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University of Arizona's athletic director is out amid financial crisis

University of Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke is out and the school has announced a "transition in leadership" in the athletic department. The UA has been mired in a financial crisis for a couple of months, and this department has played prominently in the fallout from it.

Heeke had been with the Wildcats for seven years after coming from Central Michigan. His departure comes shortly after the university named a new head football coach, and just before it leaves the Pac-12 Conference for the Big 12.

The Show spoke with Ellie Wolfe, who covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star, for more.

Full interview

So like, was this a surprise, did, did folks see this coming?

ELLIE WOLFE: This was a surprise. You know, it was pretty sudden, especially right after the hiring of the new head football coach, Brent Brennan. I know our sports reporting team at the Arizona Daily Star is excellent and has incredible sources and always has a good scoop and I believe they only knew about this about an hour before the news broke.

So what is the university saying about why Heeke is leaving?

WOLFE: You know, right now, they're only giving kind of official positive language, right. They're not sharing a lot, but here's what we do know, is that the University of Arizona is currently trying to bounce back from a financial crisis. The university had a financial miscalculation that they revealed earlier this fall of about $240 million. And, you know, through meetings with the Faculty Senate, University President Robert Robbins has repeatedly stated that the university has loaned the athletics department a total of about $86 million in the past couple of years. So it's not necessarily super surprising that there is kind of a change in leadership in the athletics department, but the timing is definitely interesting.

Yeah, I'm curious, especially about the timing, I mentioned and, and you also mentioned this coming just a few days after the new head football coach was announced and of course, UA and A SU will be leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big 12, two pretty big transitional events. And now a third one in terms of looking for new athletic director.

WOLFE: And this is, you know, one specific instance in the athletic department, but this has happened many times in the university. If you look at the senior leadership of the university, there's an interim provost, there's an interim CFO, there's an interim vice president of research. So it's not necessarily new that the university has all of these interim positions and is now launching yet another search.

What are folks sort of in the UA community saying about this? Obviously, the the financial crisis, as you reference has been a really big deal throughout the school. The athletic department has played a played a pretty big role in that. Like, what are folks saying about the fact that the university is essentially getting rid of its athletic director now?

WOLFE: Well, there are a couple interesting kind of sects of the UA community, right? So the Faculty Senate for months has been aggressive about the issue of athletics and there are multiple faculty senators that have said, you know, sell off the entire athletics department, you should be firing people in athletics. We know that Robbins spoke to the Faculty Senate about a month ago and said there will 100% be layoffs in athletics. And then didn't mention that at all in his financial action plan he gave to the Arizona Board of Regents on Dec. 13.

But you also have a Tucson community that is completely enamored with the University of Arizona athletics. And so a lot of our readers are really surprised by this change, you know, they feel certain amount of ownership and investment in the athletics program here, right.

So you mentioned the Board of Regents in terms of President Robbins giving his, his action plan. There's also a meeting coming up in just a couple of days. Is the financial situation, is, is Heeke's departure scheduled to come up at that?

WOLFE: So we're really not sure at this point, the meeting is on Thursday, it will be livestreamed. And we know that or our sources have told us that a lot of the meeting that is public will be talking about different athletic coaches' contracts. So they need, the Arizona Board of Regents need to approve the new contract of new University of Arizona head football coach Brent Brennan. There was also talk about, the Regents deciding about an extension to Arizona basketball coach, men's basketball coach, Tommy, Tommy Lloyd, but we, we are not sure if that will be on there. If there is talk of athletics and talk of the University of Arizona, you know, I don't see how the elephant in the room is not addressed of Heeke, but we'll have to see.

Is anybody saying that there's a chance that the Regents might not approve the new football coach's contract?

WOLFE: We don't see that as being a possible option, you know. Sources inside the Regents are pretty happy with the choice of new head coach Brennan. And, you know, people have spoken to me about how he is one of the low lowest paid coaches in the new league, which, you know, the UA is obviously trying to get as much bang for its buck amidst all of this, all of these financial issues. So I don't anticipate the Regents rejecting that contract. But with everything going on at the university, you know, you never know.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.