Former Utah athletic director Chris Hill sat in the front row of the Huntsman Center Sunday night, right across the court from Utes basketball coach Lynne Roberts and her newly minted Sweet 16 squad.
Occasionally throughout the evening, Hill would greet a long-time friend and make small talk. But for the most part, Hill sat in peace with his family as he saw his vision materialize in front of 8,563 people.
Hill, who retired in 2018 after 21 years in the AD’s chair, hired Roberts back in 2015. At that point, the idea Utah hosting an NCAA Tournament game and going to a Sweet 16 was just a dream. And when Hill brought in a coach who had never sniffed high-major college basketball, many didn’t exactly believe Roberts would be the one to get the Utes there.
But eight years later, after Utah beat Princeton 63-56, that is exactly what happened — and Hill was there to soak it in.
Hill spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune about the moment. He touched on the hiring process with Roberts, and why he liked how Utah was a “make or break” stop in her career. He talked about the challenges within the Utes’ program at the time, and his thoughts on the current team.
Were there doubts about hiring Roberts in 2015?
Hill: “It was easy and hard at the same time. I really enjoyed visiting with Lynne. She had recommendations of people in the business that I really respected and I was good friends with. Smart, she had a way about her that was really special.
“At Pacific, where she coached before, it was a really tough situation. There were some things going on in that program that made it really hard. Somebody like that, that can sustain that and still win, is somebody we wanted. Also, she was at that part in her career where she could make her career here or break it here. Which I like to think was an important thing. And she has put her pedal to the metal and made it happen. So add those different combinations up and at the end of the day, I felt really confident for some reason. When it all added up, I felt good.”
Was there ever any hesitation hiring somebody without any high-major experience? Roberts had coached at Pacific and Chico State before, with a record of 221-175.
Hill: ”If you are smart and you can coach, you can coach. I felt like when you are a head coach, you are a head coach. Doesn’t matter what level.
“And she could recruit. She had those qualities. You are always nervous about everything like [would it translate to the Pac-12]? But she was at that point in her career, where it was going to be a really, really important time in her career.”
Did you want somebody who was unproven, and could help mold then?
Hill: “For me, [hiring Roberts] allowed me to be with somebody who was at that [breaking] point in their career. It was fun for me. It let me be a part of, some part of, [Robert’s] career. Not everything by any means. But it was a fun time, to be honest. But she had to work hard at it. She has been through a lot and knows how to coach.”
Roberts told you she needed six to seven years to rebuild the program. What was the state of things when she arrived?
Hill: “It is really tough because we hadn’t won in a while. We had just got our facility in place, and we had to get to a Pac-12 recruiting level. It takes a while to fill that area. Look at [Utah football coach Kyle] Whittingham. It took him a while. He has been good all along, but to [win championships], you have to build on the recruiting. I think we knew that with Lynne. So it was really the right time, and right person.”
How many people did you interview for the job?
Hill: “We interviewed about four people that we really had in-person. About three or four”
On the job Roberts has done and his relationship with her. (For context, Roberts played college basketball at Seattle Pacific and set the single-season, three-point record. Hill played at Rutgers):
Hill: “She has a wonderful family and I am just so happy. It has turned out as well as you could expect. Especially as a team player with the rest of the department. I just had a fun relationship. We teased a lot and still text. I felt pretty confident she would do a great job.
“My only problem was that she was a two-guard in college and shot the ball a lot. That was my only concern.”