UA’s athletic director rolling the dice with coaching hires

How does Dave Heeke sleep at night?

The University of Arizona athletic director is so far out on a limb right now that the slightest breeze could bring the whole branch down.

In the past seven months, Heeke has replaced the head coaches of Arizona’s three major sports… and none of the new hires has been a college head coach before.

As a general rule, a major D-I program is not a good place for on-the-job training.

An AD’s job often rides on the hires he makes, particularly in what are considered the ‘major sports’, the ones that bring in the lion’s share of revenue: football, men’s basketball, and baseball.  That’s especially true when you’re running an athletic program at a Power 5 school like Arizona that operates in the glare of the national spotlight.

That’s why the athletic directors at those schools are usually going to go with a proven commodity, someone with some head-coaching experience under his/her belt.  And proven success in that role.

The fact that there were three openings, in each of the major sports, can only partly be attributed to Heeke.  He swung and missed on his hire of Kevin Sumlin to run the football  program, a decision he was faced with just nine months into his role as AD.  But the Sean Miller hire for basketball and Jay Johnson for baseball were completed before Heeke took over in April of 2017.

But the three new coaches for those sports, who will have their inaugural seasons during the 2021-2022 school year, have all been installed on Heeke’s watch.

Sumlin’s replacement, Jedd Fisch, has a lengthy resume of NFL and college coaching experience, but has never been a head coach.  Likewise for Tommy Lloyd, who takes over the basketball program; he spent 20 years as an assistant to Mark Few at Gonzaga, but has no head-coaching experience.  And Chip Hale, who was hired just a couple of weeks ago to take over the baseball program, has extensive MLB minor-league experience as a manager, but has never been a college head coach.

Hiring any one of the three could be considered a gamble.  Hiring all three is a real roll of the dice.

Heeke, who was hired away from Central Michigan University, a small (17,000 on campus) school that plays in the Mid-American Conference.  But he has so far been up to the task of jumping to the Pac-12, where the big boys play.  He received a one-year contract extension at the end of 2019 that will carry him through to March of 2023, confirming the administration’s support for the work he has been doing.

That will give his new hires a couple of years to prove whether Heeke’s decisions were sound.  Or whether getting another extension will be a lot more difficult.