LOGAN — It’s hard to imagine there has ever been a better time to be the athletic director at Utah State University than right now.
The football team is not only coming off an 11-2 season that featured a bowl victory and a top-25 finish, but the Aggies, despite a coaching change, are expected to be a contender for the Mountain West title again in 2019 thanks to the presence of stars like reigning MW Defensive Player of the Year David Woodward and junior quarterback — and Heisman Trophy candidate — Jordan Love.
Then there’s the men’s basketball team, which absolutely blew up last season, going from what everyone assumed would be a significant rebuild under new head coach Craig Smith to tying Nevada for the regular-season title before winning the postseason tourney and going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years.
And thanks to the return of MW Player of the Year Sam Merrill and Defensive Player of the Year Neemias Queta, most early predictions have the Aggies finishing in the top 25 for a second straight year in 2019-20.
So, with Utah State’s two highest-profile programs flying high, you can only imagine the kind of summer Aggie athletic director John Hartwell has been enjoying. Beyond visiting some national parks and the Florida Gulf Coast with his wife, Heather, and the couple’s two young daughters, he’s also been the recipient of a lot of pats on the back from enthusiastic and optimistic Aggie fans.
Here are some of Hartwell’s responses to questions posed just a few days after he celebrated the fourth anniversary of his first day on the job, July 11, 2015.
Deseret News: Four years is like a presidential term. How do you feel about what you’ve been able to accomplish in your “first term” as athletic director?
John Hartwell: I would say we’ve made some great progress. Obviously the finishes in football and men’s basketball this past year were tremendous. We were one of five schools to finish in the final AP Top 25 in both football and men’s basketball, and when you look at the other schools that accomplished that — Cincinnati, Michigan, LSU and Kentucky — that puts us in pretty good company.
But probably even more important than that is when you look at the academic success of the year: a 92 percent graduation rate. That’s the ultimate. Obviously winning on the field of play is really, really important, and we do everything we can to make sure that we win on the fields of play. But the No. 1 win that our student-athletes can have is getting that degree, and when you look at the overall grade point average of 3.25 and the 92 percent graduation rate, that shows we are educating kids. Success in the classroom combined with success on the field of play is really important.
But while we’ve increased our amount of success, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, and that’s what I challenge our coaches and our staff on a daily basis, “Hey look, what can we do today to make Utah State athletics better?” And there has been tremendous buy-in, not just from coaches and staff but from our student-athletes, too.
DN: What are some of your goals for your “next term?”
JH: A benchmark for our department is to try and get all of our teams operating in the upper-third of the Mountain West Conference in terms of success levels. And one of the things that we’ve got to do to get us to that point is make sure that we continue to fund those sports in terms of their operating budgets. And if you look at it from a financial perspective, we’re in the bottom half of the Mountain West in terms of overall operating budget for the fiscal year that just started on July 1. It’s about $36.5 million, and that is towards the bottom of the Mountain West, so one of the things that we’re really excited about is to have Jerry Bovee on board as our new deputy AD, who came from Weber State. He will help to continue to grow our external sources of funding: ticket sales, philanthropic donations and revenue generated from our television contract, which is being negotiated as we speak in the Mountain West Conference. All of those external sources of revenue so that we can increase our overall budget because there is a correlation in collegiate athletics between investment in and success output. And we’ve got to continue growing the resources to help fund our budgets. But on the flip side of that, I think we’ve done a really good job at being as efficient as we can with how we spend our dollars while we are trying to grow the revenue side, so we’ll have more dollars to spend.
DN: In addition to Bovee, an Aggie alum, you also brought back former USU volleyball star Amy Crosbie, who had also been at Weber State.
JH: We’re really excited to get both of them on board. Jerry and I had gotten to know each other over the last three-and-a-half-plus years with him being at Weber and me being here, just working stuff like the Beehive Classic. And as we got in the conversation, I was really excited to see that he had an interest in coming back to Logan and back to Utah State. As we pursued it further, his goals and visions align very much with mine, and we both talked to some individuals who knew both of us, and kind of checked each other out. Collegiate athletics is a very small circle, and one of the common denominators between us was Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. I had worked with Greg during my 10 years at Ole Miss, and Jerry had worked with him on some NCAA stuff, and Greg said, “Hey, I think this would be a good fit,” and his opinion is something that I value a lot.
It’s great to get Jerry on board, and one of the most significant capacities is the fact that he’s been an athletic director 10 years. He knows some of the challenges and opportunities that come across my desk on a daily basis, and to have the ability to have him help out with some of those things is a tremendous asset for us.
And also with Amy, who both worked here and was a student-athlete here, it’s wonderful to be able to get her to come on board as our senior women’s administrator and handle several administrative areas, as well as have some sports supervision. They both of have a great wealth of knowledge and experience and are tremendous additions for our department.
DN: Has there been a better time to be the AD at Utah State?
JH: (Laugh) Well, it’s always exciting to have preseason hype generated both about football and men’s basketball. But, you know, it’s great because, one, it means there’s been some success. Two, there are expectations, and those expectations are great. Now all we’ve got to go do is fulfill everyone’s expectations.
Going back to the top 25 finish in both of those sports last year, I think that’s a great aspirational goal for us to have every year. Is that going to happen every year? No, probably not. But I think that’s a great goal to have, and it’s a tribute to the success and our student-athletes and coaches from last year as we look forward to this year.
And obviously in basketball, Craig coming in his first year, I knew he was going to be good. I didn’t know he was going to be great that quick with what he’s done with our program to turn it around. But it’s exciting, and it wasn’t built as a one-hit wonder. Obviously have Neemie (Queta) withdraw his name from the NBA draft and come back is going to be a significant benefit for us. But when you look at that roster, and obviously you’ve got to start with Sam Merrill, the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year, but that program and look what they’re bringing in from a recruiting standpoint. Craig is building that program for long-standing success. I’m really excited about that.
Then you look at the football side, and yes, we had great success last year. And obviously Matt Wells has moved onto Texas Tech. But there’s a lot of consistency there with Gary (Andersen) and his familiarity with our program. I’m excited to have him back. There are a whole lot of new faces on that team, but you don’t have to go much further than the guy who is taking the snaps in Jordan Love. To see his growth and his progression over his time here at Utah State has been great. It was a tremendous opportunity for him to get to go to the Manning passing camp, and hearing the rave reviews that came back about him out of that camp really has us excited about the season. He’s going to have a lot of new faces around him, but there’s a lot of talent there and looking forward to football kicking off Aug. 30 in Winston-Salem against Wake Forest.
DN: Because of that success, how have things changed as far as interactions with fans and alumni?
JH: I think the expectations now are higher for our department, but I think that’s a really good thing because people have seen the success that we’ve had in football and men’s basketball. Not just in the Mountain West Conference, but nationwide in getting some more exposure for our programs and our university as a whole. There is a lot of excitement amongst our fan base.
Back in May we went on a two-week tour, the Aggie Road Trip, which this is the third year that we’ve done that. And we covered a lot of ground in that two-week period, going from St. George to Vegas to Southern California to the Bay Area to Portland and Seattle. By popular demand, we have expanded the events that we do, and we’re also going to go to Denver and to Dallas. So, not just in Cache Valley or the state of Utah are people excited about the Aggies. We’ve got alumni from coast to coast who have dialed into what we’re doing and are excited about the future of Utah State athletics.
DN: What about the rest of the athletic department?
JH: When you look at successes, you look at our track and field program and what they’ve been able to do over the last two or three years. Obviously Sindri (Gudmundsson), our javelin thrower from Iceland, is a three-time All-American coming back for his senior year, and he’s locked and loaded on trying to be four-time All-American in track and field. So, we’ve got a lot of young talent in that area.
Women’s basketball finished above .500 last year. They’ve had some transition on their roster, but look for some exciting things out of them. And then there’s a couple of programs that we’re exciting about hopefully having turning-the-corner years like women’s soccer this fall. Then there’s our tennis programs.
I think the foundation is strong, and as I said, it’s our goal to get all of our programs in the upper third of the standings in the Mountain West Conference.
DN: How do you feel about the state of the Mountain West Conference?
JH: I think our league is very competitive, and I will say in the transition of Utah State into the Mountain West, our ability to experience success has taken a little bit longer than others. But again, part of that goes back to funding, and we will continue to try and increase funding for some of those programs to offer them more opportunities to be successful.
DN: How is relationship with other in-state schools?
JH: I’ve developed good working relationships there. Tom Holmoe at BYU and I actually had a relationship prior to me coming to Utah State because one of his daughters served her LDS mission in Troy, Alabama, so I got to know Tom some. And then being at Troy, I also knew (Utah AD) Mark (Harlan) when he was at South Florida, so there’s a relationship there. And I obviously got to know Jerry well (laugh). And now both he and Amy are on our staff.
DN: After spending most of your life in the southeast, do you feel more comfortable now out West, both personally and professionally?Comment on this story
JH: Yeah, I think so. Four-plus years in, and as I’ve told people since probably my first year here, yeah, geographically there’s a pretty significant difference between the southeast and Utah. But two things that I think are very similar to both areas are family values and general conservative nature, and I think that’s consistent between the two. And the other thing is that the people of Cache Valley, and, in particular the Aggie family, have been so welcoming to our family coming in. So four years in, I feel like somewhat of a veteran now, and proud of some of the things that we’ve accomplished. But I also know there’s a whole lot more for us to accomplish going forward.