When Pop McKale retired in 1957, he said, “My successor isn’t going to have a picnic.” He cited the need to build a basketball arena, expand Arizona Stadium and leave the old Border Conference.
Here was his hook of his retirement speech: “We need to move across Cherry Avenue.”
Now, 60 years later, Arizona is still trying to move across the street.
Oh, sure, the school literally moved its athletic plant east of Arizona Stadium with the construction of McKale Center in 1972, but Pop’s six full-time successors never did sit down to a picnic.
Over the last 100 years, whenever Arizona hired an athletic director, it chose similar bloodlines. It hired a baseball coach (McKale), a football coach (Dick Clausen), two basketball coaches (Cedric Dempsey and Dave Strack), a high school coach (Jim Livengood) and the son of an athletic director (Greg Byrne).
All struggled to figuratively get across Cherry Avenue — even Byrne, who leaves to become Alabama’s AD at a time of crisis for the UA athletic department.
Has it ever been any different?
Byrne kept the UA in step with its Pac-12 colleagues, but it required unprecedented debt service, an exhaustive work schedule and, much like McKale in 1957, a warning that his successor wouldn’t enjoy much of a honeymoon.
“Whoever is hired must stay focused on our infrastructure,” Byrne told me Monday. “(Rebuilding) Arizona Stadium has to be a priority.”
That’s a much-overdue project that will cost in excess of $100 million. Byrne took the first steps to assess a $200 fee to every student — a fee that could raise about $8 million per year for the stadium’s renovation — but Byrne backed off in the face of student resistance.
Every Pac-12 school except maybe Stanford and USC faces similar financial obstacles to get across their own Cherry Avenue.
“I think it will be critical for the Pac-12 to be very focused on maximizing conference revenues for its institutions,” Byrne said. “The SEC and Big Ten are distancing themselves from the other Power 5 conferences, and that’s going to be extremely important to the Pac-12 in the next five years.”
The Pac-12 Networks have not come close to returning $10 million per school, per year, as was initially projected. It is closer to $1.5 million per year.
Arizona’s wish list includes about $2 million to redo Hillenbrand Stadium and make it comparable to SEC softball facilities and at least as much, or more, to make modern Drachman Stadium (track) and the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center.
Rich Rodriguez has been campaigning for an indoor football practice facility and the nationally recognized golf programs are at a disadvantage because their practice facility is almost closer to Tubac than Tucson. And the new AD may need to make coaching changes in two or three sports, including football.
Other than that, schedule a picnic.
The hiring of a 21st-century athletic director is nothing like the days in which Arizona acquired Dempsey from Houston, at which time he built one of the nation’s top 10 athletic programs.
Dempsey’s reign, and the first decade of Livengood’s years, remains the most successful period in UA sports history.
Now Arizona struggles to maintain a spot in the top 35 of the yearly all-sports rankings. The competition has intensified, spending has soared to preposterous levels (for fans and administrators), and Byrne’s replacement won’t find three Hall of Fame-timber assistant ADs on staff, the way Dempsey did with John Perrin, Bob Bockrath and Mary Roby.
College athletics changes by the day. Until Oregon State hired Pitt AD Scott Barnes two weeks ago, the last five ADs hired in the Pac-12 came from nontraditional roles.
Colorado hired Rick George, a Major League Baseball executive.
USC hired Lynn Swann, a celebrity football alumnus.
Cal hired Michael Williams, an investment banker.
Arizona State hired Ray Anderson, the NFL’s vice president of operations.
Washington hired Jennifer Cohen, who is one of three female ADs among 65 spots in Power 5 conferences.
Anything goes. Byrne’s replacement could come from anywhere.
On Wednesday, the UA confirmed that outgoing president Ann Weaver Hart will hire the AD. (Her choice requires Board of Regents approval.) It’s not the best timing; Hart won’t be around when the AD wonders if the new president will be an ally or a boss from hell.
This is a fragile time for the future of UA sports, one that demands Hart not delay the selection process.
Now that Byrne is gone, Sean Miller is the centerpiece of the athletic department.
What if Thad Matta leaves Ohio State or Mike Krzyzewski retires at Duke? Dominoes would fall. If Miller is in limbo, who knows what might happen?
“You never know who’s ready to move,” Dempsey said this week. “Remember, when we hired Lute (Olson) away from Iowa (in 1983), people said it couldn’t be done. We just caught him at the right time.”
Arizona hired Olson two days after the 1983 Sweet 16.
The Final Four is 71 days away. Arizona needs to have Miller’s next boss in place when it starts.