 2025. Being in that version of the Big 12 won’t guarantee a team a spot in the national dialogue, especially not when the conference is competing with the Big Ten and SEC for college football playoff spots.

Hill could see a situation where the Pac-12 and the Big 12 merge for a football alliance to help mitigate that. The theory would be power in numbers. The Big 12, no matter who it adds, won’t match the power of either the Big Ten or SEC. But having a large, Western league could potentially have some sway.

“I think it’s inevitable that some kind of merger or some kind of new football alliance is going to come forward,” Hill said. “Unless all 10 teams [remaining in the Pac-12] stay. I just think there needs to be more power in numbers right now. That’s just my personal opinion.”

There is also the possibility that Utah is a less attractive option right now for the Big 12 because of its lack of success in sports outside of football. The Big 12 is the best basketball conference in the country right now. It also values strong baseball programs and Olympics sports.

But, Hill thinks football will eventually break off from the rest of the sports.

“Maybe we leave the rest of the sports in their own league,” Hill said. “The time is coming where football is going to have to separate from all the other sports, just because it is such a different entity. I mean, it really is like that in an athletic department anyway.

“I think the reality is [Utah] has been building up, making ourselves attractive, becoming a football entity,” he continued. “You’re going to be ranked in the top 10 [in football] to start the year. And if you look, our market is only going to grow.”

The last option for Utah would be to stay in the Pac-12. Although, that looks precarious. Oregon and Washington could leave at any minute. Stanford and Cal could also be on the move.

Staying in the Pac-12 would mean believing the conference could remake itself by adding Mountain West teams like Boise State and San Diego State, both relatively small media markets. The Pac-12 could also try to peel off Texas teams like SMU, Houston and TCU.

But that could be a losing game. And it would bank on the Pac-12 merging with the Big 12 to bolster its power no matter who it adds.

Hill says Utah has to think about itself as a national player in college football when approaching this discussion. And the guiding force will be about the Utes staying relevant.

“Utah’s no longer what some of our fans think, you know? We have an inferiority complex,” he said. “Under Kyle Whittingham, Utah is mostly all about football. We’re a player now. We’re a national player and we shouldn’t be hat in hand to anybody.”

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