Rocky LaRose knew who to call. He was Dave Heeke, the athletic director at Central Michigan.
“He was my first call because I have known him since 1989, when I came on to the Pac-10 council,” said LaRose, talking about her high-profile role in attempting to find the person to replace Greg Byrne as UA’s AD.
“I watched Dave at Oregon, just as I watched the Oregon program rise. When he became No. 2 in the department, he has the development experience, the fundraising experience, the marketing. I knew he was somebody who needed to be put on our list.”
So, she made the call. And … the phone rang. And rang. And rang.
There was no answer.
Hey, opportunity knocks just a few times and windows of opportunity open and close quite quickly. He was up with his family – by the way his family is very important – at a ski resort in northern Michigan and there was poor cell phone reception.
“Rocky joked with me that if I didn’t call back soon this thing would have been over,” said Heeke with a laugh.
Fortunately, the message popped in later in the day – maybe the next – and he called right back.”It’s a job that should grab anyone’s attention,” he said.
Talk about timing or good fortune. Bigger business deals have been passed because of poor cell service … but not this one.
“I was thinking, ‘what’s going on here?’” LaRose said of Heeke not getting back quickly. “But as soon as we connected, I could tell he had an interest immediately, as we did. And then it becomes a dance where we’re recruiting each other. When we finally came to terms and came together, we knew this was the one.”
Arizona, behind respected former UA AD Cedric Dempsey and LaRose and under the guidance of UA president Ann Weaver Hart, Heeke was a key target. Weaver did point out that there were a slew of candidates – more than 65 – giving hope that college athletics is in good hands with qualified candidates.
“I swear we called everybody in this country,” LaRose said. “We took the Power 5 (Conference) listings, we took the mid-major listings. Ced and I split it up and we just started calling.”
With the announcement that Heeke is Arizona’s fourth AD in more than 30 years – Dempsey, Jim Livengood, Byrne – it appears Arizona is in good hands, too. They found their people person “who wants excellence on all levels – classroom, on the field, on the courts in competition.”
He has the right look, apparent demeanor and qualifications for Arizona to pull him off the mountain to get the discussion going. Heck, just Thursday, back home in Mount Pleasant, the temperature was 22 degrees. Tucson was a balmy 75 degrees.
In a nutshell, here is better than there. University of Arizona 1, Central Michigan 0. He had won the room and was headed to easily winning the press conference. As I asked LaRose, does he have “it” as it pertains to being an AD.
“President Hart said it’s almost like he came out of a casting,” LaRose said.
“He looks like an AD. He just has a presence. He has a big presence. He talks the talk. I love how he engages people. I love the family side of it. … I just felt like he would be a good fit for Arizona, because he is really value-based and I have known that about him from the beginning. He’s full of integrity.”
Oddly, more than 35 years ago, Heeke wasn’t so sure what he wanted to do. He was too busy playing college baseball, playing hockey, and well, being a college student.
“My experience as a under grad inspired me and then I went on to grad school,” he said. “I then realized I wanted to be in college athletics. I didn’t want to be in corporate America but in college sports. At that time I didn’t know if I wanted to be an athletic director but knew I wanted to be part of the program.”
Then came his path: from Oregon where was a fundraiser to eventually becoming the second in command in his 18 years as a Duck. Then came his time at Central Michigan, where he oversaw a rise in funds for the department.
It wasn’t exactly the fast track, but it was his track. He’s 53 years old.
“I think it was about right,” he said of his career path. “I wasn’t a job hopper and I didn’t want to go all over the place. My time at Oregon was like four different jobs. And at Central, my family and kids made a commitment.
“Sometimes you need to go through a few battles to take it on.”
And even though he was named in his new position over the weekend, he’s done some homework – with a lot more to be done. He knows or has a glimpse of what’s ahead. He looks at UA as “a special place’ knowing that from his time at Oregon.
“This was a program people were always envious of, it was always rock solid,” he said.
He said it’s one “with major potential.”
In my 30 years, it’s long been considered a “Sleeping Giant.” Maybe, just maybe, Heeke will be the guy who will awaken it.