Utah Utes' sports move to Pac-12 is under way
Hill knows moving to the Pac-12 will take strategic planning
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Editor's note: This is the first of an occasional series exploring the Utes' move to the Pac-12, which will go into effect July 1.
SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah athletics director Chris Hill has been busier than usual. However, he's not complaining. Overseeing the Utes' monumental move to the Pacific-12 Conference on July 1 is just too exciting.
"What's interesting is I've been in a whole different world for the future," Hill said while noting that his job description is that of crisis manager and long-term planner.
As such, Hill acknowledged he's no longer in the Mountain West Conference mentally. His primary focus is the future and there's plenty to think about.
"It's full-speed thoughtfulness," Hill said. "It's full-speed planning."
Making the jump from mid-major to membership in one of the nation's elite conferences is huge. It's also rare. The last time it happened was 2005 when Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida transferred from Conference-USA to the Big East.
Utah's circumstances, though, are different. The Big East needed to add football-playing schools after losing teams to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Utes were invited to join the Pac-12 after the league was rebuffed in expansion efforts with Texas and other Big 12 schools. They're switching conferences at a lucrative time both athletically and academically.
As a research institution, the university stands to benefit greatly from its affiliation and collaborations with like-minded Pac-12 schools. The athletic program is also moving into a much more prosperous situation than it had in the MWC. Besides being in an automatic qualifying conference in terms of the Bowl Championship Series, the Utes' annual television revenue will grow from $1.2 million per year to estimates as high as $18-20 million.
The latter, however, will come in stages — reaching 100 percent after growing from a 50 percent share in 2012-13 and a 75 percent portion the following year.
The rise in revenue, however, is accompanied by a higher cost of doing business.
Hill and his staff, thus, are working hard to formulate and implement a strategic plan.
It hasn't been easy.
As someone who earned his bachelor's degree in math education, Hill understands that too many variables make it impossible to solve an equation.
There are several department-wide challenges and moving Utah's athletic programs to the Pac-12, he noted, has as many as six or seven variables.
In addition to the basics, factors such as which teams can be the most successful right off the bat; generate the most money; garner the greatest publicity; have the best recruiting base; and those with coaching staffs already achieving at a high level must be considered in making decisions.
"So, we're looking at the sports and saying 'OK, how do we chip away at this?' We can't do it all at once because we're going to have to generate money," Hill said while noting that it shouldn't be on the back of season tickets.
In every sport, he continued, every different revenue resource should be tapped. Things like fundraising and marketing have to grow.
"We're trying to move each sport up to make sure they have the resources to compete," said Hill, who explained that some teams may get there faster than others.
That's the reality, he added, as Utah prepares to join the Pac-12.
"I don't want to disappoint the coaches because everybody wants to win the league," Hill said. "But at the same time we've got to be strategic about it."
In examining the big picture, Hill said they've looked at each sport and examined the revenue sources that have to grow. Determining how to increase such things, as well as identifying strengths and weaknesses were also discussed.
The general challenge, he continued, is to look at all 18 sports Utah offers and try to make sure as many as possible will be immediately competitive in the Pac-12.
A pecking order was developed.
"What we don't want to do is just spread everything equally and not invest in what our top successes can be," Hill said. "So the ice hockey team doesn't get the same percentage increase as the football team."
Hill used ice hockey, a club sport at Utah, to explain the situation to avoid offending one of the sanctioned programs.
"We want to make sure we invest in line with our priorities — knowing that we want to move everybody to be successful and that may take more time," he said.
It's no secret that football is the top revenue producer. Construction of a new $16 million football facility, which will house state-of-the-art sports medicine and athletic training space, a multipurpose dining hall, a team locker room, offices, equipment storage, a player lounge, a team auditorium, a Hall of Fame and meeting rooms with enhanced video capabilities, is set to begin in December. Donor dollars are expected to cover the entire cost. Approximately 35 percent of the funds have already been raised.
"Going into the Pac-12, it's an all-out arms race," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "Everybody is building the bigger and better buildings, and we've got to keep up with everybody."
The football facility, Hill noted, is huge as the Utes compete against Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State for recruits and victories.
Hill noted that the first goal in football is to win the division.
"Some years you get there, some you don't. But we want to be in the mix," Hill said. "We don't have all the resources to get their yet. Our football center is going to get done, and that's going to help."
In no particular order, Hill pointed out other facility needs. The list includes a new softball field, outdoor tennis courts and improved basketball practice facilities.
That's not to say, however, that the Utah athletic program is in dire need of major upgrades.
"We have stuff in place, so I don't want to act like woe is us. We're not going in as a little brother," Hill said. "There are things that we are really good at already and have the resources ready. But there are other areas that we've got to work on."
The firing of Jim Boylen and the hiring of Larry Krystkowiak underscores a sense of urgency with the men's basketball program. Hill points out that Utah has the third-most number of NCAA Tournament appearances in the Pac-12, trailing only UCLA and Arizona.
"We have a chance to really compete," Hill said of the Utes' situation.
Same goes, he continued, of the women's basketball program. Over the past decade, only Stanford has a higher RPI than Utah in the soon-to-be expanded league.
Women's gymnastics is another program primed to compete at a high level in the Pac-12.
Membership in the "Conference of Champions" will likely lead to a different mindset.
"Our goal in the Mountain West is to compete and win our fair share of league championships, get to the NCAA tournament and do well," Hill said. "Now I think the goal is to get into the NCAA tournament, which is the same, maybe get a better seed and try to win some games."
Women's volleyball, for example, is entering a league that sent eight teams to last year's NCAA tourney.
If you're winning a Pac-12 championship, Hill said, then you're probably winning a national title as well.
Utah will compete for top honors, but finishing fourth or fifth in the regular season could still lead to a better NCAA draw than winning the MWC.
Prevailing at the conference level is something they'll always strive for, but doing well nationally has always been a goal.
"The challenge is to set some realistic expectations," said Hill, who acknowledged it's really, really hard because every coach wants to win every game.
Does he tell the football team not to shoot for the Rose Bowl every year? What about the other sports?
Case in point, the Utah women's swim team. Stanford has won 25 consecutive conference championships.
"If our goal is to win the women's swim championship, that's not going to be a good goal," said Hill, who noted that future recruiting may focus on athletes who specialize in a smaller number of events and win points nationally.
Each sport is different and one size does not fit all.
To "get in the game," Hill plans to increase Utah's $33 million annual budget. The minimum effort he is calling for is an additional $10 million per year.
Such funding, he said, can be generated through existing resources. Avenues like merchandise sales, sponsorships, tickets, radio and TV rights and fundraising are among the things expected to increase naturally through Pac-12 membership.
"The brand is different," Hill said. "And with that comes areas of growth."
Assured of playing a football game at UCLA or USC each year, Utah has increased fundraising efforts in Los Angeles and other alumni bases throughout the conference.
On a recent visit to southern California, Hill let eager boosters know it's time to invest.
"Our resources will grow and that will allow us to invest more in our sports," he said. "But it's all relative because the Pac-12 is already invested in those sports."
While easing into future television money, there are some areas that Utah is short on. Recruiting budgets, for one, is something that needs to be boosted up in general.
Other costs aren't as obvious. To keep up with the rest of the conference, the Utes need to add an additional trainer, academic advisor and compliance person. Entry level hires include a graduate assistant for strength and conditioning. Taking care of the student-athletes, Hill explained, is obviously important.
"We've got to do that because that's what is right and we've got to do it because we need to provide the support that other schools that we're competing against do," he said. "If all the other schools have a trainer for women's soccer and we have a (graduate assistant) that's not the right thing to do. Plus, it's a disadvantage recruiting."
Team travel can have the same implications.
"When you compete against other schools you want to make sure you travel in a competitive way," said Hill, who noted that the Utah baseball team will no longer travel in vans. The Utes will be using busses on the road.
Basketball travel costs may also increase since the Pac-12 is big on players not missing class. Charter flights could become the norm.
There are plenty of small things, across the board for all sports, that may require upgrades.
On the bigger end, coaching salaries need to remain competitive.
"If we had the whole $10 million gap closed right now, we could probably do more for everybody," Hill said. "We're going to start to close that gap this year and that's why we'll invest in line with our priorities."
The bottom line
Utah's existing athletic department expenditure/revenue budget is currently $5 million per year below that of Washington State, the lowest of the schools now in the Pac-10.
The numbers, though, are a bit deceiving. The Utes have some definite advantages over many of their Pac-12 colleagues in that regard.
Utah offers the NCAA maximum of scholarships in each sport it offers. The cost of tuition, however, is less than all of the other schools in the league — giving the Utes more money to allocate elsewhere.
"That's a little help to us," Hill said before pointing out another favorable variable. The U.'s athletic department, he continued, has essentially no debts on its facilities and no debt for being overbudget and/or borrowing money from the university like some other schools do.
"There's some advantages that we have that help us say 'OK, we can get there,' " Hill said.
After operating a "lean machine" throughout the years, Utah's athletic department is well equipped to make rational decisions when it comes to future growth and accompanying expenses. Upper management has not grown at a ridiculous rate, Hill said.
"I think having a leaner machine allows us to target where we want to put our money," he explained. "It's so important for us — I can't emphasize enough — for our coaches to have the support they need to compete. That has to happen."
As the new kids on the Pac-12 block, Hill noted that Utah doesn't always have to do what somebody else does as long as the teams and coaches have that backing.
"We are going to do what's best for us. We have things that are better than (others) already. We have some things in place that are better," Hill said while noting that the Huntsman Center will be the biggest basketball and gymnastics venue in the Pac-12 and that Rice-Eccles Stadium is as pretty as anybody's else place to play.
There's more. Topping the list, he emphasized, are the coaches Utah employs.
"We have really good coaches," Hill said. "And that's a big deal."
It all adds up to a bottom line that has kept the 61-year-old department head enthused throughout a busy transition.
"The big picture is we're excited," Hill concluded. "We are going to compete. We're going to provide the resources to be successful. We're going to do it as the University of Utah."
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