Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — He grew up as a stats geek. As a kid he'd go to Utes football games with his dad and grandmother and fill notepads charting yards-per-carry by the running backs, passing yardage, where passes were being thrown on the field and other arcane data. He was into analytics long before anyone called it analytics.
Why is this relevant on the day of the University of Utah competing in another Rose Bowl?
Because that stats kid grew up to become president of the university.
And from where Taylor Randall sits as the Utes prepare to play Penn State in their second consecutive trip to Pasadena, analytics paint a rosy future for both Utah football and the university it represents.
The numbers, he'll show you, suggest it was no coincidence that after the Utes appeared in last year's Rose Bowl the university saw increases in applications, enrollment (the 2022 freshman class is the largest in history) and donations — increases that are easily quantifiable — and it only follows that an encore appearance will allow the school to take even greater advantage of being among the football elite.
"I would characterize last year as just pure celebration, we were so thrilled to be here," the president says. "Our planning has taken a different tone this year. It's more strategic. There's a lot more pregame activity and meetings with folks we're trying to get to help us build this program. We're thinking about who needs to be at this game."
He adds, "There's a lot of data out there that shows what winning will do for an athletic department and a university. College sports is in a period of extreme upheaval right now, and for lack of a better term, it's a fairly Darwinian world and the winners probably end up prevailing at the end of the day. We spend a lot of time trying to understand how we can position ourselves to be in a good spot after all the shake-ups that I think will continue to occur over the next five to seven years."
'My lifelong passion'
Randall's Ute roots run deep. His grandfather, Clyde, was dean of the business school; his father, Reed, was director of the school of accounting. The family has had season football tickets dating to the 1930s. As far back as he can remember, Randall was a regular attender at Utah football games.
Growing up in the 1970s, he suffered through his share of seasons that did not end in the Rose Bowl — or any bowl for that matter. "I took the losses hard," he winces. But win or lose, he came armed with a pencil and notepad and kept meticulous track of who was doing what.
The passion never died — for sports or for data. When he enrolled at the University of Utah and took his first statistics class, taught by Bruce Baird, he chose to analyze PGA Tour wins for his first assignment.
When he got to graduate school at the Wharton School of Business, he dove into a detailed analysis to determine if the 1969 New York Mets were really the Miracle Mets.
"I was trying to prove that the Mets truly were a miracle," he says. "And they were. If you look at World Series winners you will see a gradual increase in team statistics to the top. But the Mets were horrible, and then they won (the '69 Series), and then they were horrible again. They did not fit any pattern."
After graduating from Wharton, Randall interviewed for a teaching job at the U. business school, following in his grandfather's and father's footsteps (and inheriting their season tickets).
"True story," he says, "I asked when they hired me if I could be a statistician for Rick Majerus and they declined. They said I needed special statistical training. I could not convince them that my lifelong passion for keeping basketball statistics qualified me."
'At the heart of the university'
So, one of the Ute football program's biggest assets turns out to be a number cruncher who sits in the big office on President's Circle and doesn't wear shoulder pads or a whistle.
"We say our goal is to be a top 10 public university with unsurpassed societal impact," says the first U. of U. alum to serve as president in half a century. "What does that mean? It means we'll have a certain size of student body, it means we'll probably have a billion dollars in federally funded research. But it's the societal impact piece that is really at the heart of the university. It means that what we do here actually lifts people's economic and personal outcomes.
"And football's a big part of it, and athletics in general. It's where we play, it's where we get excited, it's one of the ways we draw attention to the many great things we're trying to do."
Supporting a football program to reach ever loftier heights is a no-brainer.
"You can see, particularly over the past decade to decade and a half, that there's been a pretty significant movement in the reputation of Utah football," the school's statistician-in-chief says. "Coach (Kyle) Whittingham has established a program that is known for taking a certain type of talent and coaching it up. If you go back you'll see a gradual increase in talent and depth, and I think that's a long-term strategy that is sustainable.
"That's what you want. You don't want the Miracle Mets."
Trust him. He has the numbers to back that up.