It’s been an epic three decades for Chris Hill, the nation’s longest-tenured athletic director at a single university in NCAA history. Just 37 years old when he stepped into the job in 1987, Hill MEd’74 PhD’82 leaves an impressive legacy of accomplishments, perhaps chief among them Utah’s move into the power five in 2011 as a member of the Pac-12 Conference. Before Hill officially hung up his gloves this May, Continuum had a chance to ask him to reflect on his time as Utah athletic director (AD) and to share what comes next.
Q: When you took over as Utah’s AD, what was your blueprint for building a successful program?
I would like to call it more of a vision, because we had a direction, but it had to adapt to the various fast-moving changes in college athletics. First, our vision was to have the best student-athlete support system in the country. Although resources are a key to achieving that goal, the people you hire and the culture of those people are what matter. Second, we wanted to become nationally recognized, significantly beyond the regional program. The third element was to be a supportive and visible department to complement and help grow the university’s mission.
Q: Utah’s invitation to join the Pac-12 has been a game-changer for not only Athletics but the entire university. When you took the job, did you envision a transformative move like that being possible?
I knew that Utah was a sleeping giant. I did feel that we could move to a more prestigious conference once we got our program in an attractive enough position. That move would help solidify the vision of becoming a nationally recognized program. The reality is that the Pac-12 was the best option for U athletics and for the entire university.
Q: Before you became AD, you were a coach and a teacher at the high school and college levels, and you worked in fundraising. How did those experiences help you?
I cannot express how teaching helped me in all aspects of my life and my career. The importance of teaching and doing it the right way is a major challenge and a major victory. You cannot fool students in the classroom. All of my positions helped me, and serving as the executive director of United Cerebral Palsy was a special one because it allowed me to grow in a leadership role.
Q: You’ve made numerous coaching hires that helped change the course of U Athletics. Rick Majerus, Ron McBride, Urban Meyer... to name a few. What traits did you look for during the search process?
A: I have learned a lot over the years both from the hires that we have made and the people who were already in the program and decided to stay. When looking for coaches, we look for someone who matches our culture, is passionate about what they do, is used to winning, and is intelligent. It is clearly an inaccurate science, and in many ways your gut feeling enters into the process.
Q: What is your all-time favorite U sports moment?
Easy... when my daughter scored a goal in soccer to tie up the score with our rival.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing U Athletics in the next five to 10 years?
There are several. A big one is the continued salary escalation of coaching staffs, especially in sports such as football. This is a major part of the lawsuits about players being paid. Another challenge is the importance of making sure you under- stand that everything you do is public and accept that as a reality and a good thing. In addition, as athletics departments’ budgets grow, there is a perception that they are flowing with cash, and that is just not the case. This belief can cause a division between Athletics and the rest of campus, but I just don’t see that will ever change. And finally, the Pac-12 TV contract and the lack of revenues is a concern as we look to keep up with our peer conferences.
Q: What parting advice do you have for student-athletes?
I would say, be positive no matter how you feel about your personal situation. Take advantage of all our student support services, and don’t waste a minute. Playing college sports is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that cannot be replicated and goes by fast. Also, in exit interviews, nearly all student-athletes—no matter how great their career—state that the “coaches show favorites.” Please throw that idea in the circular file.
Q: You’ve been at the job for three decades and you haven’t shown many signs of slowing down in recent years. Why did you decide to retire now?
Many times, we overanalyze things, but as with all major decisions, we go with our heart. My heart told me it was the right time for me to retire. I also felt that the program was in good shape, which gave me permission to make this major change in my life.
Q: What’s next for you?
First of all, I want to take a breath. I have been talking with a consulting firm that would like me to get involved in some of their projects. Although my résumé is a little boring, there may be some opportunities that come up that I did not expect. I would like to spend more time with my family and friends (that is, of course, if they want to spend time with me). I want to sleep better at night and practice slowing down—stopping at a yellow light instead of speeding up! But I do not want to be one of those guys who says ‘I’m busier than I’ve ever been.’