SALT LAKE CITY — The first phone call came from Mark Harlan’s incredulous wife. Every call after that begged him to correct his mistake.
“It looked very legit,” Harlan said of the fake Twitter account that made it appear he didn’t know the difference between the university that just announced he’d be leading the athletic department (Utah) and the similarly named, but very different university to the north (Utah State). “I had more than a few people that called right away and said, ‘Take that down!’ I did not know what they were talking about because I was in Tampa doing my thing. Then I looked, and I understood. … The first person who called me, to yell at me, was my wife. It even fooled her. So again, much props to whoever it might be.”
Harlan laughs long and loud as he talks about his “first exposure to the (Utah-BYU) rivalry,” which came on the day he was announced as Chris Hill’s successor. On June 1 a tweet appeared from the account @MarkHarlanUtah saying, “Excited for this new opportunity! Will do everything in my power to bring a National Championship to Utah State! #GoUtes.”
Harlan was told, and Cougarboard suggests, it was a BYU fan or alumnus who is active on Twitter. The account has been deactivated by Twitter, but, on July 5, the University of Utah twitter account (@UUtah) asked the social media platform to give Harlan’s actual account (@MarkHarlan_AD) the blue verified check mark to avoid any future issue.
“If I see him or her, they can get a high-five from me,” he said, laughter filling his nearly empty new office. “Yeah, I had many people calling me saying, ‘What did you do?’ and I didn’t know what they were talking about. The joys of social media!”
Harlan’s response to the incident illustrates his social media philosophy.
“I think it’s very important,” he said of being active on Twitter. “People invest a lot in us, and they probably want to know what I’m thinking. And so, I met with the communications team this week and said, ‘Let’s crank it up. Let’s have fun. You can’t take yourself too seriously. I think that’s really, really important.”
Harlan said he’s enjoyed his interaction with Utah fans, alumni and even some students.
“I like to have fun with it,” he said. “I like it to be genuine. It’s me. If anybody asks, I’ll tell you it’s me. I actually enjoy it. … I have found it to be a great way for me to message some things I’m thinking about.”
He said if he makes missteps, his family, likely his 13-year-old daughter, will let him know immediately.
Ability to communicate
Harlan, 48, comes to Utah after his tenure as athletic director at the University of South Florida, where the Bulls won 13 conference championships in the American Athletic Conference during his four-year reign. Equally important is that USF graduated 82 percent of its student-athletes in 2017, and the school had four programs with perfect Academic Progress Report scores.
Under his leadership, eight sports enjoyed increases in attendance, including a 102.4 percent increase in volleyball, a 62 percent increase in men’s soccer and a 35.2 percent increase in women’s basketball.
Men's basketball coach Brian Gregory was hired by Harlan in the spring of 2016, and said that Harlan’s success at USF was his ability to communicate.
“He is going to ask you, ‘What do you need to be successful?’” said Gregory, who has coached college basketball for nearly 28 years. “And then he’s going to go out and try and get that for you. If it can’t be done, he’ll come back and say, ‘At this particular point, we can’t get this done.’ But the most important thing is communication. You know where you’re at. Trust is built through relationships, and he’s really great at it.”
Gregory said he “felt” Harlan’s integrity from their first conversation — from his vision for the department and his ability to support all a coach does, especially the unseen aspects that go unnoticed by boosters or fans. All are critical to building the kind of success Harlan will strive for at Utah — in the classroom, in competition and in the community.
“There are a lot of ways to be successful in that position,” Gregory said. “The one thing I think he is, he’s got great versatility. If it’s fundraising you need, I think he’s great at that because he’s about building relationships; the time he spends with coaches, supporting the coaches.
"One of the stories I heard before I got here was him sticking with Willie Taggart, really believing in him as a coach and seeing what was happening within the program, even when they weren’t winning. So many times, if you’re rebuilding, trying to get to another level, a lot of the stuff that shows that you’re making progress is under the surface. … But everything he told me was true. He followed through on it. The academic piece is as important to him as kicking butt on the field.”
Women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez, who has led the USF program for 18 years, said Harlan’s support enhanced the program for the student-athletes and the fans.
“He was very supportive of our program,” Fernandez said. “We went to the NCAA Tournament five of the last six years. … When he came in, we didn’t have our own strength coach. He got us our own strength coach. Our season ticket numbers have increased every year, and we were supported with marketing dollars. We went on a foreign tour when he was here. … He really made it a big emphasis that we’d win in the classroom, on the court and in the community. There is a reason a Power 5 school like Utah hired him.”
Fernandez echoed Gregory in asserting that one of Harlan’s greatest strengths is his ability to ‘balance’ the unique demands of being a college athletic director — fundraising, hiring and supporting coaches, and helping student-athletes.
More than statistics
Jodie Libadisos, associate athletics director over student-athlete enhancement, said that Harlan saw more than statistics when he dealt with the young men and women representing the university on the field of play.
“In his time here, Mark added an additional staff member to our area to assist in the growing expectations and desire to make our program robust for our student-athletes,” Libadisos said of the office that oversaw career development, community involvement, leadership advancement and personal enhancement. “Mark is very focused on the overall student-athlete experience and making sure they are at the center of his mindset on a daily basis. His door is always open for them, and he wants to make sure he knows them — by face, by name, and beyond their stats. He wants to know the student-athletes across all sports, no matter how high-profile they are.”
Harlan is so passionate about how college athletics can transform a young person while that student-athlete elevates and enhances both the university and the wider community, that it may seem logical that it was born of his own student-athlete experience.
It was not.
'Something I wanted to do'
“I grew up playing tennis a lot, but I wasn’t good enough to advance past the high school stage,” he said. “The link for me in this industry, as a whole, came when I started working with the Arizona football program as a freshman in 1987.”
Working as a student manager for the Wildcats' football program helped him pay his tuition, but it also gave him a peek inside the collegiate athletic and academic experience that ended up shaping his life.
“I just learned a lot about athletic departments, and how they run, and I asked a lot of questions,” he said. “I realized when I graduated, this is something I wanted to do. It kind of launched my career.”
Harlan was fascinated by the uniqueness of the American collegiate athletic system, and all the different aspects of influence from coaches to athletic departments to classroom professors. Arizona’s athletic director during that time was Cedric Dempsey, who went on to become the NCAA president from 1994-2003, and he was noted for restructuring the organization, cracking down on gambling and negotiating major television contracts with ESPN and CBS.
“I got interested in how does a young person come in and maybe not be completely college ready, maybe they’re not prepped in a lot of the ways that a lot of the folks in the student body are, and how do they come in and succeed?” Harlan said. “What kind of tools can help them succeed?”
He was intrigued by the idea that someone athletically gifted would also have to excel in the classroom, and he was especially concerned with how the university supported those athletes.
“How do you put all those programs in place, and great people surrounding them so they compete at the highest level but also attain a degree and move forward,” he said. “I once was told that outside the G.I. Bill, intercollegiate athletic scholarships are the largest access program for students in this country. It’s billions of dollars in aid. So we know a lot of young people are coming in, but how can you create the system that helps them succeed?”
During his introductory press conference, he said the U. would be successful in the classroom, on the field of competition and in the community. It’s a philosophy the coaches he worked with at USF are intimately familiar with, and one that he said he will champion as the Utes' new administrator.
The duties of a collegiate athletic director can seem complex and wide-ranging, but Harlan said he likes to “shrink it really small.”
“We have close to 500 people coming in here as 18-year-olds,” he said. “We have to graduate them. You just have to stay focused on your values, your principles, invest in them, and when there are more resources, you can invest more.”
Harlan has a long list of mentors who have influenced and shaped him, from his parents to other athletic directors. But one of the most influential was coach Dick Tomey, who holds the all-time record for wins with the University of Arizona football program.
Tomey took over the program the first year Harlan worked as a student manager. In 2015, Harlan hired Tomey as an associate athletic director at USF, overseeing aspects of the football program, but he left after one year.
“I was on his staff as a graduate assistant for recruiting, and just the way he created such a family environment, in a very competitive environment,” Harlan said of why Tomey had such an impact on him. “He showed that you could love your players and hug your players and care about them deeply and still hold them accountable and go out and win at an extremely high level. That’s stuck with me. We can love the employees here and care about each other … but still hold each other accountable. Coach Tomey’s philosophy has always stuck with me for my entire career.”
'Fantastic place to be'
Harlan said he was impressed with Utah athletics long before he started seeing an opportunity for himself in Salt Lake City, but the Utes' entrance in the Pac-12 made the job opening irresistible.
“I think it’s the greatest conference in America,” he said. “It’s just a fantastic place to be, and this is a great university.”
While still in the process of moving his family to Salt Lake City, he met with his staff and coaches in hopes of better understanding the job he is undertaking.
“What I said to them is, ‘If there are any barriers that I need to be aware of in the first week of what might be in the way for us, to deal with that, because we’re here to win championships, and that’s what we’re going to do with high integrity,” he said. “I explained to them, ‘I’m going to challenge you, but I’m still going to hold myself accountable to make sure you have the things you need to win.′”
He said the one consistency he’s seen in Utah’s coaches is their commitment to their players.
“The consistent thing about all of them is how passionate they are in what they do,” he said, adding that meeting them, “absolutely validated any decision-making about being here because we have some big-time coaches. We’ve got some veterans who know what they’re doing.”
Friends and rivals
Utah Valley University athletic director Vince Otoupal is a longtime friend who attended Harlan's initial press conference at Utah, and Harlan will strive to have friendly relationships with the state’s other collegiate athletic directors.
He knows BYU’s Tom Holmoe from their professional interaction, but he said he hopes for a close working relationship.
“Tom is such a kind person,” Harlan said. “I’ve seen him at some athletic director meetings, and … we always kind of gravitate toward each other, and we had a dinner in Dallas a couple of years ago, and he’s just a great person.”
In fact, Harlan said, his face becoming more animated, “I just remember him as a player. He was a heck of a (defensive back). So I have great respect for him, and I’m looking forward to connecting with him in short order. … Sometimes you’ve got to pick up the phone and call people who are dealing with the same stuff and learn from them, too.”
Harlan said that his primary responsibility is to the almost 500 student-athletes who come to Utah to compete while attaining their education. But he said their success doesn’t just enhance their own lives.24 comments on this story
“I know what a student-athlete, as an individual and collectively, as a unit and teams, what they can add to campus life,” he said, “how they can integrate and be students all over this campus and then come back here and compete. I think they can bring great pride to an institution. I think they can bring great pride to a community.”
He is not surprised that college sports have become a billion-dollar industry.
“I think people have come to realize that college athletics is arguably the greatest thing in this country,” he said. “It’s so unique, as you look at our place in the world, and in terms of the way our system is.”