SALT LAKE CITY — Sometime next month, Ute athletic director Chris Hill will turn the keys over to a new driver. That’s gonna leave a mark. All Hill did was guide his athletic program, Moses-style, to the land of milk and honey and avocado toast.
Barring the downfall of the Pac-12 — a subject already vetted in the media — the U. should be secure for decades.
Naturally, there is high interest in who will replace the retiring Hill. Is the goal to be a college superpower, or merely competitive in a Power 5 conference? The latter is where the Utes are right now. They’ve won only four conference titles since joining in 2011 — three in gymnastics, one in baseball. In that light, there’s room for improvement. Utah is the only team that hasn’t won a South Division football title. The men’s basketball team has been up and down, finishing as high as tied for second and as low as 11th.
A new A.D. might demand more, though Hill was never one to aim low. He often said his plan was to give coaches what they needed to succeed, especially in the revenue sports. In return, he expected them to be in the top 25. That has happened on a fairly regular basis. Men’s basketball has been ranked 27 weeks since joining the Pac-12, in football, 38.
Still, the new A.D. will arrive at a disconcerting time for the conference. Last week, CBS.com’s Dennis Dodd filed a damning report on the Pac-12’s inability to keep pace with other power conferences in ratings, revenue and wins. The conference’s abysmal 1-8 bowl record last season, and its 0-3 flameout in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, only made it more obvious.
Now Utah is hoping to replace Hill with another visionary leader who can take it to the next level, i.e. championships in the biggest sports. There are numerous people with strong ties to the university that could be expected to apply for Hill’s position, including current Utah deputy or associate A.D.s Kyle Brennan and Nona Richardson, ex-Ute and NFL quarterback Scott Mitchell, and Vivint Arena president Jim Olson. Penn State associate A.D. Charmelle Green was an All-America softball player at Utah.
Local ties often provide superb candidates. It’s never wise to overlook what’s under your nose. Hill was a largely unknown Crimson Club director when named to replace Arnie Ferrin in 1987. Kyle Whittingham was an unassuming defensive coordinator when he took over for Urban Meyer.
There naturally will be dozens of outside applicants who have no ties to Utah, which is where it gets tricky. Some will be athletic directors at mid-major schools, hoping to move up, or associate A.D.s at Power 5 schools. It’s likely there will be others who are already leading Power 5 programs, but either don’t like the politics at their own school, or they appreciate Utah’s potential. Business figures and leaders in pro sports positions will also apply.
Of all the possibilities, Utah should avoid hiring an assistant from a Power 5 program, or the head administrator at a mid-major program. Some of those will be fine candidates. But as much as anything right now, the Pac-12 needs to avoid looking subservient to other conferences.
That doesn’t mean No. 2s can’t have great careers. Numerous other Pac-12 schools have chosen people from smaller schools. Arizona’s Dave Heeke came from Central Michigan, Washington State’s Patrick Chun from Florida Atlantic, UCLA’S Dan Guerrero from UC-Irvine. Washington’s Jennifer Cohen previously served as an associate A.D. for the Huskies.
Colorado’s Rick George, an ex-COO for the Texas Rangers, and ASU’s Ray Anderson, a former executive vice president with the NFL, had clout via their titles. Oregon’s Rob Mullens was deputy A.D. at Kentucky and has led the Ducks to national prominence.
They’ve come from a variety of backgrounds and produced varied results.
Oregon State hired former Pitt A.D. Scott Barnes. If the Utes go outside the circle of close associates to find their new director, that’s the kind of candidate they should first seek.
Donor dollars are tied to whoever is running the athletic program, and nothing attracts donors like a name they know — either inside the loop, or outside the state.
But choosing from among scores of random assistants at a Power 5 school, at a time when the Pac-12 is suffering a power failure, simply says the league is, well, out of its league.