Remember when the Oregon Ducks spent $250,000 to erect a 100-foot by 80-foot billboard of Heisman-hopeful quarterback Joey Harrington near Madison Square Garden?
That was the work of Dave Heeke, then the No. 2 man in Oregon’s athletic department.
A year later, Heeke piloted a project in which a 144-foot by 94-foot billboard of three UO receivers was created near USC’s campus, visible from the 110 Freeway.
The Trojans were incensed.
The Ducks became so cool it made your stomach turn.
From 1995 to 2005, when the Ducks built a brand that now is comparable to any in college athletics, Heeke was the master image-changer, a man in the right place at the time. Nike co-founder Phil Knight chose to spend a fortune to change the image of his alma mater.
Heeke (pronounced HEE-key), the son of a dentist from East Lansing, Mich., kept getting promoted.
He went from director of marketing/broadcasting, to associate AD for marketing/media relations, to associate AD/external relations, to chief of staff.
On Saturday, Heeke became the athletic director at Arizona and the only question is: What took so long?
Why didn’t a Power 5 conference school hire Heeke years ago? Why didn’t the Ducks, who hired three ADs between 2007-10, hire the former baseball catcher from Albion (Mich.) College?
It’s probably because the timing was never right at Oregon.
After Heeke’s boss, Bill Moos, clashed with Knight and was forced out (eventually becoming the AD at his alma mater, Washington State), the Ducks chose to hire their No. 2 donor, insurance billionaire Pat Kilkenny, to run the department for two years.
Kilkenny handed off the job to retiring football coach Mike Bellotti.
By then, Heeke was back on home turf — the AD at Central Michigan.
“Dave wanted to wait until his three boys got older to make a career move,” former Arizona athletic director Cedric Dempsey said. “Now, the timing is right.”
Indeed, Heeke’s three sons are starting their own career paths. Max is in college. Ryan is a financial analyst in New Jersey. Zach is a freshman infielder on CMU’s baseball team.
So at 53, the man who was hired in 1988 to be a fundraiser in the Portland metro area for the then-scuffling Oregon Ducks — hired by Bill Byrne, father of departing Arizona AD Greg Byrne — is back in the Pac-12, running his own shop.
The meek do not inherit the earth in Pac-12 sports. Heeke is following three of the most prominent and effective Pac-12 ADs of the last 50 years: Dempsey, Jim Livengood and Byrne.
It’s not that Heeke pulled down the shades and spent 12 years in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, consumed only by Chippewas athletics. He was a finalist for AD jobs at Colorado State, Ball State and even NAU. In the past few years, he was linked to AD vacancies at Illinois and Michigan State.
Two months ago, Heeke was viewed as the possible athletic director at Oregon State, although to their credit, the Beavers were able to poach Pittsburgh AD Scott Barnes, who was probably the most-sought-after AD thought to be available among Power 5 conference schools.
“I’ve known Dave for probably 30 years and I believe the transition from Greg to Dave will be a good one because he’s a lot like Greg: outgoing, easy to like and very capable,” said Livengood, who now works as for a college sports search firm among a myriad of ongoing roles related to the NCAA.
“Sometimes people use the term ‘a good fit’ too often. In this case, it applies.”
The UA probably could’ve brought home Livengood’s personable No. 2 man at Arizona, Chris Del Conte, now the AD at TCU. But Del Conte has a $3.5 million contract buyout.
Was it that Heeke is more inexpensive? That should have nothing to do with it. Byrne was paid $700,000 and Heeke is in the final year of a contract that pays him $245,000 at CMU. It is his experience in fundraising, his Pac-12 background and his visible rise in the industry — he served with Byrne on a special Division I AD advisory group for NCAA President Mark Emmert — that attracted Dempsey and Rocky LaRose, who operated the search.
“Heeke is fully capable and more than ready,” said Matt Roberts, CEO of the D1 Ticker, which follows the college AD industry more closely than anyone in the media business.
“He has tons of fundraising chops, which he’ll need.”
Twelve of the last 20 ADs hired by Power 5 schools came from outside that group as the business changes from traditional to anything-goes. ASU hired its AD from the NFL. Colorado got its AD from MLB. USC hired football celebrity alumnus Lynn Swann. Cal hired a banker.
One thing Heeke will need is a lot of bank.
On Monday, Ross Cobb, Arizona’s senior associate AD for business, said that the UA’s debt service is $7.6 million per year — not an overall total of $55 million, as I suggested — which is not unusual in the Pac-12.
The decimal points will be a blur; Heeke will be expected to raise tens of millions of dollars for the Wildcats’ football infrastructure.
“Without question, the financial part of the job at Arizona is A-1,” said Livengood, who eight years ago prepared a master building plan detailing $480 million needed for the UA athletic department. “It’s sticker shock, and it can drive you nuts, but somebody has to get it done.”
That man is now Dave Heeke.