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Part II: Grading Arizona’s four athletic directors

Mike Luke Avatar
May 16, 2022

There have only been four athletic directors at the University of Arizona since 1983.

Last week, we examined the tenures of Cedric Dempsey (1983-1993) and Jim Livengood (1994-2008). It’s time to look at the two most recent ADs.

Greg Byrne 2010-2017

Former Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne inherited a mixed bag upon arrival at Arizona.

Sean Miller was newly hired as the Arizona basketball coach, but with Miller’s recruiting and coaching track record it wasn’t hard to project success at Arizona. On the other hand, the football program was clearly in need of a change of direction and the training facilities were among the worst in the conference.

Byrne’s SEC background came in handy when turning around Arizona’s facilities.

“That is something Byrne certainly understood,” said ex-Arizona football and basketball pre and post game radio host, John Schuster . “It was one thing to compete in the 1990s with subpar facilities but in the social media age you need cool looking things, especially with the facilities arms race that is college athletics.

“The north end-zone project, the construction of Richard Jefferson Gymnasium helped Arizona move into the 21st century. The Arizona facilities looked much different when Byrne left from when he got here.”

Byrne’s hires were solid as well. The football hire of Rich Rodriguez brought eight-win stability to the program and a 2014 Pac-12 South title.

The women’s basketball hire of Adia Barnes turned Arizona into a national entity and the baseball hire of Jay Johnson brought two College World Series berths and a national runner-up finish.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the story didn’t end there.

Byrne talked with student-athletes and even provided his phone number to help athletes avoid problematic situations. These situations still arose, though. Far too often.

From Arizona basketball guard Elliott Pitts being kicked off the team and banned from in-state universities for multiple Title IX violations, to running back Orlando Bradford receiving a five-year prison sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, to track and field assistant coach Craig Carter receiving a five-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon, Arizona athletics was in the news for many of the wrong reasons.

“Byrne did a good job with his hires and moving Arizona’s facilities in a competitive direction, but there was also way too much malfeasance that occurred under his watch,” Schuster said. “Unfortunately for Byrne, that’s what makes his tenure a mixed bag.”

Byrne final grade: B-

Dave Heeke 2017-present

Dave Heeke inherited a much different program on the surface than his predecessor.

Arizona basketball had reclaimed its spot as a national power and Arizona football, coming off a 3-9 season, still didn’t appear to be a lost cause.

Off the playing field, however, things were a mess and the bottom was about to fall out.

Years of rumored improprieties surrounding the Arizona basketball coaching staff came to full public view with the September 2017 arrest of longtime Miller assistant Emmanuel “Book” Richardson. Richardson’s arrest preceded the dismissal of Arizona associate head coach Mark Phelps for alleged NCAA improprieties.

It was the Richardson arrest and the ensuing erroneous ESPN report on star freshman Deandre Ayton receiving payments from Sean Miller from which the program never recovered, but Heeke didn’t help himself by signing off on the disastrous hiring of football coach Kevin Sumlin.

Off the field, however, Heeke had cleaned up Arizona’s image. Gone were the front-page arrest stories and in were athletic department GPA records.

By late 2020 and early 2021, he began a new round of football and basketball hires, and he learned from his mistakes.

“After Kevin, we knew we had to get a guy who really wanted to be here and embraced the community and the recruiting nature,” Heeke said. “We saw the qualities in Jedd Fisch.”

Coming off a 1-11 record in his initial season, it remains to be seen if Fisch can actually produce wins, but the historic recruiting class he brought in, combined with renewed vigor from past-UA football greats, has many feeling better about the football program than at any time in recent memory.

The hiring of ex-Gonzaga associate head basketball coach Tommy Lloyd as Arizona’s basketball coach has been Heeke’s crown jewel move. Lloyd wasted no time winning over Arizona basketball fans by winning the Pac-12 regular season and conference tournament championship on the way to earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Garnering two five-star commitments from the 2023 recruiting class has alleviated any concerns that some might have had about Lloyd’s ability to lure talent to Tucson.

It’s difficult to properly grade Heeke’s tenure as many of the hires are incomplete. The Sumlin hire is certainly a massive blotch on the résumé but the cleaning up of the department’s image combined with the reestablishment of Arizona basketball and the upward trajectory of the football program has the Arizona athletic department in a better place than it was when Heeke took over.

Heeke grade: Incomplete/B+

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