Since taking over in mid-2018 for the retiring Chris Hill, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan has been a busy man. From launching an entirely new varsity sport to announcing plans for an expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium. Harlan recently sat down with CollegeAD to discuss his first six-plus months on the job.
CollegeAD: Since being hired at the beginning of June and getting to campus, what’s been the biggest surprise about the job for you?
Mark Harlan: Well I think when I look at surprises, I think the thing that comes to mind is you know coming into the University of Utah that there’s a lot of support for the program and the community. I was looking really looking forward to that, to really have a program that is so beloved. But until you get here and you experience it, it’s even twice as much as what I would have thought or even more.
The community revolves around the Utes. Football Saturdays are very very special here. We sold out 58 straight games, and it’s just really really fun, quite candidly, to see everyone’s hard work, whether they’re an administrator, whether they’re a coach or student-athlete; be supported at such a high level, and it really adds to the enthusiasm of everyone’s work every day. Knowing it was a big part of this, I don’t know if it was so much a surprise, but the enormity of it has certainly been awesome.
CollegeAD: Having gone to school at Arizona and then having spent much of your career outside of USF on the West Coast, was it important for you to get back out West?
Mark Harlan: Well, it was a great opportunity, first of all, to come to a really prestigious school in a very prestigious conference. The fact that it was on the West Coast was a benefit, it’s not something that Carolyn, my wife, and I were necessarily looking for. We actually fell in love with Tampa and living out there too. It’s all about where you’re at and the people you meet and the people you surround yourself with. But certainly being out here close to her family, closer to my family, has been a really neat additive. But at the end of the day, it’s really about this incredible institution which supports athletics in such a profound way and that’s what’s made this such a special opportunity for me.
CollegeAD: Utah is adding men’s lacrosse as a varsity sport beginning this year, while you’ve only been at Utah a short time, what has the process of bringing a new varsity sport online been like? What has the process entailed?
Mark Harlan: Well to your point, the wheels were in motion, great donor support, a study group that was put together by Dr. Hill and Dr. Pershing that really looked at every facet of it. Obviously, a unique sport to add in the Pac-12, there’s no other men’s lacrosse team in our conference. But they studied that, how would that affect things and so when I got here in the summer, to me it was just implementing the plan that had been put into place.
It’s been an absolute joy to work with Coach Holman, who as an assistant coach has won championships and is kinda revered in the lacrosse world and to watch what he’s done. He’s been coaching our club team for the last two years, and of course all he did is put them in one of the top tier club programs in the country in the short time he’s here.
As of July 1 of this last year, they’re varsity athletes. So, more than anything I think when you’re transitioning, you’ve just got to make sure that they’re integrating in all aspects of the department. We do have some holdover kids from that club program. It’s not a club program anymore, right? We’ve got to make sure all the compliance standards and training standards and student-athlete conduct – all those things are different when you’re entering here and all they’ve done is just do a terrific job.
We’re really really excited about it. We opened up on February 1st in Rice-Eckles stadium, and now we’re going to transition them to another field nearby. But in the meantime, we’re constructing a stadium for them that’s right on schedule to be open for next season. It will be a shared used facility with our women’s soccer team in the Fall and lacrosse in the Spring, so we’re really really excited.
I honestly think, 5-10 years from now, we’re going to be the first in our conference. And I think we can anticipate maybe others in our conference or other programs in the West coming together. The growth of this sport has been tremendous, so really really excited, it’s the 20th sport for the University of Utah.
CollegeAD: How is the team competing from a conference standpoint and being one of the few teams out West, its got to create a pretty daunting travel schedule?
Mark Harlan: We’re starting off as an independent program, with aspirations to join a conference, working with Commissioner Larry Scott actually on that, to make sure we find a good home. In the meantime, we’re going to play the best of the best. I think for us when you’re just getting started, to go out and see the best of the best, play them, and know the kind of bar that you want to get to. It’ll be helpful for the coaches and for the administration, myself, to really see where we want to be.
We’re not doing this to be average, we’re doing this to be great. And so the first couple of years we’re going to be that way. But we have some aspirations to talk to other conferences and to look at a way that you talk and slide into one of those conferences. Of course, the big dream is perhaps down the line that the Pac-12 will have other members that will join up and we can head in that direction. But in the meantime, we’re going to try and find a home.
CollegeAD: An extension of the Holy War was recently announced, why is that such an important series?
Mark Harlan: It’s such a historical rivalry, going on years and years and years, and just incredible games back and forth. Really unique in that way. Obviously, the changing landscapes of college athletics over the years has altered the series, BYU being independent now and Utah being in the Pac-12, but the series has maintained, with a couple gaps here and there.
We just announced another home-and-home with them that was kind of in the 2020s, and it had verbally been agreed upon. It was just more kind of dates up and getting it all forward. But it’s a passionate subject. There are some that don’t want to play, there are some that are adamant about wanting to play. My belief is, one of the greatest things about college athletics is rivalries. I think that it’s just different. It’s a different feel, and the two teams have been playing together forever.
We’re going to continue to play BYU.
We play them in multiple sports, Tom Holmoe does a great job down there, he’s a great friend and we’ll continue to work together. Now there could be times in the football series where it maybe it makes sense for both of us to take a break if it’s good for both of us. But as long as we work together, I think we’ll be in a great place.
CollegeAD: In November, you got the okay to move forward with an $80 million renovation to Rice-Eccles Stadium, what are the main points of emphasis from a construction point?
Mark Harlan: Well there’s two really critical things that are going to result from this project, and again, I give Dr. Hill such credit for having great feasibility work, both in surveying our public and constituent base about the appetite for the kind of products we wanted to put in there, and really working on a financial model. But there are two things we’re really trying to accomplish there. One, is we really need to work on our behind the scenes football operations on game day – locker rooms, training rooms, those are kind of things that haven’t been renovated throughout the years.
And then we needed to look at our capacity of the stadium. We’re right around just under 47,000 in Rice-Eccles, as I said we’ve been sold out for all those games, and we have a waiting list that’s close to 3000 accounts now, and these are incredible awesome problems to have. And so, we just looked at “what makes sense?”, and so by bowling up, so to speak, rounding out the south end zone, adding some seats, taking a new capacity to 52,400 along with the ability to improve for both teams, athlete experience and playing in the game, it just made sense.
CollegeAD: What’s the funding model being used to pay for the upgrades?
Mark Harlan: Philanthropically raising $35 million is going to be part of the model along with the new revenue from the premium seating. And I would say Rice-Eccles could use additional premium seating and club spaces. We have suites that are beautiful, but they’re sold out and again a waiting list. So we’re really excited about the project. We’re really off and running with our fundraising and people’s desire to be a part of it. We think it’s going to be a game changer for our program going forward.
If everything stays on schedule in where we want to be, we’ll be able to have it ready to go for the 2021 season.
CollegeAD: Speaking of stadiums, any update or timeline for an on-campus baseball stadium?
Mark Harlan: Personally, just for me, college baseball is awesome and we’re in a great conference for baseball! I’ve asked our facility staff to provide a feasibility study for options for an on-campus baseball stadium that would work for the fabric of the university and to look at how much that would cost and what we could do to kind of work our way there. So we’re actually working on that now, and I think that’s something that really will materialize for the Utes. it’s certainly something that we want to accomplish for our baseball program.
CollegeAD: How would you characterize the state of the Pac-12? The challenges you see for the league, and maybe some opportunities that you see for the league as well?
Mark Harlan: Well I’m a Pac-12 guy, I did my undergraduate in the league, completed my masters in the league and now have worked at three Pac-12 institutions. You’re going to have a hard time to ever find me be negative about this conference because I think it has so much to offer.
These 12 schools are amazing in so many ways, beyond athletics but the championships that have been won in this conference through the years, no one’s even close. I’m not deaf to the challenges that we’ve had, particularly in football and basketball, over the last couple of years.
The thing about Commissioner Scott is, during this process, he’s been very candid and very open with the athletic directors and walking through things that have come up this year, and the idea is to improve, he’s very open to communicating with us, and frankly accepting candid comments back about where we would like to see things improved. The communication I feel has really gotten strong in the last three months with not only him, but also with his staff, so I’m an internal optimist. I think sometimes we have to take a breath and say “look there are things we need to do better. There are things we that should do better and we need to do that”, but the sky is not falling everywhere that we look. Not when you have institutions and coaches like this.