The announcement came over the weekend that former USF athletic director, Mark Harlan, has accepted the same position with the University of Utah. The move came just months after Harlan signed a three year renewal to remain at USF. He’ll have to pay a penalty of $262,000 for breaking that contract.
Media reports discussing the topic have been quite glowing, but the reality is his tenure was a mixed bag. He will be replacing the retiring Chris Hill, who spent 31 years in Utah. One of Hill’s most notable achievements was getting the Utes back into the Pac 10 and national relevancy in an automatic qualifier conference to the so-called football playoff. Harlan was unable to achieve the same for USF, who remain on the outside of the football universe, looking in. Evidence of how rigged the system is against those outside the so-called “power five” came last season as a top ten UCF team was repeatedly skipped over to prevent their playing in the final two post-season games.
The Bulls won 12 conference titles during Harlan’s tenure, but none of them were in revenue generating sports. Those championships came in women’s soccer, women’s tennis (2), women’s sailing, men’s golf (4), and men’s tennis (4). Despite coming to USF from one of the most storied college basketball programs in the country in UCLA, the Bulls have won zero championships during Harlan’s time.
The men’s basketball program has floundered since his hire, going through 4 head coaches (Stan Heath fired three days before Harlan hired) and a 33-92 overall record. He also authored one of the most embarrassing episodes in school history, offering to hire Manhattan College’s Steve Masiello, only to find out he didn’t have a college degree, making him ineligible for the job.
The Masiello nightmare left them scrambling for someone else, and that ended up being Orlando Antigua. Antigua brought turmoil and scandal to the program, which ended up being investigated by the NCAA and found guilty of providing impermissible food, housing, and transportation to recruits. Antigua was subsequently fired and replaced by Murry Bartow for the remainder of the season.
Of course, football is the real measure by which athletic directors are measured. Football is where the money comes from, and the notoriety. Harlan inherited Willie Taggart as head football coach and the losing record he had at that time. After the Bulls’ 8-5 finish in the regular season and on the same day they were handed an embarrassing 45-35 loss at the hands of Taggart’s alma mater, Western Kentucky in the Miami Bowl, Harlan rewarded his 14-23 record with a three year contract extension. Taggart would never achieve a winning overall record before leaving for a “dream job” at Oregon, where he finished his one season there, one win over .500, 7-6.
After the departure of Taggart, Harlan moved quickly to ink a deal with recently fired Texas head coach, Charlie Strong. Strong had many ties to the state, having spent many years coaching defense at the University of Florida. He was a natural fit and won ten games in his first season, but many expected more for the Bulls, who had been ranked for 19 weeks straight and were unanimous favorite to win their conference. Strong will have years to make his mark at USF, so this part of Harlan’s work should go ungraded, for now.
On the positive side, Harlan has been very successful with building projects and fund raising. An indoor football practice facility project is already in the works and an on-campus stadium study has begun. During his time, he has worked on apparel deals that generated $53 million in revenue. His most noteworthy accomplishment, perhaps, is the improvement of student success that took place during his tenure. Overall, the athletic department had an 82% Graduation Success Rate, with 12 programs averaging at least a 3.0. Both were big problems prior to Harlan’s arrival. And, perhaps those wins are far more important in the long run than those on the court and field.