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Part 1 of II: Grading Arizona's past four athletic directors

Mike Luke Avatar
May 12, 2022

There have only been four athletic directors at the University of Arizona since 1983. And with all the upheaval in Arizona athletics the past year let’s dive into the legacies of all four and how they have shaped current Arizona athletics.

Cedric Dempsey 1983-1993

There are few names more synonymous with the NCAA than its former executive director, Cedric Dempsey, but Dempsey is also the gold standard by which every Arizona athletic director is measured because his track record is without parallel.

Dempsey’s 1983 hire of then-Iowa basketball coach Lute Olson became the most important hire in the school’s history.

“Arizona basketball has easily the best attendance percentages of any team in the conference during the past 30 years, and the reason why is Olson,” said former Wildcats basketball beat writer and radio pre- and postgame host, John Schuster. “Arizona developed a national brand that brings in millions of dollars to the university on a regular basis and this community revolves around the product that Olson started.”

Olson’s move to Arizona wasn’t preordained. Dempsey inherited a basketball program coming off a 4-24 record; Olson was a Final Four coach at Iowa. Dempsey’s first decision was to fire then-coach Ben Lindsey but in the ultimate show of his ability, he lured Olson to Tucson.

“Olson always felt that Arizona was a sleeping giant in that it was a college town without any pro influence but was close enough to the talent bases (California) that he would need to rely on to get good players,”xxxx Schuster said . “Dempsey had Olson in his eye for many years, but it was still amazing that he was able to lure a Final Four coach out to Arizona. It really spoke to the vision and brilliance of Olson and Dempsey.”

Dempsey followed his 1983 hire of Olson with the 1986 hire of Central Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea to the same position. It was a hire that propelled Arizona to eight national championships and earned Candrea two Olympic gold medals as the coach for Team USA.

In 1987, Dempsey hired Hawaii football coach Dick Tomey to the same position at Arizona. While not sexy, the Tomey hire ushered in a decade-long run of football success, highlighted by multiple top-10 national finishes in a five-year period.

Unfortunately for Arizona, the NCAA made Dempsey it’s executive director in 1994, but that just underscored his ability. By any measure, Cedric Dempsey was an A-grade athletic director.

Jim Livengood 1994-2008

Dempsey was succeeded by former Washington State athletic director Jim Livengood.

Livengood’s tenure was marked by controversy, especially at the end, but there is no doubt that the family atmosphere he inspired in the athletic department helped sustain a 1990s run that saw Arizona basketball as a top-five national power, a football program compiling multiple top-10 national finishes and a softball team that won five national championships.

“Livengood had a warm personality and there was very much a small-town type feel in the athletic department at that time,” Schuster said. “Most people got along. It helped that Arizona was successful but people enjoyed going to work and it’s hard to put a value on that.”

Two of the most important jobs for an athletic director are coaching hires and fundraising. Livengood struggled with both. To put it mildly, Arizona’s athletic facilities were far behind where they should have been by the late 1990s.

“The athletic facilities were substandard and embarrassing,” said longtime Tucson Citizen Arizona football beat writer, Anthony Gimino. “They were high school-ish; best to be hidden from recruits and it was a real testament to some of the coaches that they were able to win the way they did.”

While the facilities were subpar, Livengood’s football and basketball coaching hires eventually led to his undoing.

By 2000, the Arizona football fanbase was done with the Dick Tomey era. Following up the 1998 season, (12-1, fourth-place national finish) with 6-6 and 5-6 records had both sides looking for an exit strategy.

Tomey’s forced resignation led Livengood to pivot in the opposite direction from the defense-oriented and easygoing Tomey, to the January 2001 hire of former Texas coach John Mackovic.

Mackovic promised to wear a suit on the sideline while deploying explosive offenses. He kept the suit promise, but his cold demeanor led to a player mutiny and his firing two-and-a-half years into his run.

“Arizona football certainly wasn’t Arizona basketball but it was a known national entity,” Schuster said. “I think you can favorably make the case that Arizona football never fully recovered from the Mackovic hire.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the bungling of the Lute Olson chain of succession permanently tarnished Livengood’s image for many observers.

By the end of the 2007 college basketball season, it was clear that Olson’s abilities were in steep decline. Coming off a first-round NCAA Tournament exit to Purdue, the program had slipped from the nation’s elite, but it was the erratic off-the-court decisions which spoke the loudest.

What followed was multiple leaves of absence, the bizarre anointing of long-time journeyman coach Kevin O’Neill as the head-coach-in-waiting, and a clear lack of planning on how to deal with the end of Olson era.

Livengood eventually hired Xavier coach Sean Miller, but the process to get there was unseemly.

It is never easy replacing a legend but it was still Livengood’s job to make the final call. By relinquishing that role, he diminished his legacy.

Final grade: B-

Next Up Saturday:the different yet successful legacies of Greg Byrne and Dave Heeke

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