Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Mark Harlan shows his "U" following a press conference announcing him as the new University of Utah Athletics Director at Rice Eccles Stadium on Monday, June 4, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite winning the Pac-12 South and playing in the conference championship game, the Utah Utes weren’t a sure thing for the Holiday Bowl. In fact, they very well could have fallen to the league’s fifth, yes fifth, bowl arrangement.

The Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, was a possibility because of a Pac-12 deal that allows the Alamo, Holiday and Redbox bowls to start at the top and take any team within one loss of another in conference play. They paid a premium for the right to do so.

As Pac-12 champions, Washington (7-2) was automatically headed to the Rose Bowl. The Alamo Bowl then had the option of selecting Washington State (7-2), Stanford (6-3) or Utah (6-3). They chose the Cougars. Then came the Holiday Bowl selection. Options included Stanford, Utah, Oregon (5-4) and Arizona State (5-4).

Stay tuned for the story on how the Utes were picked to face Northwestern Dec. 31 in San Diego. It involved some serious legwork.

Moving on after Utah was chosen, the Redbox Bowl had a choice of Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State. The Ducks were picked, dropping Stanford into a slotted position (by record) to the Sun Bowl. Arizona State landed in the Las Vegas Bowl and California is headed to the Cheez-It Bowl.

Utah’s sunny destination didn’t come easy. The Utes managed to secure the conference’s No. 3 bowl arrangement despite Washington State falling back into the mix after being passed over for a New Year’s Six bowl.

“There was a tremendous amount of people that worked on this,” said Utah athletics director Mark Harlan, who acknowledged kind of corralling his staff to lead the effort.

Harlan noted that some donors (“great supporters” that he declined to name at this time) in the San Diego area were “incredibly instrumental” in such things as making phone calls and connecting Harlan to the right people. Harlan also credited University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins and her leadership team, as well as head coach Kyle Whittingham, for their support.

“It was a collective team effort,” Harlan said. “But at the end of the day, it’s those student-athletes who put us in this position. Otherwise, why would the Holiday Bowl even take my call?”

There’s much more to it, though.

Whittingham said Harlan was “a superstar through this whole process,” adding that it was awesome to be able to get it done “because there was some talk of us sliding down the chain.”

Harlan was the one who rallied the troops and extended himself, Whittingham explained, to make it known that Utah had a lot of interest in the Holiday Bowl. At 9-4 overall and 6-3 in conference, the Utes also sported a sparkling resume.

“What a season and what a great job by coach Whittingham and his staff to deal with adversity,” Harlan said. “I can’t remember many teams I’ve been around that lose 80 percent of their scoring in the course of four days and then rattle off another three-game winning streak.”

The team’s accomplishment, thus, stand out first and foremost. Even so, the flexible choices that the Alamo, Holiday and Redbox bowls paid to have were a factor in a tightly grouped Pac-12 this season.

In preparing for what might happen after last week’s 10-3 loss to Washington in the championship game, Harlan reached out to the Alamo and Holiday bowls.

“The conclusion I drew from those calls is that we were not a slam dunk, by any means, in either bowl. As a matter of fact, I detected some headwinds as it related to Utah being chosen in either one of those games,” Harlan said. “And I was very surprised. I was surprised, but not angry. It just told me that we really needed to activate, you know, our folks to really show what we’re capable of by going to those bowls.”

Both the Alamo and Holiday bowls expressed a concern that traveling to Santa Clara, California, for the Pac-12 title game would prohibit fans from making another trip to see the Utes play. That was the primary objection Harlan heard.

“So at one breath it felt like ‘Geez, that seems like we’re getting punished for being in the championship game,’” Harlan explained. “But on the other breath, I understood they’re running a bowl, which is also a business, and they have to look out for that.”

Harlan, thus, noted that the university needed to show data that the championship game would not preclude fans from making a big showing at a bowl game. Washington State not making a New Year’s Six bowl also proved to be a “perfect storm” for Harlan that night. The Cougars were pretty much ticketed for San Antonio because of their record and ranking, and Harlan knew it.

As such, most of Utah’s efforts were then focused on the Holiday Bowl.

“What you do in that situation is just call people up and you talk to them and you tell them about who we are,” Harlan said. “They certainly had been watching us all year. They had come to our games. They saw the passion.”

The committee, though, just needed to think through the advantage of picking someone that’s fan base didn’t travel last Friday night versus one that does. They worked with Mark Neville, the chief executive officer of the Holiday Bowl. Harlan refers to him as “a pro’s pro.” Utah examined the bowl committee for relationships as well — seeking additional good routes of communication and making appropriate ties.

“We were able to make our case,” Harlan said.

After a strong fan showing at Levi’s Stadium, he became a bit concerned and asked to go on Utah radio’s postgame show to speak with fans and let them know where things stood. He asked listeners to e-mail the Alamo and Holiday bowls to express a desire to go there and see the Utes play.

“That’s where the story gets so cool because that’s exactly what our fans did. They e-mailed, they sent other forms of social media, and when I would talk to the Holiday Bowl, which I did throughout the day on Saturday as did other people on the staff, they were commenting on how awesome it was — all the e-mails they were getting from Utah fans,” Harlan said. “And that quote, it was making a difference.”

The Holiday Bowl was hearing from fans directly. Harlan gives them credit for responding and sending their wishes and desires in, showing passion.

Even so, nothing was certain. Harlan contacted Holiday Bowl officials Saturday to see if they needed anything else in terms of data or questions to be answered.

The response was no and that Utah had done a great job making its case.

Then came the wait on Sunday when the College Football Playoff rankings and matchups were announced. Harlan was told by Pac-12 officials that after the NewYear’s Six selections were made that conference-affiliated bowl choices would be made in 10-minute increments and athletic directors would be notified via telephone calls. The Alamo Bowl went first. Then, at 1:25 p.m., came the Holiday Bowl window. No ring, no invite.

Harlan was sitting in his new home surrounded by boxes. He was admittedly tense, especially after a couple of minutes ticked off the clock. At 1:28 p.m., Pac-12 Deputy Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich called Harlan, and he had Neville on the line.

“They officially invited us to the Holiday Bowl,” said Harlan, who noted that his phone went dead at the time for some reason. He called the guys back and continued the dialogue.

Harlan’s first call after that was to Whittingham, who was understandably excited. Harlan said that Whittingham’s history with the game as a player at BYU factored into the invitation. He’s a member of the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame.

“When things are close, stuff like that matters,” Harlan said.

President Watkins also received a call and kudos from Harlan. On Sunday evening, Neville contacted Harlan and expressed excitement to have Utah in the game. It was a close call to pass on Oregon and quarterback Justin Herbert. Having two teams — Utah and Northwestern — make first appearances in the Holiday Bowl was another positive variable.

“We got in. It worked out well. It reminded me of the early ’90s as I’ve talked to ADs that have retired, when you had to start, you know, maybe politicking for yourself from Halloween on to get into a bowl,” Harlan said. “This kind of felt like that.”

Harlan, though, vows to continue being an advocate for the Pac-12 to relook at its rule of allowing bowls to pay a premium to select teams within one loss of one another in the picking order.

“I think at the very least we need to protect the South and North divisional champions to a degree,” Harlan said. “I think if you win the division, it’s a big deal.”

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At the same time, Harlan noted that the Pac-12 has terrific bowls all along the line, and he doesn’t want to disregard any of them. He’s attended each affiliated game.

The bowls, though, are ranked, and competition needs to matter. That’s the stance Harlan takes, and he’s looking forward to speaking with his colleagues about it in meetings this spring.

“I look forward to asking the questions,” Harlan said.

Pac-12 football runners-up and bowl games

Year: Team, Bowl

  • 2018: Utah, Holiday
  • 2017: Stanford, Alamo
  • 2016: Colorado, Alamo
  • 2015: USC, Holiday
  • 2014: Arizona, Fiesta
  • 2013: Arizona State, Holiday
  • 2012: UCLA, Holiday
  • 2011: UCLA, Fight Hunger