Neither University of Utah President Taylor nor Athletics Director Mark Harlan wanted to say goodbye to the Pac-12. That much was clear during a news conference Monday. But when they join the Big 12 next year, the Utes want to be ready to win right away.
The two Utah leaders discussed the conference’s demise, Apple TV’s proposed media deal, the Utes’ fit in the Big 12 and more.
Here is the U.’s complete transcript of the news conference:
UTAH PRESIDENT TAYLOR RANDALL: Well first off, good morning everyone. It’s great to see everyone here for a big day for the University of Utah and University of Utah Athletics. I want to begin by thanking the Big 12 Conference, their presidents and Commissioner Brett Yormark for giving us the opportunity to compete with our athletic programs at a very, very high level. We are looking forward to that partnership. It’s an innovative conference that is looking towards the future.
I also want to say that I am very, very grateful to all of my Pac-12 colleagues. We spent the last year working diligently together to try to keep this conference together. But as I mentioned in my written release last weekend, ultimately the dynamics of collegiate sports and media markets bring us to where we are here today. I want to say that we’ve spent 12 great years in that conference and I believe that the relationships will continue. We have dear friends.
To our students, particularly our student-athletes, administrators, our coaches, fans, trustees, we just want to say thank you very much for the patience as we’ve navigated this extraordinarily complex situation. I am very, very optimistic about the future. And certainly enthusiastic about the opportunity we have to associate within the Big 12. Being part of the Pac-12 raised the profile of this university, not just in our athletics programs but also in our academic programs. I know many, many of the presidents in the Big 12 and I am telling you those are also outstanding institutions. Our goal has always been to become one of the top public universities with unsurpassed societal impact. That means that when we make a decision like this, we think holistically about the university. We think about the standards it sets for us. And this Big 12 Conference sets high standards. We’re very, very excited about that. I think you’re going to see the collaborations, university-wide, will accelerate and we will accelerate towards that goal.
I’m a fan, a lifelong fan of this university. And I know we’re going to get questions about the renewed rivalry with Brigham Young University. For me, it’s always been fun. We’re looking forward to that. We’ve appreciated the way we’ve worked together over the years when we’ve not been in the same conference. We’re certainly looking forward to the years where we will be.
I hope you all are as excited as we are (about) this new opportunity for the University of Utah and University of Utah Athletics. And with that, I’ll turn the time over to Mark.
UTAH AD MARK HARLAN: I think the President said it very well. I just do want to pause and say something about [President Randall]. His leadership has been extraordinary through a lot of things in the two-plus years we’ve been working together…through triumph and tragedy and everything that we’ve gone through together. Your leadership through this process, your steadiness, making me calm at moments…has been instrumental. Our department, our coaches and our student-athletes are eternally grateful for that. As well as our trustees and so many others.
I would just like to add that the Pac-12 experience for the University of Utah; I would like to even think it’s been more profound than it has been for many other members. It changed this university; I saw it from afar working at other Pac-12 schools. I saw the rise of Utah academically and certainly athletically. It’s been a special, special ride and we are so excited about this last lap ahead. So many championships we have to defend in the league this year. And certainly with where we sit today, trying to create history and try to have the third straight football championship. There’s incredible people in that conference. And certainly Commissioner Kliavkoff—who I spent a lot of time with over the last few years—is a good man, and worked extremely hard to try to present the best possible way forward.
But as we move forward, I too am so excited about the opportunity in the Big 12. I know many of their athletic directors—one of them used to be my intern…I guess that means I’m getting old. A lot of great people, incredible cities. You go on the road, all the sports there—it’s sold out. Ute Nation, get ready. Because everywhere, we’ve got to get our tickets early for many of those events. It’s remarkable. They’ve renewed their football championship at [AT&T] Stadium. I’ve never been to the basketball tournament in Kansas City, but I’m told it’s an elite event. There’s a lot of enthusiasm.
I had a chance to finally communicate with Commissioner Yormark, as the president alluded to. He’s got a lot of things he’s thinking about—sometimes I’m like, ‘wow, can we do that?’—but he seems to have figured out different ways to do that. So I’m excited about that collaboration moving forward. But again, I want to emphasize what an incredible opportunity the Pac-12 has been for this department as well as the entire university. And we wish everyone there the very best as we move forward.
Q: When you met with the other Pac-12 presidents and saw the media deal offered, what was the tipping point where you decided the future was with the Big 12?
RANDALL: We have an incredible Presidents Room in the Pac-12. It’s extremely collaborative. It is a positive group that is always trying to find solutions rather than not. I will just tell you that we expended every energy to try to figure out how this deal could move forward. It was an innovative construct. It certainly on its upside had the promise to do something very different to the way we view television. I think everybody in the room caught that view. At the end of the day, each university was plugging in the numbers and making their own decision. And obviously, the outcome is where we are today.
Q: Mark, you’ve been very public over the last 12 or 13 months that the remaining Pac-12 members, they were going to work in lock-step and you wanted to find a deal. You were clear that the University of Utah’s home—you wanted it to be in the Pac-12. At what point last week did that thinking or that notion start to shift?
HARLAN: To the first part of your question, I think the President said it best. There was always a very real effort to try and assist the commissioner and his team to get the very best deals that would lock us in going forward. I want to echo that. It was a collective effort by the many—the Presidents, the board, the coaches, the athletic directors, the senior women’s administrators—everybody trying to work collaboratively to make sure that things got going forward. Obviously as the President alluded to, the deal was presented and as President Randall does, he’s got a lot of incredible people around him. We were plugging in numbers and looking at everything like everybody else was. You’ve got to have a collective group to move forward at the end of the day. We were going to wait to see what the deal was. And that’s the President’s expectations, and all the time looking out and the landscape and making sure options were available. But at the end of the day, the group had to come to a decision and it ended where it was.
Q: Mark, how bittersweet is this, because you have an extensive history in this conference?
HARLAN: Like I said earlier, it’s an amazing conference. I’ve worked at three institutions in the conference. I attended a university in the conference. …Of course it’s bittersweet; it’d be disingenuous for me not to say that. There may be a time to reflect weeks and months from now. But there’s the sweet part too. And there is excitement of what’s ahead and the cities that our student-athletes will be able to compete in, and those opportunities that will be new.
Q: Mark, obviously it’s still early in the process, but have you been given any indication on how you’ll make-up or fix these non-conference games you already have scheduled? Is there any indication of maybe doing divisions or anything that way in your eyes?
HARLAN: We have not gotten into those details yet. I do believe that those meetings will occur sooner than later. If you look at the football schedule for next year, it dawned on Jeff Rudy—who handles football scheduling for us—that we all of a sudden have two conference games that were originally non-conference games. So the work is just beginning there.
Charmelle Green, our incredible Chief Operating Officer…will lead a transition team that will dive into every single possible issue on every single possible sport. I told her, I want to know how those teams think, I want to know everything about everybody. We want to get in there and win, and win right away. We have no reason to believe that we can’t.
But to your question specifically, we do have a lot of work to do on our schedules. And I’m sure Commissioner Yormark and Scott Draper—who is the gentleman who oversees football there—will be working very closely to go through that sooner than later.
Q: President Randall, it’s been reported by your counterpart at Arizona State that it was their intention to try to keep the Pac-12 together as long as possible, up until Oregon and Washington did not appear on the Friday morning conference call. Was that the intention of the University of Utah as well and was that kind of the moment where it was decided that you needed to go another direction?
RANDALL: This conversation’s been going on since last Summer. Every president in the Pac-12—including Washington and Oregon—were trying to hold this whole thing together. I don’t think you can ever blame or point it to a single moment. There are lots of things that culminate in decisions for presidents. But I will say, I felt honestly that every school in this league took time and weren’t rash in their decisions. And they were trying to hold this league together.
Q: For both of you, Dr. Crow in his remarks on Saturday referred to the media overlords. Do you believe that what happened with the Pac-12 happened because FOX and ESPN find these schools more valuable apart than they do together?
RANDALL: Look, media is part of it. But so is building an incredible league that wants to stay together. When you think about it from a university president’s perspective, you’re looking broader than just the dollars and cents. You’ve got to keep an athletic program healthy. So it’s got to meet some minimum viability for sure. But on the margin, you’re not going to choose for a million or two here; you’re thinking about the long-term view of the university and where you need to position it. And I’m sure that’s what the other presidents were doing as well.
HARLAN: Yeah. Nothing to add.
Q: Taylor, from an academics standpoint, obviously the University of Utah is an AAU member, it’s a Tier I research institution. It was in the Pac-12 with other like-minded academic institutions. Where do you believe Utah falls academically among the rest of the Big 12?
RANDALL: These are sensational schools. I know many of the presidents personally. I think that’s why this makes this a comfortable move for me personally. I know their standards. What I like about the group of universities in this league is they all are striving to get better. And you can see them bringing resources to bear to do that. I wouldn’t bet against the Big 12. That’s what makes us so excited to be there.
Q: I was just doing some research on the revenue that the conferences bring in, and actually, the Big 12 is right up there with the Big Ten and the SEC. I’m curious with either of you, how does the revenue increase or change for University of Utah Athletics when joining a conference as powerful as the Big 12?
HARLAN: I’ll just say a few things. When athletic departments communicate revenue, it can get a little complicated, quite candidly. There’s so many different buckets. Sometimes you’ll see a lumping of, for example, the television deal combined with how many units come from a basketball tournament, or how many tickets you sell at a championship game. So it is confusing.
I will say that the thing I am most excited about with this television dynamic that we’re going into; obviously it’s with two of the major providers in FOX and ESPN, who have obviously been partners that we know well. It also will have streaming to it. I think it’s very important to know that…there will be streaming because that’s the way it’s going. And I think we’ve seen many comments from very huge people in the industry even hint that it could come sooner than we think. But this does position us to have a lot of visibility going forward. And I think that’s what I’m most excited about.
Q: President Randall, in terms of the proposed TV deal…with the accessibility that would’ve given you via Apple, how enticing was that? Mark’s already alluded to the fact that the linear component was obviously a big deal.
RANDALL: I think what (Arizona State) President Crow was referring to is that it was a new way of viewing college sports. That was both intriguing, and also made us all pause and say ‘we’ve got to analyze this a little further.’ It wasn’t like saying ‘hey, we’re going to say yes to a contract that we’ve done for years and years.’
We took a lot of time just kind of diving through it. At times, you felt like you were more a venture capitalist analyzing something than just looking at a traditional media deal. But it was fun. It was energizing. It was exciting.
Again, the way I described it is that all of us had to make a decision about that and get to a certain comfort level and we just couldn’t get the whole group there.
Q: Mark, even though you’ve joined the Big 12 as an “equal partner”, the University of Utah frankly has more Olympic type sports than many of the other institutions will in the Big 12. Is that any concern that the equal square will be spread a little more thin than some of the other institutions will have to?
HARLAN: No, I’m not concerned about that. I am very excited about the fact that we match up so well with our sports. Charmelle Green and I have already begun the conversation about (conferences for) beach volleyball [and] lacrosse…We will find solutions, that’s what we do.
We’re so fortunate here at the University of Utah. Our fan base, we’re at an all-time record high for donors in this athletic department. We’ve had so many people support us in so many different ways. We know with this announcement and securing the future and some of the anxieties that I anticipate we’ll even grow even further. Our future’s very bright.
Q: With increased travel a certainty within the Big 12, does that change the scheduling strategy and philosophy for games outside the league across the different sports?
HARLAN: Well, I’d caution a little bit on increased travel. Everyone can look at UCF and West Virginia and say ‘well, that’s further away.’
There’s a lot of groupings (in the Big 12) that are closer than what we currently experience. And so, as we go through and work with the conference and figure out how they’re going to do that, we have to let the dust settle. So I just want to say that before we say ‘increased travel’, we have to look at the totality of all of that.
What I can say unequivocally, is that for the student-athletes at the University of Utah, we’re not going to step one inch back on what we provide them, how we take care of them. Their health and wellness and all of that remains our singular focus. Whatever happens next, they’ll be taken care of in a great way. On that note, this is the time of year where we meet with our student-athletes and all the teams. We’re going through that process; Charmelle Green and I, and John Jentz and others, to make sure [the student-athletes] are up to speed on everything that’s going on. We’ve been communicating with them, as we have with our coaches. And there’s a lot of excitement.
Q: President Randall, over the last 12 years, the University, the athletic program, has grown exponentially. The brand has grown for Utah as well. Looking ahead to the future, do you have goals and benchmarks to keep Utah in that upper trend and growing the brand?
RANDALL: That’s a great question. I’m a president that thinks synergistically about pieces of our organization. We are a big conglomerate. We are a healthcare system, we’re a research institution, we’re an educational institution, we’re an athletics program. And certainly, athletics plays a key role in the brand of the university.
What I’ve liked most about the way that Mark has run this program is that he focuses on the student-athletes first. You look at our graduation rates—if we didn’t have [high] graduation rates, [athletics] wouldn’t be lifting the university to the extent that it needs to. So we’re going to continue to do that. What I see in the Big 12 are institutions that are also committed to that holistic student-athlete experience. If we can do that right, you’re going to see this brand continue to rise.
Q: For either of you, were there any conversations of substance with the Big Ten throughout this process—but specifically within the last two, three, four weeks as things really started to pick up?
RANDALL: I want to keep lots of conversations relatively private. But we explored a lot of options.
Q: As a follow up for Mark, given the tenor and tone of what the last year has been trying to stay together, moving in lock-step, were you surprised when Colorado did not wait to see what the media deal looked like?
MARK HARLAN: I really cannot speak for Colorado. I think it goes to what the President said earlier and what some of the other presidents that made comments over the weekend…you have to do what’s best for the institution that you’re at. And this place is special. We’re going to do what’s best for Utah. So I imagine Colorado had the same thinking. I’m not going to be critical of any of that. They did what they had to do. I guess the Colorado-Utah rivalry is back on.
Q: What kind of feedback or conversations have you had with the student-athletes since the move?
MARK HARLAN: That process is underway. I look forward to seeing a lot of [student-athletes] this week. We have a lot of meetings. We have been communicating with them. I was around the football program on Saturday. It’s fair to say some of the young men from Texas were jumping around a little bit. But we’ll have more feedback on that as we go through the week.
I think that for them, I just put myself in their shoes. They follow and read what you guys write and hear. Having clarity and certainty is something that I’m sure they’re very enthusiastic about.
Q: Washington’s president said that she kind of went into the last week expecting multiple options to be presented for a media rights deal with the Pac-12. Was that your expectation as well and were you surprised when only one was presented?
RANDALL: I will say through this whole process, our Commissioner did everything he could to bring options to us in a pretty difficult media market right now. So I appreciated his efforts and what he brought to us was a creative solution. And again, as we’ve mentioned, it’s unfortunate we couldn’t get that one over the finish line.
Q: Mark, obviously there’s four teams left in the Pac-12. Maybe loyalty’s not the right word, but do you feel any ties to them that maybe you can schedule them in the future? What’s your connection that you feel to them, if any?
HARLAN: First of all, there’s incredible people there. Just like (in media), this is a very high-relationship business in intercollegiate athletics. We compete against each other at a very high level. A little secret is during the week, we talk a lot about how to navigate stuff. If you’re referring to those four, those athletic directors are very, very close friends of mine. I’m feeling (for them) and I’m concerned, and I’m waiting to see what happens…It’s a little raw to talk about any of that. Right now, I’m thinking about them and thinking about my colleagues at the Pac-12 office, the Pac-12 Network, all the wonderful people that many of you guys know…I could go on and on about a lot of people I care deeply about. They’re all smart, they’re all great, and they’re all going to land on their feet. Maybe the conference will find a path forward. But right now, it’s way too early for me to think about anything with scheduling. We’ll see how it all plays out in the coming months.