Football letterwinner Glenn Parker ’12 interviewed Arizona Athletics Director Dave Heeke about the latest in University of Arizona sports. They talked adaptability and clear focus during challenging times and what’s next for Arizona football and men’s and women’s basketball.
Editor's note: This conversation took place before the hiring of Tommy Lloyd as the new men's basketball coach.
Glenn: Alumni often find connection through sports. They may have rooted for the basketball or football teams as students — and now as alumni. So, we care about how your student-athletes and staff are holding up during COVID.
Dave: It’s a challenging time, but I’m optimistic. We’re competing and functioning to the best of our abilities. I’m so impressed with the resilience of our staff, coaches and students. Things have been difficult for all of us at times, but we’ve rallied around our protocols, and it’s fantastic to see us rolling.
Glenn: Athletes are good at taking the negative and making it positive. But with outside forces like social media, how do you manage to keep positive?
Dave: There’s great passion around our programs, and fans want to be engaged. There’s always adversity. I use a lot of sports analogies: We need to find a way to get the first out. That means we get back in the huddle. We call another play. And we count on each other. Hopefully we have a successful play and meet the next goal. It’s really about focusing on those types of things and not getting bogged down.
Glenn: That’s a great way of putting it. Athletes in general look at failure as learning opportunities. But there’s no denying it’s been trying since you came on board. What guides your decisions?
Dave: There’s only one constant, and that’s change. We cannot fear change. Things are going to come at us; hurdles will be there. But if we stay true to serving our student-athletes and coaches, we can adjust and move forward in a positive way.
Glenn: Fans often feel a sense of ownership when it comes to their sports teams. Sometimes they reach uninformed conclusions. One of the biggest myths is how Arizona Athletics is funded. Can you explain it to the fan?
Dave: We are self-sufficient, and 96% of our budget comes from revenue streams we generate — ticket sales, donations, multimedia rights and NCAA and Pac-12 distributions. A small portion comes from student fees to support the debt service for facility improvements like the football stadium upgrades. Student fees aren’t dedicated to salaries or operational expenses; they only fund facility debt payments.
Glenn: In what ways has your budget been impacted by the pandemic?
Dave: A large proportion of our revenues from last fiscal year were not realized. And the same will be true for a majority of our revenue streams this fiscal year. We’ve had to make significant budget reductions, and, like many at the university, we went through a salary reduction and furlough program. We want to thrive when we come out of this and ensure that when we return our revenue streams are more robust.
Glenn: As a former athlete, I remember that energy we get from fans. They impact the game so much. What’s it like to have quiet stands?
Dave: Having that energy is such a big part of competition. I’ve talked to our student-athletes, and they miss it. They are used to seeing family and friends in the stands. But they’re focused on competing. I look forward to the day we all come back together. Let’s fill up Arizona Stadium; let’s get back into McKale. There will be great energy when that happens.
Glenn: I know I’m fired up to get back to football games. In spite of budget issues, you were able to hire a new football coach. Can you discuss that decision?
Dave: It’s no secret that we haven’t had consistent success in football. We’ve had great moments but haven’t been able to string consistency together. Football revenues support our 21 sports programs; 19 of those sports don’t have significant revenue streams to support their operating budgets. So, we made the decision to move forward with a new leader and are excited to have Jedd Fisch on board.
Glenn: It’s paying early dividends. He reached out to football alums and the community. Why is that important?
Dave: Connection is important to the Tucson community. Alumni, fans, donors — they want to know their coaches. Jedd and his staff are open, accessible. There’s a good feeling around them. They want to connect with football letterwinners — the bones of the program.
Glenn: I know it’s early, but what can we expect to see on the field?
Dave: Coach Fisch has been on the offensive side of the ball his entire career, so he likes to score points. It’s gonna be a fun, wide-open style offense. You’ll see some NFL/West Coast style — more of a passing game.
He also brought in Don Brown, one of the best defensive coordinators in the game. Maybe it’s a reflection on our past: Whenever we’ve been best, we’ve been tough on the defensive side of the ball.
Glenn: NFL style — that makes me happy. Let’s talk about women’s basketball and Adia Barnes. I’ve never seen a community so jazzed about a women’s basketball team.
Dave: Adia is a tremendous head coach, from Xs and Os, recruitment, and vision for putting a successful program together. She also has that dynamic personality, that openness, that ability to connect with people. She invites people in to feel part of the program. You can see what happens when you get the right people around a program, when you energize your fan base. We’re selling out McKale for women’s basketball. This is a rock star basketball town, to have a men’s and women’s program at this high level. They aren’t just getting ranked here and there — this is a top 10 program in the No. 1 league in the country.
Glenn: On the flip side, men’s basketball has had challenges. But this year they’ve shown flashes of being super strong, and they’ve shown they’re a young team.
Dave: Coach Miller and his staff have done an outstanding job. We’ve lived through some bumps. Now you see a group of multiyear players. They’re really a fun group, and I’m excited to see how they mature. They like playing team basketball, and they like to be coached.
Glenn: Let’s talk a few more shining lights.
Dave: Our medical group and performance coaches. They are our frontline workers. They’ve been here daily since we shut down last March, supporting our student-athletes and staff. Those are the people that have inspired us and kept things working during the pandemic.
Glenn: Your key COVID lessons?
Dave: I go back to the idea that we cannot fear change. It will paralyze you. We need to be ready, organized and adaptable so we can deal with the change that comes at us all the time. We’ve come together as a group, rallied and stayed focused on our student-athletes. That’s why we’re here. There’s 500 of them wanting to have an unbelievable experience. Be proud Wildcats, so that when we walk by each other in the airport wearing gear 20 years from now, we say ‘Bear Down.’