We’re in the Conference of Champions and they don’t say that for any other reason than that’s what it is. In many ways, if you’re in the top four in the league you’re competing in the very top of the national level. —Chris Hill, Utah athletics director
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.”
Utah is making a jump that perhaps only TCU can relate to. The Utes and Horned Frogs are the only two former non-BCS schools to join one of the five major conferences. Hill has spoken with TCU athletics director Chris Del Conte about the situation and both agreed that it was a transition time for both to get recruiting and support systems in place. Hill thinks both programs are starting to get there.
TCU struggled in its first season in the Big 12, failing to win a conference title in any sport other than a shared crown in equestrian.
Life in a power conference is vastly different from life in the Mountain West. Utah’s football program, for example, has played 19 BCS teams over the past two seasons as compared to 20 during the previous seven campaigns combined.
The degree of difficulty extends to other sports as well.
“It’s been a major challenge,” said Utah women’s basketball coach Anthony Levrets. “The depth and the talent from the best team in the league to the 12th-best team in the league is amazing.”
Despite the challenges, Levrets admits that it’s really fun to measure yourself against some of the best teams in the country and see where you stand — all within conference play. He loves it.
“This is a different challenge and every single day when you wake up in the morning you are competing against some of the very best in the country in everything from recruiting to marketing to how you play — everything that you do,” Levrets said. “You have to be good to compete in this conference. It make us all get better and I love the challenge of that.”
Utah baseball coach Bill Kinneberg, who worked at both Arizona State and Arizona earlier in his career, considers it a process, a journey and a task.
“It’s apples and oranges with every sport from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. For baseball, there was doubt we were better this year on the field. It doesn’t show with the number of wins but we were a more competitive, better baseball team,” said Kinneberg, whose squad has gone 7-23 in Pac-12 play in each of the past two seasons. “But we’re still not where we need to be and where we are going to be. We’re going to get there. It’s going to take time.”
The Utes lost seven one-run conference games this year, including four to NCAA tournament participants Oregon State, UCLA and ASU.
Continued improvement, Kinneberg said, requires putting good recruiting classes together and hoping the groups jell and stay intact. Even so, he noted that every team eventually starts over again.
“So many things can happen with injuries, with guys that play well, guys that don’t play well, and so it’s a new challenge every September when we start up,” said Kinneberg, who explained that the same is true for each team in the conference. “Every school is seeing the same thing. Either they’ve got to regroup or retool or re-recruit. Even the established ones have to work their tails off because nothing is easy in this league."
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Utah in the Pac-12
MEN Year 1 Year 2
Baseball 7-23 (11th) 7-23 (11th)
Basketball 3-15 (11th) 5-13 (10th)
Football 4-5 (3rd) 3-6 (5th)
Golf 12th 12th
Swimming 5th 5th
Tennis 1-6 (7th) 2-5 (7th)
WOMEN Year 1 Year 2
Basketball 8-10 (T-7th) 9-11 (6th)
Cross Country 8th 7th
Gymnastics 2nd 3rd
Soccer 6-5 (5th) 3-7-1 (T-9th)
Softball 2-22 (9th) 7-17 (9th)
Swimming 7th 7th
Tennis 3-7 (8th) 4-5 (6th)
Track T-10th 11th
Volleyball 6-16 (9th) 5-15 (9th)