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Arizona AD Dave Heeke says sports won’t be cut, salaries could be and explains why playing a full college football season is key
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Arizona AD Dave Heeke says sports won’t be cut, salaries could be and explains why playing a full college football season is key

When the coronavirus pandemic slammed the U.S. and brought collegiate athletics to a halt, Dave Heeke thought about the auto industry recession of the early 1980s.

The University of Arizona athletic director grew up in East Lansing, Michigan. The economy there was devastated.

“I saw the local tire shop close down, I saw the local breakfast place shut down,” Heeke said. “They laid off every auto worker in my town, and that was thousands and thousands of workers. It feels a little bit like that.”

Heeke recognizes the sense of uncertainty that has permeated all levels of society and enterprise, including the UA athletic department. As its leader, his goal is “keeping people steady as we navigate through this.”

It hasn’t been easy. Winter and spring sports seasons were halted. The athletic department instituted an indefinite hiring freeze. The college football season — the biggest source of revenue for most athletic departments — could be delayed or canceled. All athletic capital-improvement projects, including the ongoing renovation of Arizona Stadium, have been put on pause.

Heeke discussed those topics and others in an interview with the Star on Thursday. Below are highlights of that conversation, which was conducted over Zoom and has been lightly edited for context and clarity.

Several sports just ended in mid-March — basketball, softball, baseball, golf. How hard was that for everyone involved?

A: “It’s extremely hard when things are just cut short abruptly. You’re not able to complete your dream or your plan, meet your goals that you’ve established. Certainly very difficult for those senior student-athletes that will never have that opportunity again, to finish in a more complete way.

“When we finish our athletic careers, we want to walk off the court or the field ourselves. We don’t want an injury to take us off and end our career. I think that’s the hardest thing. And it really impacted those seniors in the winter sports. … Those groups, boy, that is really tough. There’s no do-over. It ended.

“There’s no final banquet, there’s no final team gathering (or) get-together. There’s no Senior Day for many of them. There’s not a final time in the locker room when you say, ‘Hey, this is it.’ Some of that finality, it just never occurred.”

Were you in favor of extending eligibility for the spring-sport athletes?

A: “I was. I was a strong proponent. (UA president) Dr. (Robert C.) Robbins was. Our spring-sport coaches were. I thought it was absolutely the right thing to do for those young people. We had a mechanism in college athletics to be able to make that happen. I’m very pleased that we did.

“I understand the nature of it being up to each institution. I think that’s appropriate. People have to make decisions based on financial structures and what they want to do. We made a commitment that we would honor 100% — all of those student-athletes and the financial-aid package from athletics that they were on this current spring.”

We’ve seen some schools already cutting some of their sports for financial reasons. Do you anticipate having to do that at any point?

A: “We do not. We have no plans to cut any sports or reduce our sport lineup in any way. Our intention is to continue to move forward with the full sport offerings that we have.”

Dave Heeke says the UA is focused on a full football season, but a reduced one could happen.

Some athletic directors and high-profile coaches at other schools have agreed to take pay cuts or shift some of their salary into donations to the athletic program. Do you, Kevin Sumlin or Sean Miller plan to do anything of that nature?

A: “We’re still in the process of evaluating all of our spending, all of our budgetary dollars to determine the most effective way to … support the overall effort. (But) I think that, clearly, in this situation, we will have some type of compensation reductions.

“Compensation is nearly 40% of our overall budget. So when you talk about reductions, you can only go so far before you have to go into the compensation area to make significant reductions that will be necessary going forward.

“I think everyone recognizes the significance and the seriousness of where we are. And I would anticipate that people would do things to help support the overall cause of the university and, more specifically, the athletic department. But those are very personal and specific conversations with contract employees.”

What is your best guess, as of this moment, about the status of the 2020 college football season?

A: “There’s a lot of effort going into planning models of preserving the college football season. The college football season is critically important to the overall enterprise of intercollegiate athletics, (nowhere) more so than at the Division I, Power 5 (conference) level.

“Right now, at the Pac-12 level, we’ve had a group working for a couple of weeks on specific models, how to reengage without knowing that date. You hear about, ‘OK, let’s open the campus in September.’ But what does that really mean? Would you play football or not?

“We’ve been focused (on) safety. How can you get a team ready to go if it’s Sept. 1, Oct. 1, Nov. 1? How many days to train? It’s not like the old days when some of us played; you got two weeks, you got ready and you were playing games. Obviously, science and our knowledge of training is much greater. So looking at that model, is it a 50-day, a 60-day (run-up)?

“We initially started with, let’s target a date and work back from there. Now it’s, what do we need? And how do we adapt to whatever date college football can start again?”

Could you have a football season without the full student body being back on campus?

A: “I don’t know if I want to go too far down these hypothetical kind of models. I find it hard to believe we could play football if there were no students on campus. … We have to talk about the populations that do need to come back. That’s your team, your support staff, the extended support staff. Are we sure they’re all healthy? Do we have the mechanisms in place to guarantee that to parents? Can we guarantee it to our staff who are coming back? It gets to a lot of levels of consideration.

“I’m as hopeful as anyone that college football and all of college sports will come back, because I think sport traditionally, in times of crisis, has been the centerpiece to bring people back together, to rally our country and our nation. And I think that can happen here.

“But I think the way that happens in the future is probably going to change. You can only have so much hand sanitizer to keep everyone safe. There’s a lot of pieces: How do we deliver tickets? How do we interact with our fan base now? How do we make Arizona Stadium a place that … is set up to handle this new era? All those kind of things are what sports people are talking about all over.

“We’re focused on a full college football season. Hybrid models, reducing games — it could happen. But we really want to preserve a full season whenever that does start.”

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