Sunday, April 22, 2018

New USF AD Mark Harlan aims to give fans a boost

TAMPA — Regardless of the foe, they executed the same game plan every Saturday.

Chris Del Conte and Mark Harlan, 30-something workaholics in the University of Arizona athletic department, would walk from their office to Arizona Stadium, split up and start making their respective checkups.

Restrooms functioning? Check. Concession areas clean? Check. Stands litter-free? Check.

A spread formation followed. Del Conte would go out wide to one sprawling parking lot, Harlan to another. Hands would be shaken, smiles reciprocated, concerns catalogued, all in an effort to ensure that the customers' experiences transcended the result on the field.

"We developed that together when we were there," said Del Conte, now TCU's athletic director. "We'd meet up halfway through: 'How did you do?' 'I hit Lot 7 and 8.' 'All right, I've got 9 and 10.' And then if we had any problems, we'd talk about them the next day.

"Win, lose or draw, (the fans) have got to walk away with a phenomenal experience."

Such is how the seventh AD in USF history cut his teeth: by not cutting corners. If nothing else, Robert Mark Harlan, whose official first day as retiring Doug Woolard's replacement is today, will spare nary an inch of loafer leather to roll out a glistening game-day product.

"I'm a big fan-experience guy," he said.

"Really, it's all about that for him," said UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, for whom Harlan had worked since 2010 as a senior associate AD for external relations before coming to USF.

"Coming in early before the rest of the crowd on game day is an absolute for him. He really, really wants to emphasize the importance of a great experience for everyone — not only the fans but the student-athletes and everyone associated with the program."

For the younger of two boys raised by a pair of Bruins season-ticket holders in an affluent Los Angeles neighborhood, this is the modus operandi. Want to work for Harlan? Be prepared to engage. To connect with your constituents. To listen. To work.

All in an effort to elevate something bigger than oneself.

"I don't think anybody will outwork him," said Memphis AD Tom Bowen, another former boss.

"Mark has an innate ability to connect with people and to build relationships," said Guerrero, who ultimately gave Harlan day-to-day control of the Bruins' men's basketball program.

"From the everyday fan to the seven-figure donor to the student-athlete to the coaches to your administration, he just has a great demeanor about him."

The demeanor is part of a natural skill set that doesn't include athletic prowess. Though a multisport participant at his local YMCA, Harlan played no sports at Palisades High, older brother Bruce said.

He did, however, dabble in the school's theater program. Bruce Harlan senses that's where Mark may have begun to develop the projection, eye contact and public affability that have led him to a Division I senior AD job at age 44.

"He had a great relationship with our coaches at San Jose State," said Bowen, the Spartans' AD before arriving at Memphis. "A wonderful way of being an engaging and kind of consensus-building leader."

It's a formula that helped restore relevance — and attendance — to a foundering program at San Jose State. Nearly a decade ago, when Harlan joined Bowen at San Jose State, home football attendance had dipped below the 15,000 required for Division I-A status.

"We had 352 season-ticket holders for a Division I football program. It was unbelievable," recalled Bowen, hired as Spartans AD in December 2004. "When we got there, students weren't going to the games."

Bowen's first hire was Dick Tomey as football coach. His second was Harlan. Collectively, they beat the San Francisco Bay area bushes, addressing every civic gathering and booster club that would listen.

Harlan revamped the branding as well as the advertising campaign. Greek organizations on campus were embraced and ultimately given their own tailgating spot outside Spartan Stadium.

By 2005, season-ticket sales had doubled. In 2006, the Spartans finished 9-4 with a bowl victory.

"Within a year later, we were hitting our numbers and having tremendous success," Bowen said.

Harlan's new gig has a strikingly similar challenge. Average attendance for seven USF home football games last year was 20,379, the program's lowest in nine years.

Before winning back Bulls fans, Harlan first must win the trust of those in his own building. The initial message he'll impart: At some point, he has worn their respective hats.

Bruce Harlan said his kid brother was destined for this line of work, from the day he befriended Tomey's son, Rich, while climbing trees in their Pacific Palisades neighborhood.

At the time, Dick Tomey was defensive coordinator at UCLA. When he became coach at Hawaii, Mark Harlan was allowed to visit Rich Tomey on the island annually for the Hula Bowl.

"I remember picking him up at the airport," recalled Bruce Harlan, a middle school principal at a private academy in Pacific Palisades. "And he got off the plane with (former USC stars) Keith Van Horne and Ronnie Lott."

An athletic department gym rat was spawned.

While an undergraduate at Arizona, which hired Dick Tomey in 1987, Harlan was placed in charge of team travel. When he wanted to ask out a student worker in the athletic department while he was a Wildcats graduate assistant, he asked Tomey's permission.

He and Carolyn Harlan now have two children, ages 8 and 5.

"I want to get to know all (the USF staffers), but what I really want to make clear to them is, 'I've been doing everything,' " Harlan said.

"I was folding socks, man, I was doing everything. … I've been in a lot of shoes in that room, and I think they're going to really see that."

Together, he insists, they can revive USF's spirit and find common threads that will make the Bulls an American Athletic Conference power — and perhaps one day, a major-conference power — across the board.

Del Conte said Harlan won't be scared to fail, or when necessary, fire. He'll deflect credit to others and assume blame. Every contributor, whether he buys a T-shirt or a luxury suite, will be appreciated.

"I do the same thing here," Del Conte said. "I come to work, come in with a purpose, you stay, you set the tone, you enjoy, and then you celebrate everyone's victories.

"Credit doesn't come to (Harlan). He always gives credit to others. He'll galvanize the staff because he's the wind beneath their wings. They'll realize they've got a phenomenal individual."

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