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In 1992, Greg Byrne worked as an intern for the Fiesta Bowl. One of the illustrious tasks of the position was ferrying athletics bigwigs to and from the airport.
He remembers very clearly picking up one couple, which included a young athletic director. Byrne remembers striking up a connection over their family backgrounds, and that he wanted to do the same thing his passenger did.
After 23 years, Byrne has a few seasons as athletic director at Arizona under his belt. And the man he once looked up to, Utah athletic director Chris Hill, he looks up to still.
"He's a strong voice, and he has a sense of history and experience that helps all of us," Byrne said. "Utah is well-served by having Chris, and so is the Pac-12."
Among major college programs, no one has done this longer: Since 1987, Hill has sat in the same chair. Though the athletics facilities on campus don't bear his name, he's played a major role in putting them there. Many of the banners and honors hanging in the Huntsman Center were earned under his stewardship. When Utah moved into the Pac-12, it was perhaps the crowning achievement of Hill's now very lengthy career.
But as Hill himself says, no one sees that career ending soon. While it seems natural to wonder when the longest tenured A.D. at an FBS program may hang up the spurs, colleagues and even his wife say Hill is as energized as ever: by the challenges of the Pac-12, by trying to make Utah's programs competitive and most of all by shaping the futures of athletes.
"I don't think the guy is going anywhere soon," said Manny Hendrix, Utah athletics' director for development. "He comes in every fall like a wide-eyed freshman. The attitude he comes in with, it makes me feel like I'm getting old."
Hill has always looked younger than his age, and that is still true at age 65. His wife, Kathy Hill, attributes that in part to frequent walks, hikes, workouts at the football facility and trying to keep up with their three grandchildren. Hill is also a longtime health nut: He's happy subbing out ice cream for yogurt and fruit.
Hill needs the energy. His staff has increased exponentially since the '80s, when he was often attending to matters as miniscule as study hall himself. One of the most important skills he's developed in the past four years might just be delegation. Some of his staffers have taken on increased responsibilities in the department, such as Hendrix taking the lead on fundraising, or Kyle Brennan being in charge of facilities as Hill balances his time.
"That's just in part the increased activity of A.D.s in the Pac-12; I have to have a good staff around me," he said. "It's all about making the best use of your time for each thing that requires your time."
A lot of his time is spent listening. Colleagues say Hill makes his best effort to meet each of his athletes, particularly seniors, to hear their concerns, their ambitions, their visions of their futures. He's been known to write recommendations for athletes who are embarking on off-the-field careers, or talk to potential pro prospects to help hash out whether they're ready to leave school early.
The people around him say these encounters invigorate him.
"There is a saying that character is measured by what you do when no one is watching," Brennan said. "I cannot count the number of times Chris has helped someone in need, provided an encouraging word, donated his time or money and always does so without bringing any attention to himself."
As an athletic director, there's times when he can't avoid the spotlight even if it's not the kind of spotlight he doesn't want. The past few years have been among his most challenging, including a scandal over swimming coach Greg Winslow that called Hill's management skills into question and wound up giving him a figurative black eye. Hill has said that he could have done more.
In January, as The Tribune reported on the fractious relationship between Hill and football coach Kyle Whittingham, his popularity took a hit among the Utah faithful. During a halftime presentation at a home basketball game, fans booed Hill, who had not yet come to terms on a contract extension with Whittingham.
He later gave his football coach an extension, and both men say their professional relationship is on good terms. But the sound of the booing stayed with Hill for some time, even as he tried not to show it.
"It broke his heart: You work so hard, only to be booed in your own arena when you've done so much," Kathy Hill said. "Our daughter was sobbing, and it killed him. He tried to let on [that] it didn't, but it was a really hard couple months. Chris at that point didn't have very thick skin. But he made it through."
Those around Hill say he's quietly a very competitive person. And nothing validates the competitive quite like winning.
The Utah men's basketball team, which climbed into the top 25 and finished in the Sweet 16, added wind to Hill's sails. So did a runner-up gymnastics finish from the Red Rocks and a surprising NCAA Tournament-bound season for the softball team. Added to the football team's rebound year and a strong volleyball season, it was Utah's best year in the Pac-12.
Hill said the adrenaline of the competition and being competitive gives him renewed enthusiasm for his job. While he acknowledges the stressful parts, there are definitely perks. And there are always new goals to shoot for.
"Some days are better than others, and every year there's things that are stressful," he said. "But you see yourself energized as things improve and you see our student-athletes succeed."
For his own part, Hill said he's not worried about when he steps down, explaining that he's not interested in what happens "that far down the road." Byrne said Hill has transformed Utah into a destination job, whenever it opens up.
University of Utah President David Pershing, who may one day be charged with finding Hill's successor, hopes that day is as far away as everyone seems to think.
"Just as with legendary coaches, when the time comes, it will be very difficult to replace Chris Hill," Pershing said in a statement. "Fortunately, he has shown no indication he is ready to retire."
Hill became "disillusioned" with athletics once in his career, according to Kathy Hill: He left Utah to lead United Cerebral Palsy of Utah. He earned his doctorate in educational administration, and he pioneered group homes for severely disabled people facilities still in operation today, long after he left the organization 30 years ago.
Kathy Hill foresees a similar legacy at Utah. Chris Hill's streak will keep going, at least for the foreseeable future. But whenever he does step away, she said, she thinks what he's built will last far beyond his tenure.
"Chris always says everyone is replaceable, even he is," she said. "I think Utah will get someone great as athletic director whenever Chris retires, and I think no one would love that more than Chris. He's not somebody who looks back. He's always looking forward."
Chris Hill over the years
Notable coaches hired • Rick Majerus (men's basketball), Ron McBride (football), Urban Meyer (football), Kyle Whittingham (football), Beth Launiere (women's volleyball), Larry Krystkowiak (men's basketball).
National championships • Skiing (1988, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2003); Gymnastics (1990, 1992, 1994, 1995)
Notable facilities built • Eccles Football Center (2013), Huntsman Basketball Center (2015), Rice-Eccles Stadium renovations 1998), McCarthey Track and Field Complex (2010), Burbidge Athletics Academic Center (2001)
National boards • NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee; NCAA Championships/Competition Cabinet; NCAA Management Council Administrative Committee