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Utah athletics: Chris Hill talks Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion, scheduling and basketball transfers

Published April 20, 2017 7:26 am

Utah athletics • Rice-Eccles expansion and many other things still on to-do list.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When you're the longest-tenured athletic director in the country, conversations about the future tend to wander toward retirement.

But Chris Hill, 67, didn't sound like a man close to the finish line as he met with local media on Wednesday afternoon. If anything, he's extending his gaze toward one of the most ambitious projects he's tackled in years: Stadium expansion.

Wrapping up his 30th year as Utah's AD, Hill said he still gets pleasure from the challenges of his role, which has expanded greatly since he took it on three decades ago. As his department is bigger and brings in more revenue than ever, Hill said he's still feeling fresh.



"Let's be honest: Anybody in their 60s, it'd be silly not to think about [retirement]," he said. "But it's fun to come to work every day. It's fun to have these type of challenges. I've worked with some of the best people I've ever worked with."

While moving to the Pac-12 and building the facilities required to compete in the league may be Hill's lasting legacy at Utah, he's not done yet. He weighed in on some of the biggest issues he faces now and in the coming years:

Stadium expansion and renovation • The biggest item on Hill's plate is the overhaul of the South End Zone building at Rice-Eccles Stadium; he estimates it will be the most expensive project since at least the 1998 renovation, and probably for decades to come. The feasibility study announced last month was a step to show the university is approaching expansion with professionalism in mind.

The step is a tentative one. Hill acknowledged the university has yet to hire a firm to run the study. The Utes also have no concrete goal as to how many seats to add, though Hill acknowledged many fans want to see at least 50,000 seats — the stadium currently seats just over 45,000.

Hill would not guarantee the stadium will expand, but "the thinking is there is gonna be more seats" once the renovation project is complete. The South End Zone is currently free-standing, but Hill expects to close off the corners of the bowl.

"I want to just leave everything open, so we make a decision long term that works," he said. "You've got to balance what the fans want, what the coach needs, your financial plan to get there. Keeping the atmosphere. There's a ton of different things you've got to put together as one."

While recruiting and student athlete support is a big factor in the renovation, Hill said his top priorities are keeping a raucous home-field advantage and satisfying fan demands. Utah will study luxury seating and loges, but Hill wishes to avoid making the renovated area "too corporate" and wants to keep looking at options for more typical fans.

The project won't include state or university dollars; Hill intends for it to be funded through athletics. That will likely include donor dollars, as well as finding ways to get ticket sales to help pay for the upgrades. He hopes the feasibility study will prevent Utah from putting itself in debt it will struggle to pay off — he cited Cal, which was $22 million in the red last fiscal year, as an example. But given that Utah has had a 98-percent season ticket renewal rate, he also feels like the time is now.

"Demand is sure there," he said.

Football and basketball scheduling • For several years, Hill has stuck by what he refers to as the "ABC" model of football nonconference scheduling; having an "A" top-tier opponent, a "B" mid-level opponent, and a "C" low-level (FCS) opponent. But in future seasons, the Utes may depart from that format, which fans haven't always found enticing.

"Maybe we'll take a few more risks now," he said. "We'll still play a game that we feel we can win the majority of the time. But maybe ABC becomes A, A-minus, C."

Much of Utah's nonconference schedule is set through 2022, although the Utes are hunting for opponents in the 2020 season. The next Power 5 nonconference opponent Utah will play is Baylor in 2023. Utah has home-and-home series with San Jose State, Northern Illinois and San Diego State in the coming seasons; Hill said it's not practical to try to negotiate 2-for-1s with Group of 5 schools.

With Las Vegas building an NFL stadium, Hill acknowledged that there may be opportunities for neutral-site games, but he's not a big fan of them. He said he's turned down neutral-site offers in which Utah stood to make as much as $1.5 million. He would consider a top-10 opponent for a neutral-site game, but not many others.

"At the end of the day, you want to win," Hill said. "And the other thing is you want to be careful with your own fans. You want them to have really good home games."

As for men's basketball, which KenPom rated as having the No. 322 nonconference strength of schedule, Hill acknowledged "we didn't make a tough schedule" in part because Utah expected a weaker finish than its fourth-place position in the Pac-12. He said he doesn't get too involved in basketball scheduling except hoping each season includes at least five nonconference games that help boost RPI. He called Utah's 20-12 season "pretty good" despite not making the NCAA Tournament, and expressed confidence that coach Larry Krystkowiak has the program on the right track.

Hill declined to talk about in-state scheduling, worried that any comments he had on the matter — no matter his intent — would provoke a negative reaction.

Other facilities projects • After some technical difficulties last season, the Utes will pursue a replacement for the aging scoreboard/videoboard that hangs in the middle of the Huntsman Center. They'll look to bring in a board that can accommodate high-definition video and is technically up to date.

Utah's new multimedia rights deal with Learfield, which should be finalized this month, will pay half of the estimated $4 million cost, Hill said. It could be installed, optimistically, by next season.

"We want to provide better opportunities for advertising, so we'll need that to do that," he said. "It really did go out a couple times per year. It's old enough that the replacement bulbs and et cetera, you can't get them anymore."

Utah's ski building, which began construction last summer, will open next week for the national championship-winning ski program, Hill said.

One of the next big things will be the baseball stadium, which Utah hopes to build on campus. The university is looking at buying a tract of land from Salt Lake City which currently is a part of Sunnyside Park. Hill said he's doing more community meetings to get feedback.

Transfers • Whenever someone transfers from football, men's basketball and gymnastics (his primary sports of responsibility), Hill said he has a conversation with the coach about it. So he's had at least nine conversations with Krystkowiak, who has seen that many scholarship transfers depart in the past two seasons.

Hill said he's reviewed each case and come to accept that transferring is a part of college basketball culture.

"I have my own theory on it, that kids are growing up, and it's about gratification," "In each individual one, it's like, "OK, I kind of get it.' You add it all up, and you say it is an epidemic — that's the term, it's an epidemic."

Hill said he envisions all his coaches as talent-developers. He'd prefer to hire coaches who can bring in recruits and make them great, rather than dive into the potential cesspool of high-level recruiting. Hill said he sleeps at night comforted that his coaches are following NCAA rules.

That being said, Hill said he's acknowledged the reality that basketball in particular may have to be stitched together year by year with combinations of transfers and one-and-dones.

"Almost everybody is doing that with recruits," he said. "We gotta find our formula to patch people in — that's what it is now."

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon

 

 

 

 

 

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