Chris Hill


Adam Fondren

The silver plaque that hung for many years in the University of Utah office of Chris Hill—who until his recent retirement was the longest-tenured athletic director at a single school in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision—was a testimonial to longevity. Not his, though. His grandfather’s.

“Frank Hill,” it reads. “Grand Old Man of Rutgers Basketball.”

The Hill family has something of a franchise on job longevity. Frank Hill led the Rutgers men’s basketball team longer than any other coach: 28 years, from 1915 to 1943. Among his players in his final season was Chris Hill’s father, Maurice ED’43, GSE’49. Chris Hill RC’72 was the athletic director at Utah for 31 years, and he told anyone who asked about the plaque in his office the story of his grandfather, who also coached the basketball team at Seton Hall University for 17 years—at the same time he was coaching Rutgers.

“I guess in those days, the traffic wasn’t bad so he could get from one place to the other,” Hill says. “When they played each other, he sat in the stands. I think about the era when they played, and I think about what we have now and I think, ‘Man, different day, different day.’”

What Chris Hill had at Utah was an athletic department budget ($82 million) almost 10 times the size of the entire New Jersey state budget in his grandfather’s early seasons; dozens of teams competing in sports that barely existed when Frank Hill was shuttling between Rutgers and Seton Hall (the Utah ski team won the NCAA championship six times during Chris Hill’s tenure); and throngs of spectators that dwarfed what could fit into The Barn on College Avenue (the Utes made it to the NCAA Final Four in 1998 and the Sugar Bowl in 2009).

“I think he’d sit here today and he’d say, ‘Oh I can’t believe all the stuff you guys have and how spoiled you are. You’re just supposed to coach ’em up,’” Chris Hill says. “He probably would anticipate that I would be coaching and being the athletic director at the same time.”

Frank Hill died in 1944, a year after his final season coaching at Rutgers and a few years before his grandson was born. Chris Hill grew up in Lakewood, New Jersey, where his father was a teacher, coach, and school principal, and he was a good enough point guard at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey, to be widely recruited. “It came down to Princeton and Rutgers, and I think I would have got shot if I chose Princeton,” he says.

He was co-captain in his senior season, playing in the same gym where his grandfather once impressed his teams by making trick shots through the rafters after practices. After graduating with a degree in math education in 1972, he taught and coached at Garfield High School, in Garfield, New Jersey, until he got a call from his old coach Bill Foster, who had left Rutgers for Utah, asking him to come out west as a graduate assistant. Hill earned a master’s degree in education, met his wife, Kathy, and found Utah, he says, to be “an easy place to live.” He coached high school basketball in Salt Lake City for a few years before returning to the university, where he was an assistant coach again, taught in the special education department, and earned a Ph.D. in educational administration. After a stint away from the university as the executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Utah, he returned as director of the athletics booster organization, the Crimson Club.

Hill was 37 when he was named athletic director at a school whose football team hadn’t played in a bowl game in 22 years, and he soon proved adept at hiring the kind of coaches who could put the Utes on the national stage. Three of them earned National Coach of the Year honors while at Utah: the late Rick Majerus, who led the basketball team to the national championship game in 1998; Urban Meyer, now at Ohio State, who in 2004 coached the football team to its first perfect season in 64 years; and the current Utes’ coach, Kyle Whittingham, whose team beat Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl and finished the season ranked number two in the nation.

“I’ve been around coaching all my life and kind of understand the makeup in general of a great coach,” says Hill. Utah’s athletic success during his tenure led to an invitation for the university to join the Pac-12 Conference in 2010. “When we had Majerus here we were right up at the top with basketball and we were doing pretty well with football, and then Urban Meyer came along and that changed the whole football culture, and then we got in the Pac-12 and that was like a brand-new job.”

That escalator of success led to several job offers that tempted him to leave for other schools, but it also kept the Utah job interesting enough to make him stay. “I was close a couple of times to leaving, but it was good here. It became pretty simple: they wanted me to stay and I wanted to stay,” he says. “I think there’s a certain sense that it’s not about moving around and making more money; it’s about just getting into what you do.”

His last day was in June. “I felt good about where we were and I think that in sports that doesn’t happen a lot. I didn’t want to be somebody that was in a position that felt like they just needed to stay all the time,” he says. “I’ve been on a team for so long as an A.D. and a coach and a player, and I lived and died with the team. I’m going to miss the ups and downs of that. It’s a pretty intense feeling, the highs of highs and the lows of lows, and now it’ll be more level for me, but I think I might enjoy that at this stage of my life.”

Hill left with some notes for a book he might write, and a plan to spend some more time with his four grandchildren, the only players who can get him out on a basketball court now. “I stopped playing in a league a while ago,” he says. “When you know you could have beat the guy you’re guarding 20 years ago and now you can’t, that would just be too frustrating.” •