Dave Heek and Cedric Dempsey sat together in the athletic director’s suite during Arizona’s thrilling win over San Diego State last week, kindred spirits who could share stories for hours about the dark side of Arizona athletic history.
Alumni of Albion College — the same alma mater of Arizona’s first athletic director, Pop McKale — witnessed the UA athletic department at its lowest ebb.
Dempsey became Arizona’s AD in 1983 when the Wildcats basketball team went 4-24, the football program was on NCAA probation and the school didn’t have two fives to match.
Ten years later, Dempsey was widely considered the top publicist in the country, hired to be the NCAA’s executive director.
Hicke has seen worse, if possible. His football program went 1-23 between the second half of 2019 and the end of 2021. The pandemic devastated the department’s finances, creating a $45 million deficit. His basketball program has been under investigation for five years, a reputation-shattering period that prompted FBI agents to knock on former coach Sean Miller’s door.
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“It’s hard on all of us,” Heeke says. “It’s been a long, hard road.”
Many other ADs would have been overwhelmed by the mess Heek inherited when he arrived at the college in April 2017, but like Dempsey in the 1980s, he was a problem solver.
As he and Dempsey, 90, celebrated Arizona’s win at Snapdragon Stadium, Heeke described the feeling in a text message this way:
“I felt good. Love the vibe. Head down. Hard work. Caring for people. Good things happen.”
I’m not suggesting that Heeke is on a Dempsey-type trajectory that will put him among the elite of college track and field, but you can make a strong case that he’s performed so well under extremely negative circumstances that he can be considered for Pac- The most complete ad of 12.
He’s on the positivity train, as are his two smart employees, Jed Fish and Tommy Lloyd, who have helped restore the good vibes of the Tucson sports community.
A few days ago, Heek began a 30-minute conversation not about the shock and awe of being left out of the Pac-12 by USC and UCLA or the agonizing turmoil in college athletics, but about becoming a grandfather for the first time.
Ryan and Merissa Heek recently became parents to Van, who is now 4 months old.
“I guess I’m not 38 anymore,” Hicke said with a laugh.
But his challenging five years in Arizona may seem more like 38.
“It hasn’t been the easiest of five years, but the next five years could bring even more upheaval,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s all going to be bad; Hopefully we can stabilize things and keep our guiding principles in line. We have lost so much control to outside stakeholders; this race for money has taken so much out of the hands of athletic directors. I don’t think it’s healthy.”
This is not a rookie. It’s become clear during crisis after crisis in the UA athletic department that Heeke is prepared for whatever comes up, good or bad. Mostly bad.
His formative years in college athletics were anything but steady. In his first eight years at Oregon, Heek worked under four athletic directors: Bill Byrne, Rich Brooks, Dan Williams and Bill Moos. It was before Nike money changed the future of the UO athletic department, in fact, becoming the model for the next 25 years.
The collegiate model is so 90s. Money rules today.
“I understand that,” Hicke says, “but I don’t think it’s healthy. I think we’ve lost touch with the soul of college athletics.
“In a global sense, college athletics has become a more business-oriented, professional model, more of a business concept. In higher education, these elements are not arranged. That’s what we’re working with right now.”
In five or ten years, it’s possible Arizona won’t be a part of the current Power Five football. It’s increasingly likely that the top 25 or 30 national football programs will break away and play their “amateur” version of the NFL. Heek is candid, saying he’s not sure where Arizona will be “when the music stops.”
“It used to be a profession with a lot of friendships,” he says. “But it really failed. It’s really unfortunate.”
Strictly by wins and losses, Arizona finished 35th in the Learfield Athletic Director’s Cup standings last year, the overall measure of an athletic department’s success across all sports. That’s a far cry from UA’s consistent top 10 from 1995-2010, the golden era of Arizona sports, but it’s still in college athletics’ best neighborhood.
In the overall sports rankings, the Wildcats are ahead of football-blessed powers Clemson, Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State and Baylor, and are within a few percentage points of top-25 finishes Auburn, Oregon, Wisconsin and Texas A&M.
Indeed, Arizona holds its own in almost every sport against all the Power Five schools. That’s not bad after the worst four years in UA football since 1950, a stretch in which the Wildcats went 10-31 and had their lowest average attendance at Arizona Stadium since 1972.
Of course, much of that can be blamed on Heeke’s hiring of former football coach Kevin Sumlin. This cannot be avoided. But in the Pac-12, nearly every school has failed to hire a coach in the past decade. Washington hired Jimmy Lake, Washington State failed on Nick Rolovich, USC had multiple failed hires, Oregon State and Oregon both blundered in hiring Gary Andersen and Mark Helfrich, respectively.
This time around, Heeke seems to have found the right guy, Fisch, to rebuild UA football’s reputation.
Fisch deserves credit for one of the major roster rebuilds and culture facelifts in modern Pac-12 football history. His football IQ is off the charts, his sales skills and work ethic match any Arizona coach of the last 50 years. He also brought the fun back to UA football.
Yes, Fisch is 2-11 overall, but the foundation has been laid.
Heeke now has more time to devote to the massive changes in college athletics, from name, image and likeness to the transfer portal to fundraising to rebuilding a once-great swimming program to the well-being of more than 500 athletes.
“We walk the halls with hundreds of student-athletes every day,” he says. “We’re trying to do the right thing for them, and that’s not talked about enough anymore.
“We have to make sure we don’t lose our core values, the soul of what it’s all about.”
When the UA softball team earned a berth in the Women’s College World Series last spring, Heek oversaw an impromptu celebration as every softball player and coach jumped into the hotel’s swimming pool.
He kicked off his shoes, threw off his hat, sprinted 10 yards and dove into the water.
When he came up for air, he was smiling, a telling photo from his first five years in Arizona.
Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or [email protected] On Twitter: @ghansen711