SALT LAKE CITY — Calling it "one of the best moments of my entire career," Utah’s Mark Harlan became a brief hero for the day Thursday — even if he was just the messenger to the athletic department he runs.
It was a welcome phrase to an otherwise tumultuous year in collegiate sports. For members of the Pac-12, it’s been a long six months without any real sign of a resumption of play after a global pandemic shut down the world. But the conference, and Utah by extension, had to wait a little longer in hopes something would change as others moved forward with a fall season.
Amended. Delayed. Canceled. Postponed. Shortened.
All were words used to describe the six-month roller-coaster ride the department faced, saying nothing of the emotions that come with the ever-changing landscape of sports. But even with Utah's two most profitable sports back, there are still dark clouds ahead for the university.
There are department-wide furloughs and layoffs that remain as the university grips with a loss previously projected by Harlan to be anywhere between $50 million to $60 million in revenue. The Pac-12's decision to play this fall will provide money from its TV contracts, and being eligible to compete for a bowl game and having a College Football Playoff tie-in will help make up some of the shortfalls. But it won't be a cure-all to the budgetary losses that many athletic departments around the country face this year, including Utah.
"We know we're still dealing with significant financial challenges despite (Thursday's) announcement but, obviously, we have a chance to have more revenue than maybe we would have thought of a few weeks ago," Harlan told media in a video call Friday. "So we're going to continue to adhere to our budget and into all the policies that we put in place to manage our way through this, knowing that there could be a light here at the end of the tunnel that we'll have more revenue that we weren't necessarily counting on."
But Harlan added the department is still "dealing with the unknown in terms of revenue." The department-wide two- to nine-week furlough and layoffs remain, though Harlan said some individuals tied to the return of football will have to have their furloughs adjusted but "we're planning on sticking to our all-in commitment on furloughs" and he sees "no reason to change that."
In what was scheduled prior to COVID-19 becoming an all-too-familiar virus spread around the world, Utah was set to open up conference play against California Saturday. The Berkeley kickoff would have been an opportunity for the Utes to begin conference play on the right foot as the back-to-back South Division champs looking for the three-peat.
Now, Utah waits for a schedule that is set to begin Nov. 6-7.
The conference will play a seven-game amended schedule, with each team playing all five other division opponents, and a sixth game against a cross-division opponent that will count against a team's division record, according to Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. A seventh game will be added to the schedule on conference championship week against a cross-divisional opponent, though the exact opponent will not be known until later in the season — at least according to preliminary details released by the conference.
"We may lose games along the way — the way it's set up, there is no place to put the games," Harlan explained. "So if we're playing a Pac-12 game and it so happens to be a crossover, they've got to count. And I think that's where our coaches and athletic directors, by and by, netted out to.
"I'm not going to say every person agreed with that by any means, but the idea of us playing a crossover game and it not counting, and then the following week, let's say we play a South Division opponent that we can't play because of the virus, then all of a sudden we have two non-countable games, and we just had to look at it from that practical standpoint."
Utah knows it will play road games against Arizona State, Colorado and UCLA, and home games against Arizona and USC based on those locations previously being determined for the 2020 season. The crossover game will be at home due to the conference wanting each team to have three home and road games, Harlan said.
A full schedule is expected to be released sometime next week, but Harlan added there is "no reason to rush it. We want to make sure that everybody has a chance to weigh in, and we'll meet with football coaches again next week."
Utah's 2020 schedule:
- North Division opponent
- Arizona State
A seventh game to be determined later for a cross-divisional opponent during conference championship week, or playing in the Pac-12 championship game.
Fall camp return
Utah has been operating under and the NCAA's 12-hour rule model for each week during the Pac-12's suspension of play, which allows approximately five hours of the time to "skill instruction on the field," Harlan said. Head coach Kyle Whittingham could alter it to a 20-hour week model, but it would be less "field activity" and more of a chance for film study until Utah opens up fall camp on Oct. 9-10.
Utah will then have about four weeks of a traditional fall camp where players slowly acclimate to full pads and on-field drills and simulations to prepare for the season. This will be a vital time period for the football team as it looks to name starters at several key positions, including at quarterback. Utah will choose between senior transfer Jake Bentley (South Carolina) or sophomore transfer Cam Rising (Texas), who was forced to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Rice-Eccles Stadium locker rooms
Shortly after the Pac-12 postponed its season, Utah announced the decision to speed up its renovation project of the South portion of Rice-Eccles Stadium, including the tower that housed the home and visiting locker rooms. But with football back on the table, Utah is without locker rooms for the 2020 season — at least for the time being.
Harlan said they have several options they're working through, but added that one athletic director told him: "If you put up a tent, it'll be better than the visiting locker room currently provided."
"We might have to ask for an extended halftime because we might have to walk a little bit further, but all those things are certainly doable," he said. "We get to create the best possible environment for our students and officials and everybody else. But I have no worries at all that we'll be able to accomplish that."