Rick Bowmer, AP
SALT LAKE CITY — Mixing it up with “the biggest of the bigs.” That’s how Utah athletics director Chris Hill describes Pac-12 membership. It’s been nearly two years since the Utes left the Mountain West Conference to compete alongside Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State in one of the nation’s most elite and lucrative affiliations.
“It’s an exciting time for us. It’s fun to have this kind of challenge as you move into another league,” Hill said. “It’s just unusual. It’s a chance to build again and that’s what we’re planning on doing. It’s a challenge that we welcome because everybody wants to compete on the very, very top level and that’s what we’re doing week in and week out.”
Moving to the Pac-12, Hill concedes, isn’t without its challenges — and gigantic ones at that.
“We’re in the Conference of Champions and they don’t say that for any other reason than that’s what it is,” Hill said. “In many ways, if you’re in the top four in the league you’re competing in the very top of the national level.”
Getting Utah’s programs to that point is taking time. The Utes have yet to win a conference title since joining the league and only a couple of teams actually improved their record or standing in Pac-12 competition over the first two seasons of membership.
On the men’s side, basketball and tennis showed gains. Baseball, golf and swimming stayed the same, while football had a decline in conference victories. As for the women’s teams, basketball, cross country and tennis had marked improvements. Swimming held its position, unlike drops by gymnastics, soccer, track and volleyball.
Despite it all, Hill feels like the overall program is building and is optimistic about the future.
“I think we’ve got some good things in place,” he said. “We’ve been recruiting now for the Pac-12 for about a little over two years and we think that makes a big difference. So as we continue to transition in I think our recruiting pool is continuing to get better and that’s going to affect it as much as anything.”
Facility upgrades are assisting in that regard. Utah’s increasing Pac-12 monies (bowl revenue, NCAA revenue and television revenue) will also help. As per their membership agreement, the Utes received a 50 percent share (approximately $9.9 million) in 2012-13 and stand to get 75 percent ($14.5 million) in 2013-14. Full revenue sharing comes in 2014-15 with an estimated windfall of $23.3 million and projected 4 percent annual increases thereafter.
Utah received $1.2 million from such revenue streams in its final year in the Mountain West Conference.
It’s a time of transition and Hill acknowledged that each sport has different challenges.
“We know it’s tough. We know we’ve got a ways to go,” he said. “But at the same time we think our recruiting is catching up with Pac-12 teams and that’s going to make the big difference.”
As a whole, Hill noted that the Utes are moving where they want to go. It’s just going to take a little time and everyone in the athletic department knows it.
“We’re going to keep working at it,” he vowed.
Hill explained that the anticipation is that when Utah is fully into everything that the Utes will compete for conference championships and postseason games.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “No one thought it was going to be easy.”
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