Earlier this week, Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez joked — in an I’m-not-actually-joking sort of way — that he had a “list” for new UA athletic director Dave Heeke, the same list he had for predecessor Greg Byrne.
“You gotta be fiscally responsible, but there’s a few things we need and a few things we want,” he said. “We can, hopefully, address the needs as soon as possible.”
Likely on Rodriguez’s “wants and needs” agenda — an indoor practice facility, renovations to Arizona Stadium and an increased salary pool for assistant coaches.
Heeke is familiar with the needs of football coaches. In 2007, Heeke — then Central Michigan’s AD — hired Butch Jones to run the Chippewas’ program. Jones was the receivers coach under Rodriguez at West Virginia.
“The last two years working for Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia have completely prepared me for this position,” Jones said at the time.
Rodriguez and Jones remain friends. The UA coach said his old assistant did “a great job” for Heeke at Central Michigan before moving on to Cincinnati and, eventually, Tennessee.
Heeke is now Rodriguez’s boss. Understandably, all eyes will be on the football program as the Wildcats try to recover from a 3-9 season.
Here’s are three things to consider when it comes to Heeke and the future of Arizona’s football program:
1. Facility upgrades won’t come easy. Heeke has a history in fundraising dating to his 18-year tenure in Oregon’s athletic department, but Arizona’s athletic department will be a different animal.
Byrne fought to raise $72 million for Arizona’s Lowell-Stevens Football facility at Arizona Stadium, $30 million for McKale Center renovations and $7.5 million for the recently completed Ginny L. Clements Academic Center.
Any renovation of Arizona Stadium — which would likely include reducing the seating capacity, a complete rebuild of the west side of the stadium and chairback seats throughout — will likely cost in excess of $75 million, and probably more than $100 million.
Indoor practice facilities aren’t cheap, either. Georgia recently spent more than $30 million on its construction. Arizona State built the Verde Dickey Dome, which includes 103,500 square feet of indoor space, for $8.4 million nine years ago, and it’s not exactly state of the art.
The point: Even if these changes come, it might not be any time soon.
“I think facilities are critically important across the board for any of our programs. Certainly, football is no exception,” Heeke told the Star. “We want to take a look at all the different things that are necessary. To prioritize those things and then start to move forward. But we need to look competitively at what will help the program. Day to day how will we help win on Saturday, but also how we’ll help in recruiting.”
A stadium renovation would enhance the fan experience. Most Arizona fans sit on antiquated metal benches.
“They need to enjoy the comforts of the stadium on game day; that’s important,” Heeke said. “In a changing environment, where people can get their information a lot of different ways, we want them to still come to Arizona Stadium and have a great experience.”
2. Heeke has dealt with football-related turmoil before. Arizona’s 2016 struggles were the result of recruiting failures throughout Rodriguez’s early tenure at Arizona.
Heeke has dealt with worse. In 11 years at CMU, the Chippewas had four different full-time coaches.
Heeke inherited a program on the rise under Brian Kelly, who won nine games in Heeke’s first year (2006) before bolting for Cincinnati and, eventually, Notre Dame. Heeke hit a home run hiring Jones, who guided CMU to a 27-13 record and three bowl bids before leaving for Cincinnati, too.
Heeke’s next hire, Michigan State assistant Dan Enos, wasn’t as successful. The Chippewas went 6-18 in Enos’ first two years. Enos left CMU in 2015 to become an assistant coach at Arkansas.
Heeke replaced Enos with Detroit Lions assistant John Bonamego, who has guided the Chippewas to two straight bowl wins.
3. Rodriguez might be on the hot seat … or not. Heeke indirectly addressed Rodriguez’s future during his introductory press conference, with the football coach standing in the back of the room.
The new AD was asked if coaches deserved a few of years of evaluation to prove themselves.
His response: “I think people need to have a chance to show what they can do, and you’ve got to believe in people. But this is a results-oriented business. There is that fact of it, no question.”
Beyond Arizona’s struggles last season — both in performance and stadium attendance — the Wildcats dealt with a large number of decommitments during the 2017 recruiting cycle. And three of Rodriguez’s assistants left for other jobs after the season.
Rodriguez could be coaching for his job in 2017. The athletic director who hired him is gone, after all, and both attendance and results are lagging.
Of course, it’s not that simple: Rodriguez’s contract runs until 2020 at an average salary of about $1.77 million per year. A buyout would cost the UA in excess of $5 million.
Heeke has terminated coaches mid-contract before.
In 2012, he fired CMU men’s basketball coach Ernie Zeigler with two years remaining on his deal. The difference: Zeigler made just $175,000 per year.
“We get evaluated every day, we get evaluated every practice, every game, there’s a scoreboard,” Heeke said. “Somebody’s measuring something. We’ll continue to do that. We want to be about support to give people the resources so they can be successful.”
- Quarterback K’Hari Lane signed his national letter of intent on Friday, officially making him part of Arizona’s 2017 recruiting class. The UA offered Lane a scholarship after a visit on Feb. 19. Lane, from Montezuma, Georgia, committed on the spot. The 6-foot, 220 pounder will join Brandon Dawkins, Khalil Tate and Rhett Rodriguez in the fall to add much-needed depth to Arizona’s quarterback position. Scout.com lists Lane as a three-star recruit. Arizona was his only Division I offer.