A VIEW FROM THE HILL
Hill reflects on
by John Youngren
Yes, Chris Hill MEd'74 PhD'82 has been the University of Utah's athletic director for 15 years. But the way Hill tells it, he's had four or five jobs during that time.
"I really never thought I'd be here this long," says Hill, who became the U's A.D. in 1987. "But the job changes all the time. It seems like I have a new job every three or four years. There are things I do now I never thought I'd do [at the beginning]."
That's because the role of athletic director on a major, Division I-A university campus has evolved in the past two decades and without a doubt in the last 10 years as NCAA regulations, TV contracts, and new facilities (to name just a few of the challenges of our ever-competitive age) have grown more complex, certainly more diverse, and inevitably high-dollared.
"The good news is, we have much better facilities than we've ever had before, and the culture of our department has changed for the better in recent years," Hill says. "The bad news is, we've incrementally raised our expectations. There are more people watching. A program goes under more scrutiny."
Hill was only 37 years old when he took over the athletic director post in the late '80s. He was an assistant to former Utah basketball coach Jerry Pimm from 1979-81 and worked in development both on and off campus before joining the Ute athletic staff in 1985.
Poised (even from his earliest days), well spoken, and direct with his coaches, athletes, and staff, Hill overcame a tumultuous early tenure including the departures of football coach Jim Fassel and basketball coach Lynn Archibald, both controversial at the time to stabilize the program from top to bottom.
He lured the talented-but-mercurial Rick Majerus to head the men's basketball team, ultimately establishing a standard of excellence (four Sweet 16 appearances and the NCAA championship game in 1998) the program strives for each year. And he rewarded the loyalty of longtime assistant Ron McBride by making him coach of the football team-which has had its share of ups and downs in recent years (including bowl appearances in '92, '93, '94, '96, and '99) but always seems to be in the picture.
At the same time, Hill increased support of what were once called the "minor" sports, supplementing the resources of women's gymnastics coach Greg Marsden and his dynasty and women's basketball coach Elaine Elliott, to name just two.
"In those first years, the goal was just establishing ourselves," says Hill. "In the middle years, it was growing the other sports [beyond football and men's basketball]. Now, the next step is the hardest to establish excellence in everything we do."
From that standpoint, Hill has positioned the Utes to meet Division I-A membership standards the NCAA is phasing in over the next couple of years. The Utes will be required to play five home football games against other I-A opponents; average at least 15,000 fans in the stands per football game; field at least 16 varsity teams, including eight women's teams; and award the equivalent of 200 full athletic scholarships (including 76.5 grants for football players) or $4 million in financial aid for athletes.
"We're at a place now where we're going to find a dividing line," Hill says. "The top 60-80 [Division I-A] schools in the country are going to emerge. And we want to make sure we're in that group. We belong there. It's just a matter of how it will shake out."
Being sure the Utes are prepared for that evolution is where the rest of Hill's experience comes into play. As skilled as he is with his coaches and staffers, he's equally adept at the public relations aspects of his job. A charmer with donors, administrators, and the media, Hill brings an affable personality and personable intensity to every meeting, greeting, and mixer.
It is no surprise that the Hill era has seen the birth of a U of U "athletics corridor," the lineup of new, state-of-the-art facilities only dreamed about a decade ago. Among them, the crown jewel: Rice-Eccles Stadium, the $50 million, 46,500-seat structure that opened in 1998. Maybe even more impressive to his campus constituents, Hill also unveiled the new Kenneth P. Burbidge Jr. Family Athletics Academic Center roughly 18 months ago. The Burbidge Center centralized the athletic department's academic efforts by offering access to the most modern facilities, counseling, computers, and equipment possible.
In addition, the Utes have cut ribbons on the Dumke Gymnastics Center, the George S. Eccles Tennis Center, the McCarthey Practice Fields for football, the Ute softball field, the Ute soccer field, the Ute baseball field, the Crimson Court (volleyball), and the bubbled practice field.
"We've just been fortunate enough to be part of a community that supports our athletic department," Hill says. "People want us to be successful, and they're willing to make contributions to help us achieve that."
Funny how even Hill can look back with both pride and perspective. Pipe dreams have become realities. The wet-behind-the-ears administrator has become one of the deans of the collegiate game, serving in a variety of roles with the NCAA, including his current post as Mountain West Conference (MWC) representative on the NCAA Management Council.
"Chris has been a major voice on the national level," says Craig Thompson, MWC commissioner. "He represents Utah extremely well, but from my perspective, he supports the Mountain West Conference, too, because he understands that the league's growth will enhance Utah's advancement." In essence, Thompson says, "Chris has a remarkable grasp of the big picture in intercollegiate athletics."
Hill says he's learned his lesson when it comes to things like ESPN's series of late-night men's basketball games, which regularly mean Utah tip-off times of 10 p.m. After an abundance of those appearances in the past couple of years, Hill says he's hoping to ease up on the late-night commitments, saying local Utah fans "got beat up" by the nocturnal pace.
"TV has had a major impact on sports in general," Hill says. "And what's great about it is the exposure. It helps us in recruiting. It helps us financially. But sometimes there are other factors to think about."
One factor in the immediate future is the challenge of increasing Utah's attendance at home football games, which should, by extension, help stabilize the overall athletic department budget, something Hill says he wants to secure for the next five years or more.
And Hill's view of the U campus extends beyond the athletic department. Sure, his coaches and players are important but in his role as special assistant to President Machen, he also believes in the continued advancement of the University of Utah.
"We don't have to compromise anywhere," says Hill. "Our school has tremendous depth and breadth. We have a great institution. We can compete on so many different levels."
John Youngren BA'88 works in advertising for Love Communications in Salt Lake City and has written many previous articles for Continuum.