TAMPA — Moments before being formally introduced as USF's seventh athletic director Tuesday afternoon, UCLA senior associate AD Mark Harlan got a text from Bruins basketball coach Steve Alford.
"He told me to remember to breathe," Harlan said.
Harlan took the advice a step further. Standing before a conference room congested with cameras, administrators, reporters, staffers and boosters, he geared every syllable toward infusing the Bulls constituency with a breath of fresh air.
"I'm going to listen," said the Los Angeles native, 44, whose five-year contract will pay a $500,000 annual base salary. "And then we're going to act."
Promising accountability, transparency, bold decision making and an attentive ear, Harlan vowed to work tirelessly to resuscitate a Bulls program that has watched its relevance and attendance dwindle in football and men's basketball.
Start winning consistently across the board, he said, and the big-picture issues such as hooking up with a power conference will take care of themselves.
"We need to worry about ourselves, okay?" said Harlan, who starts April 7. "We need to worry about looking in the mirror: What can we do to win everything we do to fill every venue we have? And … if (conference) change happens, we'll be right there in the forefront."
An athletic department lifer who met his wife while an Arizona football graduate assistant, Harlan was selected from 34 candidates vetted by a Texas-based search firm hired by USF.
No formal records from the private firm were produced, but Dr. William Sutton, president of USF's search advisory committee, said 13 of the candidates were sitting ADs. Four were from outside college athletics and the rest were associate or senior associate ADs, Sutton said.
Twenty-eight percent of the prospects were women or "people of color," Sutton added.
"(Harlan) is a listener, he's a communicator, he's a doer," Sutton said. "I think we've found absolutely the best person in the country to lead us to the next level."
Sutton, who worked closely with search-firm president Bob Beaudine, said they were drawn in part to Harlan's experience at a school with a football dynamic similar to USF's. UCLA also plays at an off-campus stadium (the Rose Bowl) and competes for fan dollars with local professional teams.
Harlan said he wants to listen to the dialogue about an on-campus stadium, but enhance the Raymond James Stadium experience in the meantime. He said he's eager to work with coach Willie Taggart to "get that thing going." Taggart attended Harlan's news conference.
The Bulls' average actual attendance for seven home games last season was 20,379. According to the Tampa Sports Authority, it was the program's lowest attendance figure since 2004.
"I've got to talk to students; why aren't they coming?" Harlan said. "We've got to get to the bottom of that and I'm sure I'm going to hear 10, 20 different reasons … If they're not going (to games) when they're students, what's going to happen when they're alums?"
Based on his resume, Harlan is no stranger to regenerating a fan base. While an associate AD at San Jose State, he worked with then-football coach Dick Tomey — his first boss at Arizona — to nearly double ticket sales in 2005 and '06, according to a USF release.
The same release said he also helped reorganize the structure of UCLA's major giving program and annual fund, resulting in a record number of donors and dollars raised in 2013. UCLA's student-athlete graduation rate is 87 percent, second in the Pac-12 to Stanford.
For a program gasping amid mediocrity, it all equated to fresh air Tuesday.
"And it's hard to tolerate mediocrity … especially with a university that's on the move upward," USF president Judy Genshaft said.
"Everything else is moving forward except for our revenue sports and we are real confident about Willie moving forward, and we've got to get our (men's) basketball team moving forward as well.
"(Harlan) is the real deal."