Originally Published: March 2, 2017 11 p.m.
TUCSON — As Dave Heeke tells it, he and his new wife loaded up their Chevy Nova nearly 30 years ago and headed to Oregon for a low-level University of Oregon administrative job bolstering the school’s athletic support in Portland.
He is back out West again, in a much more prestigious job, new athletic director at the University of Arizona.
Heeke was introduced at a news conference Thursday, saying he wants to lead “a national-caliber program” across the board.
“Every one of our student athletes will strive to compete and contend for championships,” Heeke said. “Yes, conference championships but national championships and be the very best. ... We’ll help them grow as young people, personal development so they can walk away from this campus expertly trained to be leaders, to contribute to those societies and communities that they go back to with that Arizona brand on them.”
And, he said, “We’ll do it the right way, full of integrity, honesty, professionalism, and we’ll value a culture of compliance without question, always do it the right way.”
The 53-year-old Heeke comes to Tucson after 11 seasons at Central Michigan, hired just 39 days after Greg Byrne’s surprising resignation to become athletic director at Alabama.
Heeke had many experiences with Arizona in his Oregon days, and when Byrne left, the job immediately piqued his interest.
“This was a program that people were always envious of,” he said. “It was always rock solid. There was something special when you came here. So when Greg did move on, it grabbed my attention. There’s no doubt about that. This job should grab anyone’s attention. This is a major national-caliber athletic program with tremendous potential.”
Heeke is the third Arizona athletic director to graduate from Albion College, a small school in Michigan. One was Cedric Dempsey, who helped lead the search for Byrne’s successor. The other was none other than “Pop” McKale, who coached football, basketball, baseball and track as well as serving as AD at various times in his four decades at Arizona.
The school’s “Bear Down” motto comes from 1926, when the team’s quarterback sustained a severe spinal injury and during one of McKale’s many hospital visits he asked the coach to tell the players “bear down.” The school’s basketball arena is named for McKale.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Heeke said. “I’m proud to try to live up to those expectations and those standards that those men have set.”
At Oregon, Heeke worked through the ranks, eventually assisting the athletic director in the daily operation of the Ducks’ 17 sports.
During his time there, the Ducks went from hard times athletically to the Rose Bowl.
“It’s made me who I am,” he said of his time there, “there’s no doubt about that. There’s a big part of that that’s made me who I am.”
At Central Michigan, the Chippewas went to bowl games eight of his 11 seasons there.
Heeke called the men’s basketball program at Arizona “a jewel and we want it to continue to be at that level. That’s what we aspire to do for all our programs, quite frankly.”
The Wildcats’ football program is coming off a 3-9 season in coach Rich Rodriguez’s fifth year at the school.
Heeke’s family was not in attendance at the news conference. His wife Liz is with two of the couple’s sons on a baseball trip to Florida. The youngest son is a member of the Central Michigan baseball team. Heeke said his oldest son was moving into a new job on Wall Street.
University President Ann Weaver Hart praised the work of Dempsey and former athletic director Kathleen “Rocky” LaRose for their work in the search for Byrne’s replacement.
In the end, Hart said, Heeke stood out.
“As we got to know Dave,” she said, “he rose to the top of the group we talked with.”
And, she said, “all the bushes were shaken.”