Hansen's Sunday Notebook: ASU hires pro execs, but Cats’ old-school ways find right mix

June 15, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Arizona Daily Star sports columnist Greg Hansen offers his opinion on recent sports news of interest to Southern Arizonans.

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  • About the only thing the athletic departments at Arizona and ASU have in common anymore is that they are travel partners in the Pac-12.

    Almost everything else has changed. The difference between the Sun Devils and Wildcats has become as striking as that of small town Washington State and the big-city Washington Huskies, whose only bond is that they live in the same state.

    In the last month, new ASU athletic director Ray Anderson hired his top three lieutenants from outside the world of college athletics.

    Now on Anderson’s executive cabinet are David Cohen, who was director of sales for the Minnesota Vikings’ new stadium; Greg McElroy, who was a senior VP for the Dallas Cowboys; and Scottie Graham, who was an executive for the NFL Players Association.

    The Sun Devils are the first Pac-12 school whose key front office positions are dominated by those from pro sports. It figures; Anderson spent the last decade as the VP of NFL operations.

    By comparison, UA athletic director Greg Byrne, who had worked at Mississippi State, Kentucky, Oregon State and Oregon, promoted a former UA softball player, Erika Barnes, to be his senior women’s executive.

    He hired the former golf coach at Oregon State, Mike Ketcham, who was working at a high school in Iowa, to be part of his inner circle. He promoted a former UA football player, James Francis, to operate communications. And he promoted a 25-year member of the sports department, former All-American swimmer Scott Shake, to be the senior associate AD for development.

    And yet it is Arizona, with a balanced budget for 31 consecutive years, that has made its business model work.

    If ASU’s pro-oriented approach works, if the Sun Devils can get out of a five-year, $33-million budget deficit, it may launch a new way of life in college sports.

    The quaint notion, and title, of an AD has evolved more into that of a CEO. Arizona and ASU both have budgets approaching $70 million a year. Perhaps the Sun Devils, for the first time since ex-AD Fred Miller turned the school into a contemporary athletic power in the 1970s, will again be a pacesetter.

    The risk taken by hiring people from the NFL to run a college athletic department is that they are not administering to professional athletes.

    Byrne, and most college ADs, are on call 24/7 with issues from more than 500 student-athletes and their parents. That is one of his strengths. Most ADs could write a compelling book about the behind-the-scenes drama, student by student, that never becomes public.

    At the end of the day, it is still about a cross-country runner getting a degree, and about maintaining academic integrity. But when you’re getting $19 million a year in Pac-12 media rights, and $6 million a year from an in-house (IMG College) marketing firm, it’s sometimes easy to forget about soccer results and think only of a bottom line.

    ASU’s Anderson last week forced baseball coach Tim Esmay to resign even though Esmay guided the Sun Devils to a 201-94-1 record in five years.

    By comparison, Byrne resisted the urge to fire women’s basketball coach Niya Butts, who went 5-25 last season and is 79-108 in six years.

    ASU and Arizona will remain rivals of the first rank, Hatfields vs. McCoys, but about the only thing they’ll have in common is that they share the same time zone.

  • Training camp for the USA softball team, ongoing in Lynchburg, Virginia, maintains the same Arizona flavor it has had for 20 years. UA catcher Chelsea Goodacre, first baseman Hallie Wilson and shortstop Kellie Fox are among the 24 players in camp. The final roster of 17 will be announced Thursday. About the only change is that none of the six pitchers in camp are from Arizona. They are from Cal, Oregon, Florida State, Alabama, Tulsa and South Florida. Oh, how the game has changed. The USA team will play the World Championships in the Netherlands in August.

  • There’s no mystery why Arizona’s 2012 College World Series MVP Robert Refsnyder was promoted to the New York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate in Scranton, Pennsylvania, last week. Refsnyder hit .517 this month (15 for 29) at Double-A Trenton (New Jersey), and the Yankees are bereft of top second base prospects.

  • Last week’s death of 1990 Cy Young Award pitcher Bob Welch at 57 brought back memories of Arizona’s 1976 NCAA baseball championship. The Wildcats faced Welch in the championship game in Omaha, Nebraska, and beat him 7-1, with Dave Stegman going 3 for 4 with three RBIs. Welch was so good that small-school Eastern Michigan reached the CWS in both 1975 and 1976. Beating Welch in that title game might have been the most impressive performance in the UA’s long history at the CWS.

  • UA baseball coach Andy Lopez is now searching for a new assistant coach and, more importantly, an impact recruiter. The decision by assistant coach Shaun Cole to work for USA Baseball makes for an intriguing search process.

  • Aaron Vaughn went 6-1 in 2009 when Pusch Ridge Christian Academy won the state 2A baseball championship under coach Doug Jones, a former major-league pitching standout. Vaughn went to Northwest Nazarene University near Boise, Idaho, and stepped it up. He was named to the All-Greater Northwest Conference first-team this season and capped his amateur baseball career last week when the Houston Astros signed him as a free agent. The Astros timed Vaughn’s fastball at 93 mph. He will fly to Florida this week and begin play for Houston’s Rookie League team.

  • Awaiting his assignment by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sahuaro outfielder Alex Verdugo is equipped with a $914,600 signing bonus. I researched the Dodgers’ second-round draft picks since the modern draft began in 1965, and found that only three position players – Chase Utley, Sid Bream and Bill Buckner – ever became big-league regulars. Of the Dodgers’ 50 second-round draftees, 34 did not reach the big leagues. Here’s how difficult it is to get to the majors: In 1980, Sahuaro first baseman Wes Kent was the second-round draft pick of White Sox, No. 34 overall. Kent hit .222 in six minor-league seasons but did not advance past Class AA. Kent returned to Tucson, became a policeman and now is a software engineer for IBM.

  • Catalina Foothills football coach Jeff Scurran, who has written a book – One Game One Time – available on Amazon, will hold a book signing Saturday from 3-5 p.m., at Tavolino Italian Restaurant at 2890 E. Skyline Drive. It is a story of Pima College’s compelling 2004 football season in which it won a bowl game in Texas against a highly-favored opponent after Scurran butted heads with the former PCC chancellor.

  • After Colorado routed Boston College on New Year’s Eve in the 1999 Insight.com Bowl at Arizona Stadium, the 11th game that began as the Copper Bowl, the event was re-routed to Phoenix by John Junker, then executive director of the Fiesta Bowl. He had gained financial control of the bowl from Tucson’s founding group. Now, all these years later, Junker is back in Tucson. He will begin an eight-month prison sentence at the correctional facility on Wilmot Road this week after being found guilty of a conspiracy to have Fiesta Bowl employees contribute to political campaigns and then reimburse them with Fiesta Bowl funds.

  • Eight-time Arizona NCAA distance-running champion Lawi Lalang found more than just athletic success in his 3½ years at Arizona. His relationship with cross country coach James Li helped bridge the loneliness of leaving his native Kenya. “Coach Li is more than a coach,” Lalang told me. “He mentored me and treated me like his son. Every tough decision I’ve made, in academics and athletics, was influenced by him. When it comes to growing up, he has taught me how to be a man.”

  • Salpointe Catholic junior-to-be Justin Holt, a two-way starter on the Lancers’ 2013 state championship team, has been offered a scholarship by Arizona. His father, ex-UA defensive lineman Julius Holt, was recently voted into the Washington, D.C., Kingman Boys Club Hall of Fame. Justin has been invited to the elite football camps by Oregon, USC, UCLA and Boise State this summer.

  • In 2009 and 2010, Arizona coach Mike Stoops successfully recruited the state champion sprinters of Nevada, Garic Wharton, and Arizona, Ryan Milus. Neither one was able to translate that speed into football toughness and production. Wharton left Arizona with a year of eligibility remaining last week; he caught 36 passes in three years. Milus opted to run track at ASU. He did not qualify for the NCAA finals as a Sun Devil. The one pure sprinter who had the requisite toughness to play football at Arizona was Michael Bates of Amphi, who went on to become a five-time NFL Pro Bowl player and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics bronze medalist in 200 meters.

  • Rincon/University grad Michael Thompson will skip Tiger Woods’ annual PGA Tour event, the Quicken Loans National, so that he can be at Oro Valley Golf Club July 29-30 for his third annual Thompson Invitational, a golf event for Arizona juniors.

  • One of the favorites will be Canyon del Oro senior Chris Meyers, who won the Thunderbird Junior Classic in Phoenix last week, with rounds of 64-69, or 11-under par. Meyers won this month’s Optimist International qualifier in Phoenix and the Willie Low Invitational in Phoenix.

  • The UA is financing the $30 million (first phase) renovation of McKale Center at $1.1 million a year through 2029. Debt service for the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility is $3.3 million through 2043. The new floor and seats at McKale Center alone cost $4.9 million. To help pay for it, those people who buy the nosebleed seats in the upper deck are being assessed a $50 fee for 2014-15 tickets.

  • More Pac-12 financial news: about two weeks after Oregon softball coach Mike White said his league championship team was in need of a new stadium, an Oregon booster pledged $12 million to build the league’s newest and best softball facility. Surprise: it wasn’t Nike money. Arizona has raised about $1.5 million to help begin renovations at Hillenbrand Stadium.

  • Two of the best high school football players in Tucson history went their separate ways last week: Sabino lineman Andrew Mike flew to Gainesville, Florida, to begin training with the Florida Gators. Sabino tight end Matt Bushman, who signed to play at BYU, announced he will serve an LDS mission in Chile and delay his college football career until 2016.

  • Arizona’s 2012 All-Pac-12 guard Kyle Fogg, who was Finland’s Player of the Year in the Euroleague in 2013-14, signed a free agent contract last week with the Port of Antwerp Giants of Belgium. It’s the same league in which former UA all-conference guard Jason Gardner played.

  • Here’s the easiest prediction of the coming 2014-15 sports season: The Champions Tour golf event at Tucson National will outdraw the old WGC-Accenture Match Play Championships at Dove Mountain.

    A lot of star power will be missing. The top 10-12 Match Play golfers were international stars. The other 50 in the field did not move tickets.

    Tucson National’s return to the golf calendar will be celebrated for cheaper prices, the ability to walk a few holes without getting lost in the desert, and for having shade and grass available for spectator seating. And also for Freddie Couples. As a bonus, the La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, the Tucson pro rodeo, will no longer get lost on the February sports calendar. On a good day, about 10,000 attended the Match Play event. At the Champions Tour, a good day is likely to be closer to 20,000.

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