Dave Heeke’s interview process in Tucson included dinner at the home of Cole and Jeannie Davis, two of the largest benefactors in the school’s sports history.
It was there that the Central Michigan athletic director sat with Sean Miller and another of the school’s most prominent donors, Jeff Stevens, and assorted heavyweights.
It wasn’t a tough sell.
Before dinner, Miller nudged Stevens and, without drawing any notice, gave a this-is-our-guy nod.
It took Arizona just 39 days from the day Greg Byrne accepted Alabama’s AD job to hire a replacement. That’s NASCAR pole-position speed in the business of hiring an athletic director.
“My first phone call was to Dave,” said Rocky LaRose, who joined Cedric Dempsey at the point of Arizona’s search.
Hiring Heeke wasn’t a rushed job. It just made sense.
“I spent years working on Pac-12 and national committees with Dave when he was at Oregon,” LaRose said. “I knew he’d rise in the business. I saw him rise.”
Arizona was impressed by and probably could’ve hired Baylor AD Mack Rhoades, who grew up in Tucson and earned his degree at Arizona, but Rhoades’ contract buyout was not cost-effective. Besides, after a month of hunting and vetting, LaRose and Dempsey knew Heeke — the 53-year-old former baseball catcher from East Lansing, Michigan — was their man.
“It was a fast and furious process,” said Dempsey, who, like Heeke, graduated from Albion College in Michigan. “We had about 65 people who either applied or were recommended. We gave scrutiny to all of them, but we had Dave on the first list we put together. His name kept surfacing.”
Nothing was out of bounds as Dempsey, Arizona’s athletic director from 1982-93, and LaRose, part of the UA athletic department leadership for almost 30 years, even considered non-traditional candidates, including a sitting NBA executive.
“But I still think it’s important to have a body of knowledge about the educational experience and the NCAA environment,” Dempsey said. “And I was impressed that Dave sees this as a destination position.”
Heeke hasn’t been a “bouncer,” which is a college sports term for job-hopper. One of its strengths is that Arizona has had unusual stability at the top. Pop McKale stayed in office for 47 years. Dick Clausen, who was exceptional, followed for 13 years. Dave Strack 10. Dempsey 11. Jim Livengood 16. Byrne almost seven.
By comparison, ASU has employed eight ADs since 1983.
“There’s a steadiness to Dave that attracted me,” said Stevens, who is the largest donor in UA sports history and was a key advisor to UA president Ann Weaver Hart during the search process. “He’s not your poor man’s choice at all. He’s been the chairman of two NCAA committees in which Power 5 athletic directors voted him to be in charge.”
Heeke looks the part. He’s the tall, dark, handsome guy Hollywood retrieves from central casting to impress an audience. He can command a room, as he did during Thursday’s news conference, and he’s as good on his feet, in unfamiliar company, as was Byrne.
As is a must for any Pac-12 AD job, he is leading-man (or woman) material.
He also runs with the “in crowd,” if there is such a thing in the AD business. Heeke’s closest associates are among the leading names in college sports: Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione, Michigan State’s Mark Hollis and Texas Tech’s Kirby Hocutt.
Heeke’s career mentor is Washington State AD Bill Moos, formerly in the same position at Oregon, who, for my 2 cents, has been the Pac-12’s leading AD since Dempsey left Arizona to become executive director of the NCAA in 1993.
In retrospect, hiring Heeke wasn’t rocket science. How could any effective search not have found him?
His immediate challenges at Arizona are imposing.
After a spring football practice early this week, coach Rich Rodriguez told reporters he has “a list” for Heeke. It might’ve been meant to be funny, but ultimately, it will be Heeke who will have “a list” for RichRod.
Heeke and Hart, or her successor, must create a way to bring Arizona Stadium to contemporary standards, whether it costs $75 million or double that. If it requires a tax on the student body, so be it. That’s life in the big leagues.
Every Arizona AD of the last 50 years has gone deep. Clausen built McKale Center and got the school into the Western Athletic Conference. Strack expanded Arizona Stadium and was on the scene when Arizona progressed to the Pac-10. Dempsey hired a string of game-changing coaches, from Lute Olson to Mike Candrea, and grew the Arizona brand into a national product. Livengood was a prudent financial manager. Byrne made Arizona more visible than at any time in history.
Heeke’s charge is to keep Arizona relevant, restore the football program to productivity and uphold the integrity established by Dempsey and fostered through the years by Livengood and Byrne.
“I sense the highest expectations,” Heeke said on Thursday.
He’s got that right.