Canzano: Utah AD Mark Harlan sounds off on the Rose Bowl, beating Oregon, and finding a mentor
Q-and-A with Utah's athletic director.
Mark Harlan is the athletic director at the University of Utah. Last football season the Utes won the Pac-12 Conference championship game and advanced to the Rose Bowl for the first time in program history.
Harlan attended the University of Arizona as an undergraduate student. He worked as an associate AD at San Jose State, Northern Colorado, Arizona and UCLA. After that, he became the athletic director at the University of South Florida.
Utah hired Harlan in 2018.
The Pac-12 finds itself at a critical pivot point and under new leadership. The landscape of college athletics is shifting. Amid that, the job of an athletic director has undoubtedly changed. Harlan joined me for a candid Q-and-A to talk on a variety of subjects.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Mark Harlan: “Seemed like my goal changed year to year, as I was influenced by my surroundings in Los Angeles. I wanted to be an infielder for the Dodgers, a gameshow host, an attorney for the stars, you name it. Then, I went off to school at the University of Arizona and became a football manager there and the lightbulbs went on for me. I loved being a small part of the Athletic Department and wanted to do it full-time.”
How much has the job of a college athletic director changed in the last few years?
Harlan: “I think the pandemic has made it much more clear to me the importance and value of communication and listening. Truly listening. During the pandemic, we needed each and every one of our staff to come together as one, to reassure our students that they would be fine. We have an incredible mental health team at Utah, and so many students and staff took advantage. As a senior staff, we listened to the voices of our students, we followed through on what we heard and we worked together to address any concerns or needs. I think that enhanced communication was a big factor in our competitive success this past year and our record GPAs and graduation rates.”
Question: We all think about athletic departments on game days, but there’s a lot of work that goes into it operationally. What’s the toughest part of being an AD?
Harlan: “Game days bring excitement for any Utah sport. It’s a culmination of all the work and preparation by the student-athletes, coaches and staff. As an AD, to be able to witness it all come together and see the reactions and support of our fan base is one of the best parts of the job. I think in today’s environment, the toughest part of the job is the uncertainty. Not knowing what the future looks like for college sports. Not knowing about the future of the NCAA, enforcement, NIL, etc. Within our department, not knowing what issues lie ahead tomorrow.”
The win over Oregon at home last season was an absolute ambush. It felt like a cathartic moment for the fan base and program. Did you see that or feel that coming?
Harlan: “It was a night that had been circled on our calendars for months and our team simply played at an elite level that night. Oregon was a terrific team but, on that night, I’m not sure any team in the country could have beaten us. We had expanded and enclosed Rice-Eccles Stadium prior to last year and it had certainly been louder in the previous games but the Oregon game took it to a whole new level with our fans bringing an unrelenting passion. We had upperclassmen who played in the 2019 Pac-12 Championship Game when the Ducks flat out got us, and I imagine there was a lot of motivation for our older players. It was a great night for the Utes and certainly a key moment that launched us to the Pac 12 Championship a few weeks later.”
What was it like to walk into the Rose Bowl on game day and watch a Kyle Whittingham-coached team prepare to play?
Harlan: “The whole experience was surreal for me and so many others. I grew up going to UCLA games with my family at the Rose Bowl, so the stadium has always been hallowed ground. When I arrived at Utah in 2018 and met with Coach Whit for the first time, we spoke about what he needed from me and the administration to enable him the best chance to take a Utes team to the Rose Bowl. He was very clear, and we established the roadmap from there. For our fans, it was an unthinkable dream 12-15 years ago and fast forward, we secured the championship and got the golden ticket. Our supporters responded, literally emptying the streets of Salt Lake City to go to Pasadena or to watch it on television with family and friends. It was unlike anything I have ever been a part of. It is such a tribute to Coach Whit and the team that they created experiences and memories that will last a lifetime. At the end of the game, walking off the field with my family was something that I will never forget. Now, we all want to step foot there again soon.”
We all need mentors — who are yours?
Harlan: “Two industry icons have served as mentors, teachers and role models to me. The first is Dick Tomey, the legendary head football coach at the University of Arizona. He was the coach when I was a student manager in Tucson and when I went to work for the Department. He taught me that work tasks aren’t that complicated but that it was people who were complicated. It is a lesson that stuck with me about keeping focus and putting people first. We lost Coach Tomey two years ago and I still have his contact information in my phone. When things get hard, I just look at his number and think about how he would have guided me and I find peace in that. My second mentor is Dan Guererro, who I worked for for many years at UCLA. Dan taught me how to be calm and thoughtful in the eye of a storm and that we must always put students first. To this day, even though I have been an AD for nearly a decade, I often ask myself, ‘What would Dan do?’”
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Harlan: “When I was the AD at the University of South Florida, I was pacing back and forth in the visiting stadium suite as we were losing to Tulsa by 21 at halftime in a ‘must-win’ game for USF. My son, who was maybe 8 or 9 at the time, walked over to me and said, ‘Dad, you look weird. What are you doing back there? Isn’t there like a bunch of time left?’ I looked at him and something just hit me. The team was doing all that they could and I was looking foolish not helping the situation by my pessimism. Of course, USF would stage an incredible comeback to win the game. Since then, I just watch sporting events, appreciate all of the moments, and try to not look like a fool. Of course, my son still likes to remind me of it.”
College athletics is under transformation. What are the most important factors that decision makers should keep in mind while making large-scale changes?
Harlan: “We are in a time of great change and uncertainty and that brings anxiety for many. But along with that uncertainty comes so many opportunities for our student-athletes, and I believe our industry. My role, along with many others, is to create an environment of creativity and flexibility to address it all. To learn of so many Utah student-athletes securing NIL deals has been awesome. I think about some of our Olympic gymnasts who may not have even enrolled at a college without the possibility of NIL. How cool is that? There are so many positive aspects to NIL that are being drowned out by alleged high-profile inducements to get someone to come to a University. That causes anxiety for coaches who are abiding by the standards but worry that they will fall behind. I truly believe we will get a better national standard and rules soon, while at the same time continuing to grow NIL programming.”
Favorite book you’ve ever read?
Harlan: “Recently, The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger. A great in-depth look on how he established a culture of creativity at Disney and how he managed things during turbulent times. Needless to say, very helpful at the present.”
You’re visible and accessible to your fan base. I saw you walking around the arena on a college basketball game day last season, shaking hands and talking with ticket holders. Why is that important?
Harlan: “This is not my program. The program belongs to the student-athletes — both current and former — the coaches, the University, the alumni, the donors, the fans. Their investments and passion help us win. Thanking people and being approachable seems like the least I, or any member of our team, can do. Not having fans in the 2020-21 year because of the pandemic was so hard as we truly missed them so much.”
Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff has been on the job for about a year now… what makes him a good leader in your mind?
Harlan: “George has been terrific. He is so thoughtful, transparent, and authentic. I smirk when I read comments surrounding other Power Five commissioner searches insisting that they MUST find a collegiate practitioner in these evolving times. Is that a shot at our guy? George has jumped right in, applied fresh eyes and extreme intelligence on issues that probably are not as complicated as what he has dealt with in other industries, and he has already emerged as a national leader. The other day, I called and asked him to join my advisory board meeting in person in Salt Lake. He didn’t hesitate, flew out, met with them for three hours, had dinner and jumped on a late Southwest flight, probably in a middle seat. That’s the type of leader you want, and I am thrilled that he will lead us in the years ahead.”
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I loved the quote about the new commissioner flying Southwest, probably in a middle seat. Can you imagine “Limousine” Larry Scott flying Southwest?
Great interview, John.
Great to get inside the head of a top AD and how everyone is dealing with all the changes in college sports post-pandemic. Insightful questions...