LOGAN — Utah State’s new athletics director, a self-described scrapper, took his introductory swing on Wednesday.
That’s the first rule of street fighting, isn’t it?
Get in the first shot and make it count.
So it was that at his press conference, John Hartwell pointed out he’s not backing away from a fight, even if it’s with the bigger kid down the street.
“Our budget may not be as large as the University of Utah’s, but you know what? We’re going to find ways not only to compete, but to beat them — and (compete) with all the big boys in terms of going out and being creative,” Hartwell said.
When your mascot is a bull, well, you tend to take the bull by the horns.
Hartwell met with the media and Aggie fans on a bright early summer day. You could sense his spirits rising along with the outside temperatures. His wife, Heather, told him in 2013, when the family came West with Troy University for the Gossner Classic, that she could picture them living in Logan.
“Who in the heck do you know that could get you this job?” she asked her husband.
It came true this week. After a nationwide search, the university chose Hartwell. President Stan Albrecht said the search led to numerous qualified candidates and “we actually broke some hearts” when notifying others they hadn’t been selected.
That hasn’t always been the case. Traditionally, USU has been an underfunded and underappreciated school that got the most out of its circumstances. But things are quickly improving.
What Hartwell brings is a blend of backgrounds that resonated with the search committee. Not only did he work in athletic administration in the Southeastern Conference (Mississippi), and serve as A.D. at Troy, but he also has experience in money management. Maybe all schools need that. After finishing up a career as “an undersized 6-foot-7 center” at The Citadel in 1987, he landed a job at the accounting firm of Ernst & Young. But soon he returned to his alma mater as director of internal audit.
Once in an athletic environment, there was no stopping him from a career in sports — and in stretching dollars. Hartwell notes that when he was an associate A.D. at Mississippi, conference opponents Tennessee and Florida had three times his budget.
“If you think that big-time college athletics is not an arms race,” Hartwell said on Wednesday, “you’re kidding yourself.”
At least in part, his accounting savvy led him to the job at Utah State. It’s not like USU is flush with money, even now. At the same time, a lot of the heavy lifting has been done. Hartwell succeeds Scott Barnes, who moved USU away from the abyss of irrelevance. Barnes didn’t overreach, when it came to comparing USU to its bigger instate neighbors Utah and BYU, but he didn’t genuflect, either. Thanks to him, USU has the Wayne Estes Center, a shiny home for volleyball, as well as basketball practice. It also has a new strength and conditioning center and a stadium renovation underway.
No less important, Barnes hired football coaches Gary Andersen and Matt Wells.
As a parting favor, Barnes nailed down the stadium naming rights (with Maverik, Inc.) — a must in today’s hyper-expensive world of college sports.
Barnes didn’t think USU needed to kowtow. So when Utah balked at playing the Aggies home-and-home in basketball, he agreed with former basketball coach Stew Morrill that they didn’t need to play at all. During his administration, Barnes began scheduling BYU home-and-home in football, rather than the previous 2-for-1 arrangement.
Still, Hartwell isn’t taking anything for granted. Among USU’s needs is upgrading the 45-year-old Spectrum.
“We’ve got to make sure that with all our facilities we have the 'wow' factor,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said he expects his teams to have the wow factor, too. Utah State has yet to win a Mountain West title in any sport.
“We’re going to win multiple Mountain West championships in multiple sports,” he said.
It’s possible Hartwell’s first big public assignment will be replacing football coach Matt Wells, who is a hot commodity. Wells has been to two bowl games and won both. How much longer can USU keep him?
Also, there’s the upcoming “cost of attendance” issue that involves student-athletes. That’s not a major worry for power conference schools, but for mid-majors it can induce night sweats. Under Barnes, USU was once named the most efficient athletic department in the country.
Hartwell easily could follow suit.
Nobody ever said you can’t be a fiscal conservative and a street fighter at the same time.
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