Mark Harlan Talks Rise, Growth Of Utah Athletics

Apr 29, 2023, 3:25 PM

SALT LAKE CITY – Athletic Director Mark Harlan joined The Saturday Show to discuss Utah Athletics’ impressive rise and growth during an unprecedented time in college athletics.

From three stunning student-athletes’ deaths within a four-year span, a pandemic, and seismic shakeups throughout college sports both in and out of the Pac-12 Conference, the Utes have managed to persevere and continue moving their brand forward.

The 2022-2023 sports season has been particularly great for Utah with football, women’s basketball, gymnastics, men’s tennis, and lacrosse all earning conference titles and the ski team earning another National Championship while also getting it done in the classroom. On top of that, Harlan himself, received high recognition from his peers for the Utes’ incredible success, getting the nod for Athletic Director of the Year. 

From Tragedy To Triumph

There is no doubt the Utes have experienced more tragedy in the last five years than any other school or community in the country. Whether we are talking about Lauren McCluskey, Ty Jordan, or Aaron Lowe, Utah has had to overcome a lot, and Harlan has been the one at the top of the pyramid trying to navigate it all.

“To see students have to go through that is just heartbreaking and the families,” Harlan said. “At the same time, to watch the nets in the department we have to deal with things like mental health that really helped move everyone forward through those circumstances- I think we are up to five mental health specialists and they are unbelievable. They are so good, and utilization is high. We’re blessed to be around a lot of folks that were able to come together. We say ‘family’- it has to mean something. I think we’ve been able to create that here.”

Most notable in the tragedy to triumph category has been Utah football and their back-to-back Pac-12 Championships while reckoning with the senseless deaths of teammates Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe. The Utes seem to have found a good balance of remembering their brothers and making them a part of their successes, while also figuring out how to heal and move on. The latest example of this was the renaming of the spring game from the “Red and White” game to the “22 Forever” game.

“It was an incredible concept coming out of the football team, the leadership council, and staff who have been so incredibly authentic in their celebration and remembrance of Aaron and Ty,” Harlan said. “This is just another example of that. To have all proceeds go to the scholarship is fantastic and we’re very appreciative of everyone that comes and does that.”

Mark Harlan And His Utah Connection

During a feature interview with Utah Executive Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Operations/Associate A.D. for EDI and Student Belonging, Keith Embray, it was mentioned that Harlan has had a long-standing relationship with former Utah football head coach Ron McBride form their time at Arizona. Harlan reflected on that time and how important McBride has been to Utah community as a whole.

“In 1987 I needed to go to college, but I needed to find aid,” Harlan said. “I went to the University of Arizona and they have football scholarship deals. Now, I wasn’t a football player, but I became a football manager my true freshman year and I got assigned to this rather interesting fellow named Ron McBride who was the o-line coach. I was his student-manager. Half the things I probably shouldn’t say publicly what he made me do- something to do with laundry a lot, picking up stuff- things he’d leave behind. I’d got back and trace his steps to find it. Vicki of course got such a kick out of all the things I had to do for Ronnie.”

“Pretty incredible when the call came to come to Utah- he was like the first or second person I talked to and we were just crying and laughing about everything and how far we both have come,” Harlan continued. ‘To come back and be around Vicki and Ron and the whole family has been such a blessing. You just look for those little ‘God winks’ along the way and that’s certainly one of those. He’s terrific and his players that come back all the time- it’s remarkable work he did, the things he was able to do here. I think people here get it, but I think I want to make sure people understand he was a remarkable coach and a person here.”

Changes In College Football And The Pac-12

Some of the biggest changes happening to college sports are specifically happening in the college football world with the new College Football Playoff model being a center focus. Harlan says he’s overall very happy about the changes that will happen to the Playoff in 2024 and thinks it will help the Pac-12 moving forward with or without the L.A. schools.

“I think greater access to that championship is better,” Harlan said of the impending 12-team system. “I’m also pleased with the way it is rolled out. I’m not saying I agree with every little thing, but the fact we can do opening games on campus, although very challenging, I’m on one of the subcommittees trying to work through all of that right now, but I think having more teams involved, and quite honestly, I don’t know if any of the A.D.s have said this, but it’s too true not to. For our conference, having gone through such the tough challenge with the L.A. schools leaving last June, once the CFP expansion became permanent, if there were folks looking over the fence to other possibilities, you kind of had to recalibrate and rethink. Now there is more access and, in most years, even without the L.A. schools, our data showed two will get in.”

It would be negligible to not admit there has been some chaos surrounding the Pac-12 specifically due to USC and UCLA announcing they will be leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024. This of course has opened the door to rumors and speculation about whether the conference will survive and if the will be able to put a good deal in place.

Amidst all the outward noise, Utah has kept trucking along while having one of their best competitive seasons in school history from top to bottom of the athletic department. Harlan noted he told his coaches and players to just control what they can control while the administration handles the rest. He also revealed while the timeline isn’t perhaps to outsiders’ liking, that those in the conference are happy with where the media deal is heading, and there is belief it should be wrapped up before the new competitive season starts.

“I called all of the coaches in, we talked to student-athlete leadership and who cares? We all worked for this upcoming year, and we were going to get after it,” Harlan said. “We’re still going to be these 12 for the next two years, you guys do your thing. Coaches, and student-athletes knew we were going to have a fabulous year based on all of our metrics, let’s go get it. Let the administration do what we’re supposed to do. I tried to set the tone that way and control the controllables and move forward. I think that has proven to be a good play and as we sit today, I feel good about where we are going. We all want this deal done. I do believe we are getting to that final time, but I’ve probably said that a few other times, but we aren’t going to take any deal. We’re going to take a good deal. I feel like we’ll get that wrapped up and then get after another competitive year starting in August.”

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BodkinKSLsports


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Mark Harlan Talks Rise, Growth Of Utah Athletics