Athletics Director Mark Harlan on the spring season, super seniors, an awesome speech, fall sports … and what about football?

Mark Harlan Press Conference

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Athletics Director Mark Harlan says the speech given at the virtual Crimson Carpet Awards by gymnast Missy Reinstadtler is something you should hear. He also discusses the NCAA decision that allows student-athletes in spring sports to come back as “super seniors,” how athletes are preparing for fall and … what about football? Recorded on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, James Tombs and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast where you have the opportunity to meet the people who are helping the U achieve new heights. I am President Ruth Watkins from the University of Utah and my guest today is Mark Harlan. Mark is our athletics director. Mark, what a delight to have you with us today.

Mark Harlan: Well, I'm honored to be asked. Thanks for taking some time with me.

President Watkins: Well, one of the things we know is that athletics has been an area really affected by the COVID-19 virus for our student athletes, our staff, our coaches, and, of course, for our fans. Some of our sports, for example, had to abruptly end their seasons, and I know that was heartbreaking for people. I also know that you've managed to celebrate the season with the Crimson Carpet Awards, so maybe tell us a little bit how you’ve managed this time and about that award celebration.

Mark Harlan: Well, our young people are like any of the students on our campus and they had to go through adversity and challenges like everybody else. But when it came to the competition piece, it certainly was pretty dramatic. We had our winter sports, like skiing, who literally was on the mountain on Day 2 of the national championships and were told to ski on down and it was just over. Shocked that they had to go through that. And, of course, we had gymnastics. They were about ready to celebrate Senior Day and that was called off. And then we saw our other sports like baseball and softball who had started their seasons, but they never even got a chance to compete at home because of our weather challenges. And we always have home games later in the year. So, every one of them had to go through that. And I think, too, of the three or four days where we had to notify them and how sad they were. And then I fast forward to today and I see smiles on the Zoom calls now.

President Watkins: I think one of the things we're all pleased about is that our seniors will have the opportunity to participate again next year in spring sports if they wish to. So, comment a bit about how that came about and how you see it.

Mark Harlan: It was a fabulous decision by the NCAA to not worry about a lot of minutia, and just simply think about the kid involved, who basically in some cases didn't even play, maybe just 10% of their season. Our senior student-athletes went through a decision-making process and of our 32 seniors, we have 12 coming back, and those 12 will either pursue a graduate degree or continue on in some undergraduate classes. But we're really excited to have them back. We jokingly refer to them as our “super seniors” because they obviously will be tremendous leaders for next year's teams. But the kids that chose not to come, it's because, gosh, they already have a job lined up or they have other things in their life they need to get to, but the fact is the NCAA made the decision to allow the young person to work with the university to decide what they wanted to do and it was a great thing to do.

President Watkins: It is indeed great to give the student-athlete the choice.

Mark Harlan: They're all doing well. And then you mentioned our Crimson Carpet Awards. We had that last week. It was the virtual reality show of the year, really, for our department. I mean this is one of the biggest things we do every year. We usually go downtown and everyone gets so dressed up, 500 plus young people. And instead of us just saying we're not going to do it, our student leadership came to us and said, "Can you help us put this on?" And we did it and it was fantastic, and we got to celebrate all of our winners this year and all the teams had different Zoom parties and kind of celebrated together. So, really glad that we did it. And it's been really gratifying. A lot of other schools reached out to us after we did it and decide they're going to do it too. And we're starting to see those pop up. I feel like we were a trend setter, but really, really excited for our young people that we got to celebrate them in that way.

President Watkins: I just so applaud your creativity and your ability to figure out a way to recognize excellence and all the hard work that goes into being a student-athlete and I join you in expressing my empathy for those students who worked so hard for so much. And such an abrupt change. Is there a way people can watch the Crimson Carpet celebration?

Mark Harlan: There sure is. We had a lot of folks watch it live, which was really neat, but you can still go to the Utah Athletics YouTube channel. It's right there. The link along with some other videos that we have. Yeah, I'd encourage anybody that follows us to watch. You really get to see our kids in a different light. If you don't have time to watch the whole show, I would encourage anyone to go listen to Missy Reinstadtler's speech. She's one of our gymnasts, just an incredible tribute that she gave to all the student-athletes, and how she's responded to this whole experience. It was incredibly uplifting and really worth a listen.

President Watkins: Well, we certainly applaud Missy and thank her for taking the time to be part of that celebration along with you and everybody from the University of Utah Athletics. Now this is a time of year where all of us sports enthusiasts start to think about fall sports. And I'm sure that's on everyone's mind, from soccer to basketball, and of course football. Elite athletes work pretty hard all year round and some of that has also had to change. Tell us about what can and can't happen right now in terms of student-athlete preparation, and how all of us are handling that.

Mark Harlan: Well you're right, I mean for everybody we've had to adjust and change what we do. But for these types of athletes, certainly this has been a big piece. And the NCAA along with all the conferences came together and made a decision that for the welfare of everybody, that everyone's athletic facilities are to be closed until May 31. So, we're all operating off the same level playing field, so to speak. That has caused, obviously, our student-athletes to be very creative in what they do. And they're like many others creating whatever they have. I've seen videos of football players pushing cars up hills and water bottles—Arrowhead water bottles. And so we're doing what everybody is really doing out there.

Now, obviously they're blessed to have great staff. One thing I'll say is our support staff has been absolutely fantastic. And that includes our strength and conditioning coaches and our trainers who can, over Zoom, at least give them the proper instruction that they need. There are some rules that say they can't work out in front of them because we don't want anyone injured and not be able to be there to help them, but at least we can give them workouts. So, everybody's doing great in our fall sports, of course, or there next up whenever next up is. But they're the next one in the lineup to go and so they're doing a great job of keeping themselves in physical shape.

President Watkins: We're all using our time kind of creatively right now. And I noticed Coach Scalley used some of his to make a little humorous video. I did get a look at that. We applaud that creativity from Coach Scalley! I'm guessing you get one question a lot and that question is probably, what about the fall football season? Guessing there are many things you don't know, but maybe just make a few comments about that. I think you're probably spending a fair amount of time both answering that question and planning various scenarios.

Mark Harlan: Well we are, and the Pac-12 Conference has been really, really good about working together—athletic directors, three times a week we meet. This is a big time topic. Obviously, football is very important to intercollegiate athletics overall, and we want to make great decisions that start and frankly stop with the safety of not only the student-athletes, but anybody that participates in putting on the game, including fans. So right now, the first step is really deciding how much time does a fall athlete, in this case football, need to be ready. And the industry is pretty much settled on about six weeks. So, we need about six weeks for a young man to be back on campus, working out with our coaches to be able to be at their very best for that first game. We finally reached a point there and now we can just slide that to whenever is appropriate.

As you know, we're planning on at this time to open our season on our regular slotted day. But we're also very realistic that that might not happen, and we just have to properly prepare for what might be. But I've told our constituent base that we're going to be very transparent to any outcomes that might be the most realistic and work with everybody. In fact, this week, we even told our football season ticket holders that will provide a refund if we don't play all the games or we'll provide different outlets because they've been so great to us. It's the least we can do. So, a lot of time, a lot of effort looking into this. But until we really have all the data, we just don't know.

President Watkins: I think it's a fabulous sign, Mark, that so many people care and that we're getting that question so much. And what that means to me is there's enormous enthusiasm about Utah sports and Utah football. And I think maybe one reason is that we just went through a most-ever watched NFL draft. And I understand that we had seven players selected, the most of any Pac-12 school. Comment a little bit about that.

Mark Harlan: Well, it's just so incredible to see these young men dream like they do. And then to achieve that on a day like it was over the weekend, I should say it was three days. And we did, we had seven young men drafted, we had another five immediately, within an hour after the draft, sign free agent contracts. So, we've got a lot of young people who are going to be in camps this week and some of them have already begun working with their teams virtually. It started off with Jaylon, our fabulous cornerback, going to the Chicago Bears. And our last drafted was John Penisini, just a great young man, a defensive lineman.

So, it's kind of fun. They're scattered all over. We have multiple teams that we can all root for in the fall. But what a tribute to this incredible senior class, which has won so many games, to also just miss the record of most young people drafted on a team. And since 2014, Utah leads the way in the Pac-12 with the most men drafted. And that's quite an accomplishment.

President Watkins: I'll say. That is really remarkable. I think we should all celebrate that. And now we have Utah alums to watch all over the country.

Mark Harlan: That's right. Many jerseys for us to purchase.

President Watkins: Yes. And collect, I guess. Right. So, Mark, thank you so much for your leadership and really most of all for your commitment to leading with integrity. And with the safety and well-being of everyone around Utah Athletics in mind. And listeners, thank you for joining me today to meet and hear from our athletics director, Mark Harlan. Listeners I hope you'll join me again for the next U Rising Podcast.

Mark Harlan: Thank you.