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."
Watts remembers when he began doing UVU basketball broadcasts in what amounted to a high school gym on campus. “It was a game against Hill Air Force Base in 1988. I looked in the stands and there were 62 people. I know because I counted. Now look at the facility, look how far it has come and that is because of Mike.”
D.J. Smith is one of those hired by Jacobsen and is now an assistant athletic director at UVU.
“Mike has been a great mentor. He’s had a great vision for what UVU could become, and has worked tirelessly to make it happen. His foresight and perseverance have helped to transform our athletic department from a tiny JC program with little to no facilities, into a thriving and competitive NCAA Division I entity. Kudos to Mike for his long and outstanding service to UVU Athletics.”
Jacobsen, who has directly been involved in gathering $9 million at UVU over the years, says the move to Division I was the toughest thing in his career.
In 1986, Jacobsen was diagnosed with cancer. The remarkable aspect of Jacobsen’s tenure is that he dug in at that difficult time and made the majority of the big watermark events of his career come to pass after that.
“I love Mike like my father,” said Watts. “Many times he’s advised and counseled me, a lot of times when I was old enough to know better. But honestly, if someone takes a step back and looks at what he’s done, it’s nothing short of phenomenal. It is amazing.”
And so it is. UVU without Jacobsen in the WAC does seem like Moses unable to lead his people into the land of milk and honey.
But Jacobsen is OK with that. He will go on to other things as a father and grandfather and is prepared to pass the proverbial staff to another.
UVU highlights during Mike Jacobsen's tenure as athletic director
1984 — Hired as athletic director at Utah Technical College, overseeing five varsity sports and an athletic department consisting of only a handful of employees.
1986 — UTC joins the Scenic West Athletic Conference as a founding member.
1987 — UTC changes name to Utah Valley Community College.
1987-1995 — Serves on NJCAA committees for wrestling and cross country.
1993 — UVCC name changed to Utah Valley State College.
1995 — Named vice president for the National Alliance of Two-Year College Athletic Administrators.
1995 — Named director of NJCAA’s Region 18.
1995 — Appointed to the NJCAA Division I men’s basketball committee.
1995 — Appointed to the NJCAA Division I football committee.
1996 — Served as president for the National Alliance of Two-Year College Administrators.
1996-2001 — Continues work on the NJCAA Executive Committee.
2000 — Utah Valley wins its first and only national title, claiming the NJCAA softball national championship.
2000 — Named the NACDA Athletic Director of the Year for the Junior/Community College West Region.
2001 — Recipient of the William L. Miller Award, which is the administrator of the year award for the National Alliance of Two-Year College Athletic Administrators.
2001 — Applies with the NCAA to explore moving his school and athletics program to NCAA Division I.
2003 — Utah Valley adds varsity wrestling, becoming the first school in 33 years to do so.
In 2002-03 — UVSC plays an exploratory year at the Division I level.
In 2003-04 — UVSC competes in its first year of NCAA Division I athletics.
July 2008 — The school transitions into Utah Valley University.
July 2008 — Helps found the Great West Conference, a league specifically designed to give D-I programs forced to operate as independents a conference home. UVU announced it would join the Great West Conference in July 2009.2 comments on this story
July 2009 — UVU completes a seven-year provisional period and becomes a full Division I member, making it the first community college in modern history of the NCAA to move directly from a two-year school to the NCAA D-I level. Leads UVU to a Commissioner’s Cup title in every year it competed in the Great West Conference (it should repeat in 2013)
October 2012 — UVU announces it will join the Western Athletic Conference on July 1, 2013
October 2012 — Announces the addition of men’s soccer, which will be UVU’s 16th sport in 2014
January 2013 — Announces his retirement as athletic director at Utah Valley University after 29 years at the helm, effective June 30. During the past 10 years, Jacobsen has increased UVU’s budget from $1.2 million to $9.5 million
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.