Mark Harlan is the new face of the University of Utah Athletics. Most recently the athletic director at the University of South Florida for the last 4 years, Harlan was named the athletic director of the Utes this June. The Los Angeles native received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Arizona and now lives in Utah with his family. I had the opportunity to sit down with Harlan and learn a bit more about the ins and outs of his position here at the U.
Casey Overfield: What do you do as athletic director?
Mark Harlan: At the end of the day, the athletic director is someone who leads the department and has to provide leadership to close to 200 people and 500 student-athletes and move the whole program forward in various categories, as well as encourage competitiveness, academic success and public image. It is a job that has many different hats. On any given day, I may be sitting down with a student-athlete helping him or her through a situation or just to give advice, and then in the very next meeting I might be asking for 10 million dollars from a donor for a project and then I might be sitting down with our medical training staff to make sure everything is running smoothly. It really is an exciting job, and it has many facets to it, and no day is the same. It is an absolute honor to be in this position.
CO: How did you get into this business and to this position?
MH: It all started while I was a student at the University of Arizona. The only way I could afford to go to school was to work, and the job that I found was being football manager. I worked with the football team in the equipment room folding socks, and in my third year, I started going upstairs and meeting with the administration to learn what they did. I got my masters in an area that would put me in a position to work in sports administration. This led me to many different positions, and I eventually worked my way up to athletic director here at Utah.”
CO: What does your history of work look like in terms of college sports and employment?
MH: I have always worked within athletic departments. Every athletic department is more or less divided between internal and external operations. Internal operations is the day to day management of the program. Whether it is in athletic training, academic services, compliance or facilities. I had many jobs as I worked my way up in the internal side, which gave me a great idea of the structure of athletics. The external side is the fundraising, marketing and development side. I have been very fortunate in my career to experience both sides of the business, and it has helped me a lot as I have moved my way up to senior level positions, in the way that I have worked in everyone’s shoes.
CO: What were your experiences like in Florida?
MH: It was an honor to be at the University of South Florida because it was my first opportunity to be an athletic director. I was put in a position to lead a department, and it was a wonderful four plus years there. I really dug in on the things that I thought could make us competitively better, but also improve academic rates and fundraising.One of the most important things that I learned there was that you have to surround yourself with great people, and we were able to recruit a lot of really great professionals into South Florida, both as administrators and as coaches, and it reinforced the saying that you are always as good as the people around you, and you are as good as allowing those people to do their jobs. I made some mistakes, and as a leader, I think that it is important to admit to making mistakes, but I have learned how to bounce back from it. In this business, you have to make some decisions that maybe make sense at the time but later don’t. You have to be selfless in correcting those mistakes and at South Florida I was really able to refine those skills.
CO: What are you looking forward to most here at Utah?
MH: I’m most looking forward to being in a town that is so passionate about the program. When you talk about all of the football sellouts that we will see in the season, I have never had that luxury in my career. I have been around some incredible programs, but I have never been around one where the whole city and even the whole state revolves around when the Utes run out. Better yet, it extends beyond football. You look at 14,000+ that go to gymnastics meets and amazing athletes all around. There’s so much passion and so much investment from our community here, and from the MUSS and the student section. To help foster that and continue it is just a remarkable thing to be around. It is just the people here. The staff, the coaches, the students, it is a really really elite group of people, and to be around that is exciting.
CO: What are your biggest goals moving forward with the athletics program here?
MH: The biggest goal at this point in my tenure is to listen. You really have to listen to people who have been doing it for a while. For coaches, that is seniors in the programs that have gone through it. It is the administration. I think that leaders have to be really careful to not make quick decisions based on what they see in a moment without getting further context. My big goals are to continue to listen and formulate our go-forward plan. We are extremely strong here academically, graduating 90% of our student-athletes. We do really well with our participation in the community, but we can always do more. I think for us, we want to focus on our competitiveness on each team. We want to be in an environment where we are competing for league championships on a yearly basis. It is going to take a lot of work, and it is a process. We will look at how we are investing, how we are recruiting, and how is the administration helping the coaches. We want to win, but we also want to keep the athletics and the integrity up as high as possible. We are not here if it isn’t for the student-athletes and the coaches, so we need to provide selfless leadership to all of them, in all regards.
CO: What do you like most about working as an athletic director?
MH: Being around the student-athletes, being on the campus, being around the passion that is Utah. We launched Wear Red on Fridays, and we have seen people sending things in, and high energy all around. I am a high energy, positive person, and that is exactly what I have found here at Utah—a can-do attitude and people that really want to help.