The U-phoria over last Saturday's 57-28 demolition of BYU by the resurgent Ute football team has been something to behold. Ute players were given standing ovations upon entering classrooms Monday, and presumably not for high marks on chemistry exams.
While accolades have been heaped on Ute Coach Jim Fassel, his staff and players - as they should - a big share of credit for Utah's sports success needs to go to Chris Hill.Hill has just completed a year as athletic director at the U. He got the post when Jim Copeland left to become AD at Virginia. At 38 he is one of the younger ADs - if not the youngest - at a major college.
In a year's time, Hill has shown a leadership style and commitment that appear to be leading Utah to a higher sports plateau - a plateau that values academics as much as athletic achievements.
Hill, an alumnus of Rutgers, talked with Deseret News
sports personnel in the summer about what he hoped to accomplish.
He said he wanted stability in the coaching ranks. He said the U. was dedicated to helping players academically as well as athletically, and that the way to upgrade U. athletic programs was to do so from a solid base gradually, as opposed to trying for an overnight miracle. In football, "We want to get where we're in a position to regularly contend for the WAC title," he said.
One of his first priorities,he said,was to upgrade the football and basketball schedules - he clearly didn't like the idea of having the Ute football team playing Division I-AA schools like Boise State and Idaho State.
He's noted for his willingness to seek the views of others, including the press. As he told Deseret News Sports Editor Lee Benson shortly after his appointment, "I want to have a participatory administrative style. I want to draw on the resources around me. I hope we can have a free flow of information. We have some excellent resources in this department." It's that "I don't know everything" approach that has made him so popular among his peers.
He's also candid and accessible. That became apparent in August when the story about Martel Black's involvement with drugs broke. It was an embarrassing situation for the Utes. Here was a guy who had been an outstanding running back the year before and might have teamed with Eddie Johnson to give the Utes a dream backfield this season.
Hill could have ducked the matter - in fact, he was in meetings all day when it happened and therefore conveniently "unavailable for comment." So, what did he do when he found out about it? He called U. beat writer Brad Rock to see if there was anything he might be able to say to clarify the situation. Rock said he was shocked by that show of trust.
Hill and the coaches hope to shock the other WAC schools in the coming years regarding the quality of their athletic program. They had a pretty nice beginning last Saturday.