Getting in the Game

How academic and athletic success made Utah a player with other elite universities in the West.

(The first in a two-part series on the University of Utah joining the Pac-12. Next issue, we explore some of the money concerns around the U’s entry into the conference.)

From left, state Senate President Michael Waddoups, state House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell join the Pac-12 Day festivities on July 1 at the state Capitol, to commemorate the U’s official entry into the Pac-12. (Photo by Lawrence Boye)

~As Utah fans converged upon the state Capitol steps on July 1, red block U flags snapping in the wind and the tower bells chiming the melody of “Utah Man,” politicians and University dignitaries took their seats on the platform along with Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, who officially welcomed the University of Utah into the conference.

The crowd cheered Scott, along with U of U Athletics Director Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82, interim President Lorris Betz, Student Body President Neela Pack, and state and local political leaders who came out in support.

“This is a very exciting day and a historic moment for our conference, for college athletics, and for Colorado and Utah,” Scott said of the Pac-12’s two newest members. “Our conference was built on a pioneering spirit and through innovation that has contributed to some of the most valuable advancements in this country and the world. Colorado and Utah share those core values and instantly enhance the strength of our conference both academically and athletically.”

“There’s an old poker expression: ‘Jacks or better to open.’ Without the University’s research, we can’t get in the game,” says U of U Athletics Director Chris Hill. (Photo by August Miller)

Utah’s academics and research more generally played as critical a role as athletics in making this day possible, according to current and former administrators who did some of the heavy lifting during the U’s long trek to the Pac-12.

“This isn’t just about athletics,” Betz said at the Capitol. “It’s an affiliation of the U with other outstanding institutions.”

His comments mirrored Scott’s: “Utah is, simply put, a great fit for this conference,” Scott began, almost perfectly echoing his comments from a year before, when he went on to cite “genetics, computer science, and many other areas” that qualify Utah as a peer of the other Pac-12 schools.

Many commentators and fans have focused on the high-stakes media negotiations or the football team’s tremendous recent success.

But the real story of Utah’s climb is much more complicated. Far from the splashy headlines, the balloons and cameras, the hard court and the gridiron, the University of Utah spent decades laying the groundwork to build one of the top 100 research institutions in the world, one that fit the mold of both academics and athletics that the Pac-10 happened to need and desire at just the precise moment the U was ready.

Skeptics insisted the Utes were just lucky. And they were. But the truth is that Utah made its own luck, through decades of work by committed, often overlooked individuals, some seemingly far afield of athletics.

A Unique Conference

When Chase N. Peterson became University president in 1983, his question to then-Athletics Director Arnie Ferrin BS’66 was simple: “Have we got an Ivy League we can play with out here?”

The Ivy League has become synonymous with some of the most elite academic institutions in the nation, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton universities. But it is also, quite literally, an athletic conference, albeit one that consciously chooses to deemphasize that role on campuses, though still fostering athletics.

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott speaks to reporters July 1 at the state Capitol. (Photo by August Miller)

Peterson says he saw the value in using athletics to help create an “honest, growing opportunity for students and the community… a gathering.”

There was no Ivy League in reach for Utah. But there was the Pac-10, an athletic conference with a similar, if less consistent, academic profile, but which also took an entirely different approach toward athletics, seeking instead to utilize the platform athletics offers to expand the universities’ reach.

As Utah Dean of Social and Behavioral Science David Rudd explains, high-profile athletic events create opportunities to communicate with students and the broader community in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. “You simply have a bigger audience, a bigger stage, to sell your academic mission,” explains Rudd.

The Pac-12, like the Big 10, primarily focuses on associating with high-performing athletic and academic “peer institutions.” Nine of the Pac-12 schools are ranked in the top 100 of the Academic Rankings of World Universities. According to Rudd, the average research budget of the Pac-10 schools in 2009 was $450,000, more than $100,000 above the next closest conference and second only to the Big 10. Perhaps most remarkable about this academic profile is the fact that nearly every Pac-10 member, except Stanford University and the University of Southern California, is a public university.

The other so-called “Big 6” athletic conferences (the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Southeastern, and Big 12) have much greater variety among their member institutions, and many of them benefit to a degree from their association with other, sometimes more outstanding academic universities.

The Sleeping Giant

Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi exemplifies the U’s stellar research that aided its entry into the Pac-12. (Photo by Sean Graff)

For the U, the road that paved the way to the Pac-12 began years ago. In 1987, when the newly hired AD Chris Hill sat down with University President Peterson, they realized they had a decision to make regarding the institutional role of athletics.

“We were concerned about the way things were heading, that there would be a division between major major colleges and those that weren’t, a system of haves and have-nots,” Hill explains. “We knew that the U belonged in the upper echelon but was right on the edge at that time, and we wanted to make sure athletics did our share. President Peterson and I agreed that if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right.”

As Hill began his tenure, the modern era of the NCAA and sports entertainment, fed by cable and satellite television, was just beginning. Hill says it was clear to U of U administrators what was coming. By the early ’90s, many longtime independent but athletically successful schools were realigning under major athletic conferences. Smaller schools began to follow suit, banding together for economic and scheduling reasons. As a result of all these factors, the landscape of college athletics, and what Hill calls the “craziness of the arms race to be successful,” shifted exponentially as college sports moved from a mostly regional phenomenon to a national (and even international) one. For the U to fulfill its own vision for itself, something needed to change.

Former Utah football coach Ron McBride (Photo by August Miller)

The foundation for Utah’s future success would rest on its nationally lower-profile athletics, many of which were surging throughout the 1980s, with swimming and women’s basketball programs on the upswing, and both men’s and women’s ski teams and women’s gymnastics bringing home multiple NCAA championships.

But in the late ’80s, the men’s basketball program had noticeably plateaued, and the Utah football team was arguably in worse shape—at the same time that the squad of its main rival, Brigham Young University, was reaching the pinnacle of the sport.

Hill notes, though, that there was every reason to believe in Utah’s potential as a “sleeping giant” waiting to be roused, and he, with Peterson’s blessing, set out to do that rousing by ramping up fundraising, as well as investing in facilities and, critically, coaches for the U’s teams.

The arrival of coaches Rick Majerus and Ron McBride revitalized both marquee sports at a critical juncture.

The Runnin’ Ute basketball team was quickly transformed after the 1989 hiring of Majerus, a sometimes brash and abrasive figure during his tenure who also possessed an incredible knack for winning. The Utes’ best season was 1998, when they finished as runner-up in the NCAA tournament, losing a halftime lead and the chance at a second national basketball title.

Similarly, McBride’s arrival as head football coach in 1990 dramatically reset the team’s course. And in many ways, the work by his staff to rebuild the team was even more impressive than the turnaround Majerus accomplished. In just three years, McBride brought them to their first bowl game since the 1960s. In six years, he had doubled the school’s all-time number of bowl appearances, and in nine years he’d done the same for bowl wins.

McBride’s 1994 squad gave Utah its greatest success ever to that point, finishing in the top 10 nationally in poll rankings and with a victory over a Pac-10 school in the Freedom Bowl. During his 12-year tenure, McBride and his staff, including a young but talented defensive coordinator, Kyle Whittingham, built the essential foundation critical to the heights achieved during the next decade.

The U’s mascot, Swoop, holds a seat for the Pac-12 commissioner at the state Capitol on July 1. (Photo by August Miller)

Concurrent with this athletic revival, Utah’s academics steadily began to soar. Already by the early 1970s, Utah ranked in the top 30 of schools receiving federal research funding. Then came the development of Research Park, which has now come to house 42 different companies and 69 departments. By the early 1980s, the U had achieved international acclaim with Dr. Willem Kolff and his team’s work on artificial organs, including the first successful artificial heart.

Research advances continued through the ’90s and ’00s. The University Hospital’s Burn and Trauma unit was ranked the best in the world, and Primary Children’s Hospital achieved national recognition, along with the Huntsman Cancer Institute and numerous groundbreaking research projects, including Mario Capecchi’s research in molecular genetics, which led to his receiving a Nobel Prize in 2007.

The Pac-12 invitation “wouldn’t happen without the hospital,” Rudd explains. “The ability to attract certain kinds of funding, with the benefit of having a health-related facility, was essential.”

A young Ute fan shows his Pac-12 pride at the state Capitol on July 1. (Photo by August Miller)

Even more critical than any individual research advancement has been the seamless integration of the University Hospital with the rest of campus, which allows researchers at the U hospital to enhance their work with access to personnel and materials they would not otherwise have, and vice versa. Though integration was a conscious choice for the U, it wasn’t necessarily the obvious one, nor was it universally embraced. There were early concerns that a more intensive research focus might divert the U from its teaching mission.

But paradoxically, as Peterson points out, “our move toward greater capacity in research has coincided with the enrichment of undergraduate teaching and with faculty.”

Utah, along with a majority of the Pac-12 schools, is consistently ranked by Academic Rankings of World Universities as one of the top 100 institutions in the world. (The U was No. 82 in 2010.) According to the Center for Measuring University Performance at Arizona State University, Utah is 49th overall in research for public universities, and in the top 40 for federal research dollars and endowment assets. Utah’s profile as an institution, both academically and athletically, better matches the new Pac-12 and its fellow new conference member, Colorado, which itself shares many academic and research similarities to other Pac-12 institutions, including membership in the Association of American Universities, an elite group of top research universities.

“There’s an old poker expression: ‘Jacks or better to open,’ ” Hill quips. “Without the University’s research, we can’t get in the game.”

Balloons rise over the Capitol on Pac-12 Day. (Photo by August Miller)

The “game” also required a change in demographics. Though currently the Salt Lake television market ranks as only the 31st-largest in the country, it is also, according to recent census figures, one of the fastest growing. In 2010, the Pac-10 was “undervalued,” according to Scott, and his stated goal with expansion was, in part, to increase the league’s market share. Another bit of luck, it might seem. But the U played an active role there, too, contributing to the state’s growth (more money, more people, more TVs) through an estimated half a billion dollars annually in gross state product with its research alone, according to the U’s Office of Sponsored Projects.

After decades of work building its academic and research profile and a commitment to doing athletics “the right way,” the U made itself into exactly what the expansion-minded Pac-10 needed when the conference came calling.

“It’s important that we not anoint ourselves,” Peterson cautions. “We haven’t suddenly been sent to heaven. But the association is appropriate for its academic standards and should be a good challenge for our academic teams.”

Paul Ketzle PhD’04 is an associate professor-lecturer in the University of Utah’s Honors College and an occasional contributor to Continuum.

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