Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
OREM — Mike Jacobsen is kind of like Moses.
He wandered through the wilderness of an athletic landscape at Utah Valley University for decades, building landmarks of stone and flesh as the school's athletic director. But just as the Wolverines make the jump into the Western Athletic Conference, Jacobsen won't be the guy directing his people into that promised land.
Jacobsen is retiring this month as UVU’s athletic director. His tenure began 29 years ago when the school was called Utah Technical College. He outlasted four presidents and four different school names, and took an athletic department that once consisted of five programs and turned it into 16.
Today stands a beautiful basketball arena, state-of-the-art baseball stadium, soccer fields and other impressive landmarks. And along the way, Jacobsen has had plenty of landmark achievements, including taking a two-year junior college to Division I.
“That’s what my friends and family say," Jacobsen says of the Moses comparison. "But I’m getting older and there are other things to do. The hardest thing about it is leaving the relationships, people I’ve worked with.”
UVU President Matthew S. Holland recently named Vince Otoupal as new athletic director. He comes from Cal State Monterey Bay.
Jacobsen is in North Carolina today on vacation. He planned it that way because it was too difficult to be around the office during changes. The 68-member athletic staff — all folks he hired — are making the transition to the new athletic director and membership in the WAC in the coming weeks.
“It was easier to be gone,” he said of his emotional transition.
Jacobsen leaves a remarkable legacy. He helped build a Division I program from scratch. He asked for and got money; he campaigned for community support; he recruited coaches; and he asked builders for contributions in kind: concrete, pipe, wood and steel. A good piece of what you see when traveling on I-15 near the University Parkway exit in Orem has Jacobsen’s prints all over it.
He says his wife Alice is a hero in all this. “She’s supported me when others said things could not be done,” he said. When he took a job to coach football at Springville High, his college coach LaVell Edwards advised against it, calling it a boneyard. But he did that for 15 years. People said he shouldn’t take the job at what was then called UTC, but he did. People said he shouldn’t take UVU to Division I but rather stay as a junior college or Division II school. He didn’t listen; he had a vision.
“He’ll be remembered as the father of UVU athletics for all time,” said longtime radio play-by-play man Steve Watts. “Dr. Chris Hill may have got Utah in the Pac-12, but if you look at what Mike did at UVU over time, with what he had and what he did with it, he may be the most successful athletic director this state has ever seen. Nobody’s done what Mike has done.”
When Jacobsen was determined to take UVU to Divison I, the NCAA threw up all kinds of roadblocks, including increasing the fee and extending the evaluation period, during which time his coaches and players could not compete for a national title. Jacobsen got everyone at the party to stick together and wait it out.
"In many respects, Mike Jacobsen IS UVU Athletics,” says former UVU Vice President Val Hale. “He built the program from the ground up. He led the transition from junior college to NCAA Division I, something no other athletic director has ever done. He helped build the facilities and led the program to the Great West Conference and the WAC. He leaves a tremendous legacy and foundation at UVU."
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