Heeke’s Long Road Leads to Tucson

Michigan Man Finds a Home at UArizona

By Steve Rivera

For Dave Heeke it was a long and sometimes winding road to get from Michigan, where he grew up, to become the athletic director at the University of Arizona. The road took him from Michigan to Ohio to Oregon back to Michigan and then to Tucson.

The 58-year-old son of a dentist and a nurse holds the official title of VP and director of athletics and recently completed his fifth year at UArizona. He just signed on to lead the $100 million athletics enterprise for another three years.

Even from his distant stops, Heeke’s seemingly always had the UArizona in mind thanks to former UArizona athletic director Cedric Dempsey and Heeke’s admiration for Wildcats athletics. Dempsey and Heeke are both Albion College grads, as was legendary UArizona sports figure J.F. “Pop” McKale.

“The first day at Albion, the dean of men walked us into the gym and said, ‘If you want to really amount to anything you need to be like these people,’ and one of those names on the wall was Cedric Dempsey,” Heeke recalled. “He was one of the great athletes at Albion College.”

That was the early 1980s before Dempsey had become UArizona’s athletic director. 

When Heeke worked at the University of Oregon from 1988 to 2006, he watched how Dempsey ran UArizona’s program.

“I was always keenly aware and observing Arizona all the time because of his leadership,” Heeke said. “Then he goes on to become the CEO and president of the NCAA. What a big influence from a college athletics leadership standpoint.”

When UArizona athletic director Greg Byrne left in 2017, Heeke was hired by then UArizona President Ann Weaver Hart, who said he “was a perfect match” for the job.

The following in Dempsey’s footsteps was complete.

“I thought that was a place I’d like to be,” Heeke said. “I was thrilled to be a director at the Power-5 level of an iconic program with the importance of basketball, but there’s a strong brand nationally. People underestimate that a little bit.

“I wanted to bring what I think are my principles and values to the program to make it the best it can possibly be from a student-athlete experience because that’s been the heart of this place. If you talk to people who have played here, they just love it because of that connectivity. I didn’t want to mess it up.”

The first five years haven’t been easy. But there have been significant bright spots: improvements in infrastructure like the $16.5 million Cole and Jeannie Davis Sports Center, $8 million in improvements at Hillenbrand Stadium and $15 million at the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center. There was another $15 million in improvements in football facilities, including new turf at Arizona Stadium. It all added up to $100 million in facility investments over a 5-year period.

On a different side of the ledger, Heeke had to deal with a $45 million revenue shortfall in fiscal 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic when sports seasons went on without fans in the stands. The department ended 2021 with a $26 million shortfall, and measures were taken to catch up, including staff reductions and a $15 million bridge loan from the university. The department bounced back in fiscal 2022 by turning a $16.5 million profit.

Heeke also had the difficult task of firing a head football coach, Kevin Sumlin, after three miserable years of football, and a head basketball coach, Sean Miller, in the midst of an NCAA probe and mediocre performances. Both coaches received multimillion-dollar buyouts on their contracts.

“It’s never easy to make changes,” he said. “It’s people’s livelihoods. There’s a lot on the line. You want to do the right thing and try to handle it the right way. But, in the end, you have to step back and do what’s right for this program.”

And there are new challenges on the horizon. There’s the realignment of conferences and the announcement that Pacific-12 Conference partners UCLA and USC are leaving for the Big 10 Conference. The advent of name, image and likeness opens the door for athletes to be paid. Negotiation of television rights for the conference are underway.

UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins remains confident that Heeke will steer the ship through roiling waters.

“Dave Heeke has provided strong, ethical leadership for Arizona Athletics,” Robbins said. “His top priority remains the success of our student-athletes, both on the field and in the classroom.

“He is an outstanding partner, and I am thrilled to see the continued implementation of Arizona Athletics’ strategic plan. With Dave’s leadership, Arizona Athletics will continue to provide distinctive pathways to success for our students, to bring our facilities into the 21st century and to create a world-class experience for our dedicated fans and community members.”

Despite the hiccups of the last couple of years, Heeke has been able to take solace in the 570 student-athletes who have improved on their overall grade point averages in each of the last five years.

“I take great pride in the success of our student-athletes,” he said. “We emphasize academics and cultural performance. And we are going to make sure that the student-athletes do the right things here in the classroom and outside the class.”

Heeke has faced a lot of issues on his long road, 35 years in a career in athletics administration that began with his sights set on coaching.

The former hockey-playing-turned-baseball-playing, all-around sports guy thought he’d eventually be guiding young men as a coach.

“I just gravitated that way,” he said. “I thought maybe I’d go coach in baseball or hockey or something.”

Then, life happened. He met his future wife, Liz.

“I didn’t think coaching was exactly where I wanted to go. You could see the time commitment, but I wanted to stay in athletics, so I decided I’d go into the administration side,” Heeke said.

That was shortly after his time at Albion College, where he got his economics degree. He wasn’t into accounting. He wasn’t into sales. He decided on graduate school at The Ohio State University.

He went from this small liberal arts school to one of the biggest universities in the country, working for the intramural department and parking his car under Ohio Stadium.

“It was pretty cool,” he said. “Actually, it was kind of like ‘whoa.’ ”

After two years “doing a lot of things in the athletic department, I then decided that’s what I wanted to do – be involved in college life,” he adds.

He still didn’t have a full-time job, though. Then came a bit of motivation. 

His father-in-law – while at a dinner – asked Heeke to go outside with him. Heeke recalled his question: “ ‘Can you tell me again how you’re planning to make money on this sports thing?’ That was a signal that I’d better get a job pretty quick or his daughter wasn’t going to be with me for much longer.”

Suddenly he was on his way to the University of Oregon − for a guy who had “never been west of Chicago.”

“We made it in our Chevy Nova with everything we owned,” he said. “I was thrilled. I had a job and was in. They paid me $13,000, but I was in.”

Heeke was a fundraiser at Oregon and cut his chops under four different athletic directors and three different school presidents. He eventually became second in charge in the athletic department as a senior associate where he rubbed shoulders with people like Nike founder Phil Knight.

“For me to be in that you get to learn so many things,” he said. “I tried to capitalize on every moment. You work hard because when big things happen you can evolve. When you have those opportunities, they just don’t pass you by.”

The next thing Heeke knew, he took a job as the top man at Central Michigan, near home where he still had family.

“It just all kind of came together,” he said. “I went to Central Michigan, where they obviously have a strong program in the MAC and a really good football program. I had a lot of friends and relatives that went to school there. So, it felt right. It was a really good environment.”

He and Liz made a commitment to each other that they wouldn’t leave until all three of their children were out of high school.

“We had opportunities, but we weren’t going to transfer them out of high school,” he said. “Family is really important. There’s enough transition in this business and it (sends) you around. I like commitment; I like staying somewhere and really making a difference and investing in the community and program.”

As Central Michigan athletic director, there were different “pressures and challenges.” 

“I’m the kind of person who is very much a student-athlete centered athletic director,” he said. “I was a student-athlete. I understand the model. There is a lot out there to be tapped. You go through the U.S. collegiate sports model, see an athlete who is going through it and experiencing the education part as they turn into young adults. It’s super powerful.”

He’s brought that philosophy to Arizona. 

“We’re going to work really hard every day,” he said, “and we will prove through our actions what type of program we have and the things that we can do and how we can add value.”

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