Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan Talks Impact Of Athletes For Life, Relationship With Ute Tribe

Jun 28, 2024, 4:46 PM

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan is fired up about what Athletes for Life is doing to continue strengthening the relationship with the Ute Tribe and the athletics department.

Recently, the foundation formed by former Utah punter Hank Mondaca wrapped up their second year which included more interest from families living on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation and the presence of current Utah football players.

That marriage between the Ute tribe, current Ute athletes, and former Ute athletes is something Harlan is very proud of, and hopeful will continue to grow in the next few years.


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The Value Of Understanding The People U Represent

Harlan, unfortunately, wasn’t able to make it out to this year’s camp, but there was certainly no lack of representation from Utah Athletics between the 25 or so football players who made it up along with various members of the Crimson Collective and Utah digital and creative media team.

The Utah AD noted it was very gratifying seeing everyone buying in and getting something from the interactions through the social media that has been posted about the event.

“To watch the videos and see interaction is very gratifying,” Harlan said. “For our students to recognize it’s not just about carrying the Ute name when they compete, but it’s in fact bigger than that. It’s the culture, the people who are so proud of their heritage, but are also so proud of our student-athletes wearing Ute Tribe on their uniforms. For the guys in this case to get that is just fun for me to watch and experience. I’ve become close with leadership of the Ute Tribe, and they often talk to me about how proud they are when we play, so it is fun when we can go to them and show our appreciation.”


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‘Ute Proud’ Isn’t Just A Saying, It’s A Way Of Life

There are a lot of reasons what Mondaca and Athletes for Life is doing with the Ute Tribe is important for everyone involved. The biggest of all though, are the relationships being formed across the board that are opening hearts and minds.

“It’s gratifying that those who competed before remain so proud of competing for the Utes,” Harlan said. “The definition is broader when you develop the relationship with the tribe itself and then to share that with our current student-athletes. I think that we have been intentional to make sure our student-athletes understand the relationship with the Ute Tribe and how deep it goes. It’s not just on your helmet or uniform- it’s bigger and broader than that. It’s centered around pride. For our kids to experience that is really cool. The fact our alums are still so honored by it is gratifying.”

Harlan then went into how Utah is lucky to not only to have alumni that are so interested in what the current athletes are doing, but that they have the unique opportunity to experience that with the Ute Tribe whom they all represent.


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“There is often a lot of alumni interaction with a lot of our teams throughout the year in various different forms and fashions,” Harlan said. “Whether it’s social events, whether it’s alums attending practice- and I would go beyond football. What happened with [Athletes for Life] is just a deeper and more meaningful interaction. We were on the Ute Tribe land- over a two-plus hour drive away. The commitment of all of that to be together as alums and current student-athletes and to meet tribal leadership- that is very unique across this country I do believe. That goes way beyond the name itself. It’s the relationship- these kids that we have are experiencing college and it is our responsibility to always be teachers and provide meaningful experiences.”

“The relationship with the Ute Tribe is very important to us,” Harlan continued. “It’s unique for both sides. I’ll never forget the first time I met the chairman for the Ute Tribe in the first or second year I was here, and he got emotional, and he said, ‘it means so much to us, I wish you could see what happens when the Utes take the field and how we gather and watch, and how proud we are.’ For me, that was a defining moment to how lucky we are to have them. Our current student-athletes seeing that and experiencing that will only cause the relationship to get deeper.”


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Representation Matters

This past year, Utah Athletics saw how powerful representation can be with Utah women’s basketball star Alissa Pili drawing crowds of Indigenous people to both home and away games.

Utah football has a similar opportunity with free safety Tao Johnson being pegged as one to watch in 2024.

Harlan noted how important it is for young kids to be able to see people who look like them, or they feel like have had similar experiences to them doing great things.


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“To witness [Alissa’s] impact with youth all across- it kind of started here and then as she traveled the last year and a half- to see the crowds and the faces of the young people when they are around her, ‘thinking I can be like her,’ is very impactful,” Harlan said. “In some regards all of our student-athletes have that ability to shine and be such an inspiration for youth everywhere. When you zero in right to this population that Alissa and Tao belong to- as we carry this partnership with the Ute Tribe, it’s just a more meaningful reminder of how fortunate we are to be associated with the Ute Tribe and the Native American culture in this way.”

The Foundation Has Been Laid, But There Is Always More Work To Do

Utah and the Ute Tribe have done a lot of work over the years to build their relationship. While not perfect by any means (no relationship is) they continue to have the conversations necessary to keep moving forward together.

For Harlan, having a group of former student-athletes help forge another branch of the relationship with the formation of Athletes for Life is huge for the school and the athletic department.

“Athletes for Life is a great example of partnerships that can develop with this overall partnership that we have,” Harlan said. “Obviously, the University of Utah has a partnership with the Ute Tribe. It’s reviewed periodically with different aspects that can be added to it. We want to make sure that we can both envision together how it can grow and be at its very best for this community, the university community, and certainly for the Ute community. Specific to athletics, for me, hearing already from people who participated in this event- our alums, it’s just a reminder to me that we are going to continue to dig in and be as creative as we can be to strengthen this partnership.”

Another way Harlan can see strengthening the relationship with the Ute Tribe and showcasing the relationship to a broader audience is with their increased media presence both digitally and through building their ESPN+ team.

“We’re excited about the ability to continue to create content,” Harlan said. “I feel like we’ve really taken some massive steps over the last few years with our ability to distribute through social media and other tools like that. Now, as we go into the Big 12, we are basically creating our own network in a lot of different ways with broadcasting live events. The other side of that is the ability to do more creative work. There are so many stories to tell, but obviously a great one to be able to continue to tell is our relationship with the Ute Tribe with the things we do with our student-athletes, but broader to the university as well. There is a lot of depth to that story, but to have the ability to tell that story in a more profound way with increased staff in that space is something we are really excited about.”

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 XInstagram, and Threads: @BodkinKSLsports

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Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan Talks Impact Of Athletes For Life, Relationship With Ute Tribe