Friday, May 6, 2011

The University of Utah: From athletic rags to riches

Earlier this week the PAC 12 Conference announced a multi-billion dollar TV deal with ESPN and Fox.  The deal stands as the richest and most lucrative network tv contract a college athletic conference has ever struck and will bring member insitutions better than $20 million annually.  The news was particularly exciting for fans of the University of Utah because "the U." will become a member of the PAC 12 this fall.  Although Utah won't receive their full share of the tv earnings for a few more years, it is a big victory for their athletic department, not only because of the money that it will bring in, but for the exposure it will give the department and the university.

This week's announcement is just another part of the broader story of Utah's rise from a relatively unknown and uncelebrated athletics program (they were part of the unheralded Western Athletic Conference until about a decade ago when they moved to the equally mediocre Mountain West Conference) to the upper echelons of college athletics.  It's the sort of story every athletics program wishes they could tell and what drives the "athletics arms race" described by Murray Sperber in his book Beer and Circus.  So, why do some schools make it while others plod along year after year, barely keeping their heads above water?  Why was Utah different?

1.  Great Leadership:  Utah's department of athletics is led by one of the very best athletic administrators in the country, Chris Hill.  Not only is Hill a smart and hard worker, he understands the landscape of college athletics and academia having worked in a number of capacities at the University across the last 25 years, both inside and outside of the athletics department.

2.  Patience:  Utah's rise didn't happen overnight.  Hill has been at the helm for the last 24 years and it's taken that long to build the sort of program that exists at the U.  Plenty of other programs have had successful years and high-profile athletes, but Hill's teams have been consistently competitive over a long period of time and built a solid base of success and stability.

3.  Luck:  Utah owes a lot of its success to the instability among athletic conferences over the last few years.  Because of the amount of movement and shuffling over the last few years, conferences were looking to expand and bring in new members, so "mid-majors" like Utah were actually part of the conversation.  Without that kind environment, teams like Utah would never have been asked to sit at the table.

4.  Stability:  While the men's basketball team at Utah has been in turmoil for the last 7 years or so, the rest of the department has been pretty stable.  The wildly successful gymnastics team has been led by the same coach for the last 36 years (the only coach the program has ever had), the women's soccer coach is in his 10th year, the current football coach has been part of the program for nearly 20 years, and the women's basketball staff has been stable for the last decade.  That kind of consistency translates into success--success that big-time conferences notice and want to be associated with.

5.  The right market: Other than the Utah Jazz (who aren't likely to be fan favorites in the near future because of the rebuilding they are undergoing), University of Utah athletics are the biggest thing in sports for residents of Salt Lake City and the state as a whole.  So, the amount of fan support is where it needs to be and the U. isn't splitting crowds with major league franchises or other large educational institutions.

Of course, it's possible that the best idea in this post is #3 above and that Utah's ascendency has been due to nothing more than luck and timing.  I'm willing to admit that, but it's worth looking at their story to see what might be learned.

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