In the 12 months since Harlan took the post, he’s experienced the highs of a national championship in skiing and the football program’s first Pac-12 South title, as well as the incomparable low of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s murder on Oct. 22, 2018.
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster ride of sorts for Harlan, who came to Utah after four years as the athletic director at South Florida.
“Certainly the highs and lows of anybody that works in intercollegiate athletics are known. I think I’ve learned and many others here have as well — never too high, never too low,” Harlan said. “Just continue to work, put in the effort and put in the support and provide the leadership that folks need. But the day you get too high or too low is the day that you’ve got to catch yourself and be reminded that not only does it change day-to-day here, it can change by the hour depending on what’s going on.”
Harlan added that’s the blessing of 551 student-athletes and a staff of this nature. He also praised Utah’s partners in leadership.
“It starts with our president Ruth Watkins, who I met about 13 months ago now. Her ability to lead is profound,” Harlan said. “Her passion for intercollegiate athletics and what this unit stands for resonates and has provided great assistance as we moved things forward."
The cabinet and trustees at the U. also received kudos from Harlan. He acknowledged the fan support, the athletes, the coaches and the staff as well.
“The leadership at this university has been really special,” Harlan said.
The 48-year-old, who has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Arizona, expressed gratitude for an opportunity to take over the strong program that Hill established. Harlan credits his predecessor for recruiting incredible people into the department, creating a spirit that is very unique.
“I was able to come in and just learn and listen. I wasn’t walking into crisis,” Harlan said. “I wasn’t walking into some of the troubles that maybe face first-year athletic directors.”
What follows are a few other things Utah's athletic director had to say.
Deseret News: What do you remember about your first day on the job?
Mark Harlan: It was very memorable because the first day was all about meeting the people that work here and the first impression of that staff. Whether they were in the front office right here when you walk in the Huntsman Center or they were in the Burbidge Center academic area, the enthusiasm for the roles that people play, the passion for the program, really stood out to me. I was also very blessed that day, or the following, to gather our student-athlete leadership group — our Crimson Council group — and that by far was the moment I realized we can be really, really special here.
DN: Has the past year gone by fast?
MH: Extremely so. That’s this profession, though. Every day feels like a minute and every week feels like a day. Because when you’re passionate about what you do, it tends to go fast.
DN: What do you consider the department’s greatest accomplishment during your tenure?
MH: First of all, this is a team sport and I recognize it’s a year that I’ve been here. But when I look back on the year I think about the collective group and the accomplishments by our student-athletes, coaches and staff. Across a broad spectrum of the activities that we’re involved with here, if you look first and foremost at the biggest accomplishment by everybody here — without question — it’s the academic records that we broke this year. We finished the year with a 3.21 cumulative GPA, the all-time high for student-athletes at the University of Utah. Our 95 percent graduation rate, which is a number that ties us with Stanford in the conference, is something that a lot of people should take pride in because those statistics come from so many different areas.
DN: How about the biggest challenge?
MH: I think any time you come into an organization of this size, the biggest challenge is getting to know people. You want to know everybody that first meeting, but what you learn quickly is it’s not the first meeting. It’s not the second meeting. It’s really not any meeting. It’s just working alongside people and with people to achieve a common goal. So I think the biggest challenge is when you come in, it’s really diving in with folks and learning what they’re passionate about. What’s really great is I think it’s about month six or seven, right about halfway through this year, I really felt a rhythm developing in the department where people were really functioning at a high level.
DN: In the aftermath of Lauren McCluskey’s murder, how difficult were things?
MH: We’ll always look back to October of ’18 as being just being a day that will never be forgotten by myself or anybody that was here. Lauren was special. She was set to graduate with her peers a few weeks ago. It was a tragedy that we’ll never get over as an athletic department family. When you lose a student-athlete there’s nothing more traumatic for coaches and teammates and as such the university. So we’re not over it, nor do we expect to get over it. But what I have been really proud of is the way our support mechanisms operated during that period and continue to do so. Specifically, our psychological support team that has really allowed students to come in and talk about their feelings and how they personally recovered. It wasn’t just our track team that was receiving that support. It was multiple student-athletes who were confused, concerned, hurt and everything in-between. So I’ve been really proud of that team. We were able, because of great donor support, to add a second full-time psychologist to our department this year and they have been terrific along with the rest of our support staff and everybody. A very traumatic time, there’s really not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Jill and Matt McCluskey and the pain that they’ve gone through. I’ve told them they’re always a part of our athletic department. She will always be a part of our athletic department and we’re going to continue to compete and graduate in her honor.
DN: How rewarding was Utah football’s first Pac-12 South championship and the announcement regarding stadium expansion?
MH: I think winning the South was a step in our development that we publicly had been talking about here for years. To get to that point was great. We were a goofy bounce away from our second visit to Pasadena last year after playing UCLA. So we set ourselves up for a great year coming ahead. We’re all looking forward to that. As far as the stadium announcement, again, Dr. Hill and (deputy athletics director) Kyle Brennan and the team had done such a great job on feasibility work over the last few years. So I literally was handed a folder that was pretty big and I just went through it. And it was a fabulous study and a survey of the appetite for expanding the stadium. After I looked at the financial model and talked to some donors who I thought would be interested, it made sense that we would go forward.
DN: What is your vision for the future of the Pac-12 in terms of revenue and keeping up with the other Power Five conferences?
MH: I feel that we’re heading on to a good path to make solid decisions about our future. We know ahead there are really three things that we’re focused on as a league. We’ve got to get better collectively in football. Say what you want about this decision or that decision, at the end of the day if your football programs aren’t competing and winning these non-conference games at a high level it hurts the brand. And I’m willing to believe that it's cyclical. I think we have great coaches in this league. Some are now going into their second or third year. I think we’re going to see a stronger conference. Same goes with men’s basketball. We have to do a better job there. I think we’ve taken some steps administratively to improve our scheduling. And again, basketball has to get better or the brand is damaged. When you have both down it makes it very difficult. So from an administrative standpoint, from a coaching standpoint, we’re turning over every rock to make sure we’re providing what we need to do to make sure we’re better there. And a last thing, really, is we’ve got major decisions ahead relative to what’s the TV future look like for our conference. It’s been public that we’re set in bringing in an investor, a strategic partner, who maybe could add value not only in monetary ways but also strategically as we look toward the 2023-24 period when our TV deal is up. So these are big decisions ahead but we’re working collectively on them. In the interim period I also know the most important thing is to make Utah as great as we can be and help be a leader in all those areas.
DN: Is commissioner Larry Scott the right guy for the job right now?
MH: I think commissioner Scott, obviously, when you’re in those positions you’re going to take your shots. I think Larry has certainly taken shots. Is it fair to blame the commissioner for this, that and the other? That’s for others to decide. All I can do is working with him and his leadership team to make sure that we’re going in the right direction on the decisions that are ahead. And I think that’s really where my focus is.
DN: How big of a priority is it for the men’s basketball program to get back into the NCAA after three years on the outside looking in?
MH: It’s important in all our sports to be in postseason. We train in the offseason. We work. The goal for every one of our teams here is to not have the last day of competition be on the last day of the regular season. Specific to men’s basketball, which is a jewel for this program, it is important. I think what we saw in men’s basketball this year was an improvement throughout the year, which is something you’re also always looking for. I thought our finish and being third in the conference — getting that bye again in the tournament was good — but obviously we did not perform the way we wanted to in Las Vegas. What I appreciate is the conversations that coach (Larry) Krystkowiak and I and Kyle Brennan have had to look back on the season and figure out a way that collectively we can work together to add any value to improve upon that. I’m not the type of athletic director, nor do I want any administrators here, to just be casting negativity toward coaches. I like to say — and I remind our senior staff and others of this all the time — what are we doing to help? Are we providing the resources? Are we providing the guidance? Are we providing leadership to help coaches? Not just Larry, anybody. So that’s where we’re at, right now, with the program.
DN: Do you see the value of the rivalry with BYU and would you be in favor of extending it into the foreseeable future?
MH: I’ve had a lot of conversations with Tom (Holmoe) about this issue. He and I are aligned in that it makes sense to compete against BYU across a broad platform of our sports because of the interest in the state. I think under-reported is the relationship our student-athletes have with one another at the two institutions. They competed growing up. There’s — wait for it — friendships there and a real love of competition. That being said, Tom and I have spoken that if you take the example of football, if it makes sense to take a year or two off based on what’s best for Utah, what’s best for BYU, we’ll both be open for that conversation. Certainly we’ve seen that happen here in the past. The good news is communication is very good between the two of us, Tom and I, and we’ll continue to both do what’s best for our institutions. But it was nice, once again, to beat them in the Deseret First Duel. So I am proud our student-athletes that once again we took home that crown.
DN: And what about Utah State?
MH: Utah State is interesting. John (Hartwell) and I have spoke recently. On this particular matter, we have some teams that play them. We have some teams that maybe don’t. If it's in the best interest of the University of Utah to play Utah State, we’ll take a good look at it.
DN: What are your primary objectives moving forward?
MH: We want to continue to make sure we’re providing the very best student-athlete environment here at Utah. I think that is the most key role that we play. Making sure that the young people who commit to the University of Utah — for all the different reasons — that we’re providing the very best experience and that includes not only how we coach them up and get them better, but how was their experience here? I believe that is the No. 1 thing any program can do that leads to success in the classroom and certainly in competition.104 comments on this story
I want to make sure we’re continuing to provide our coaches what they need to compete in a very, very competitive environment. Obviously with the facility work that we’re doing in the south end zone, we want to make sure that project is pristine for what we’re try to accomplish — a great place for people to sit and watch the game — but also have great space for them and for others who can come through there in our various club spaces. Provide the very best customer service to all our fans that are coming to our games. It’s a real focus for us. I’m really excited about the involvement of our base. We are going to go over 10,000 Crimson Club donors. That hasn't happened here in a long, long time. I’m very excited about people’s involvement with us.
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Harlan added that there’s a lot of things going on, including construction of a new lacrosse/soccer stadium due for completion in August.
“But at the end of the day, the thing is the thing,” he said. “And that thing is making sure our students are getting everything they need to succeed. I think if we keep our eye on that ball, we’re going to be great here.”