SALT LAKE CITY — In a sentimental speech, punctuated with tears and self-deprecating humor, the longest tenured athletic director at a single university in NCAA history announced his retirement.
Chris Hill joked through tears in a 30-minute farewell address about a job that he could scarcely imagine when he was in college, a job that has blessed and bonded his family and a job that has brought him so much joy that some days “I have to pinch myself.”
“You can’t make this stuff up,” he said, his voice cracking repeatedly, as he spoke seated at a table next to his wife, Kathy, in front of a standing-room-only crowd in the reception room at Huntsman Arena. “You just can’t. The odds of me becoming AD at the University of Utah when I was 20 years old was about zero.”
He said the same thing that compelled him to come to Utah without a job was the same thing that told him it was time to retire from the department he’s overseen for 31 years.
“In January, we made the decision,” he said, pausing to collect himself. “There are decisions in life that are hard. You get married because your heart tells you to. You have children, if you are fortunate enough and want to have children, because your heart tells you to. Lord knows the tax deduction is not worth it. You get in your car and drive on I-80 without a job because your heart told you to. Well this one, I put the yellow notepad down (because) I could have gone on forever. But my heart is telling me it’s time. It feels good.”
He said he waited to announce the decision until basketball season was over, and then joked that he ended up stealing a bit of thunder from the men’s basketball team as they play in the Final Four of the NIT in Madison Square Garden Tuesday evening.
Preparing for Western Kentucky in New York, men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak praised Hill for taking a chance on him. Hill was criticized for hiring Krystkowiak, who’d coached at his alma mater, the University of Montana, for two years before bouncing around as an NBA assistant.
“Obviously, I wouldn’t be where I am without him and his faith and belief bringing me to Utah,” said Krystkowiak. “So it’s not an easy one for me, you know, sorting that one out. But I look forward to sitting down with him when I get back, thanking him for the opportunities. The longest tenured athletic director and (he's) just done a remarkable job, so it’s sad. It’s sad that he’s moving on.”
Krystkowiak wasn’t the only Utah coach who expressed some sadness at Hill’s decision to leave the helm of a department that is unique in its familial energy and operation.
“He talked about the culture in the department,” said gymnastics co-head coach Megan Marsden of what worries her about the transition to a new department head. “I love the family atmosphere. I love that Chris was someone who was very open and transparent and square with the staff. I don’t know if everybody in a position of power is that transparent. So I worry about what’s to come. It is unique.”
Hill said another factor in his decision was the fact that Utah’s athletic programs are thriving, although that was secondary to how he felt personally.
“The other thing is we’re in good shape,” he said. “I think the programs are in good shape. I think we have great things going on. At the end of the day, it comes from inside.”
The New Jersey native played college basketball at Rutgers and came to Utah in 1973 as a graduate assistant for Utah basketball coach Bill Foster, after which he began coaching at Granger High.
“When I was 31, Kathy and I were trying to get a ticket to the North Carolina-Utah game, when they finally had the Final Four here, and I couldn’t get a ticket until the very last minute,” he said. “Six years later, I was the boss, and I got every ticket I wanted.”
Hill has guided the department through two massive league changes, starting with the move from the Western Athletic Conference, to which they belonged when he arrived in 1987, to the formation of the Mountain West Conference to the move seven years ago to the Pac-12. He turned down offers to move to Power 5 schools when Utah was in the Mountain West for two reasons — he loved Utah and the life it offered his family, and he believed the U. would eventually join a major conference.
“Happiness isn’t all about money and prestige,” he said of remaining at the U. for more than three decades. “All of us who have worked in Utah athletics knew this place was a sleeping giant and we never gave up hope that we could get it done here. My wife Kathy and I love living in Salt Lake City and raising our family here. The University of Utah fit the academic profile of the (former) Pac-10 Conference, so we in athletics did everything we could to position ourselves similarly from an athletic standpoint.”
Among Hill’s accomplishments will be the coaches he hired — some of whom have among the longest careers in college sports. He hired Rick Majerus, who made Utah a perennial NCAA Tournament team, in 1989, as well as hiring Ron McBride, who turned the football program around and made them competitive with BYU.
His biggest hire turned out to be hiring Urban Meyer, then a coach at Bowling Green, who guided the Utes to a 12-0 season as they became the first “mid-major” team to play in a BCS bowl game. That success, as well as the fact that the U. is a research facility, made the Utes more attractive to the then-Pac-10 Conference as it looked to expand.
But Hill was known for giving as much time, attention and support to the non-revenue sports as he did to men’s basketball and football.
“Every single thing that we talked about 28 years ago for the volleyball program has come to fruition,” said volleyball head coach Beth Launiere, who was Hill’s third hire, right behind Majerus and McBride. “And all along the way, I feel like he’s always supported us and gave us everything we need to be successful. I think he’s always taken Title lX very seriously. He’s always provided us with the resources to be successful. The other thing is, he’s not a micromanager. He was easy to work for in that way. He provided us what we needed, and he didn’t micromanage.”
Hill paused before answering what his proudest accomplishment was.
“I think we’ve got a culture,” Hill said. “It’s a culture that we care about each other. We’re not afraid of lofty goals. We’re not afraid. And that’s something we started a while ago. You get good people that work hard and you create culture. And I think it’s a culture that we talk about recruiting, and some schools go and say, ‘We’re so cool, you want to be part of us.’ But we go, ‘You’re so cool, you make us better.’ And it’s kind of a family thing.”
Hill said he plans to “dust off my boring resume” and do some consulting work. He’s already committed to working for CCS Consulting, although he emphasized it would be on jobs he wants and on his own timeline.
“I’m not a person that’s going to sit around when they’re retired and say, ‘I’m busier than ever,’” he said. “I feel I’d fail if I do that.”
He wants to spend more time golfing, and hinted that he might write down all the “crazy stories” he has in his head.
“I want to leave a ballgame with three minutes to go, tie score, and just walk out,” he said to laughter. “And see how that really feels. I can never get that. But I think there will be something else for me to achieve.”
As for how he feels about leaving the Utah-BYU rivalry behind, he took a pass.
“It will be in the book,” he said. He doesn’t want to be on a search committee, but he did want to be useful if ever called on by his replacement. Hill had a few words of advice for whoever fills his shoes.
“Find people around you that are really, really willing to tell you when you’re full of it,” he said, recounting a day he came into work full of what he thought were revolutionary new ideas, noting that one after another, his staff persuaded him otherwise. “So you’re telling me that’s a really stupid idea, aren’t you, guys? And I got kind of emotional. I said, ‘If you’re a leader, have that around you. And don’t pretend that you have it when you know you don’t. You have to be really competent as an employee to be willing to tell your boss that he’s full of it. And just be yourself.”