Despite a continuing NCAA investigation of the men’s basketball team and a struggling football team, administrators and coaches from the University of Arizona laid out a bright vision for the school’s athletic department during their annual luncheon on Wednesday.
The cast of higher-ups spoke before a sold-out room at the Tucson Convention Center as part of the Aug. 28 University of Arizona Athletics Luncheon.
UA President Robert Robbins laid out the school’s many changes since he took the reins in 2017, including plucking Elizabeth Cantwell, who is the university’s new vice president of research and innovation, from rival Arizona State.
“The university is doing great things; we've got a brand-new provost,” Robbins said. “We've got a great new senior vice president for research and innovation that we stole from the school up north, and she is going to do great things of helping us not only discover fundamental knowledge but translate that knowledge into commercialized products that will start companies and keep them right here in Tucson and Southern Arizona.”
Robbins focused on the importance of athletics to the university, with the school’s 20 varsity sports providing national and international exposure to the school.
He believes the university’s renewed leadership team, in addition to its longstanding athletic success, can be a recipe for long-term acclaim for the institution as a whole.
“We finally got our team together, and I'm just so excited to have the opportunity to be here and to be part of this great community in this great university,” Robbins said. “The front door to the university is our athletic department. I think everybody would acknowledge that. And we've, it's an internationally recognized program.”
That impetus on athletics was echoed by Dave Heeke, who has served as the director of athletics in Tucson since 2017.
Heeke is confident that the athletic department as a whole, and the more than 500 student-athletes at the university, are trending in the right direction, both on the field and in the classroom.
That confidence stems from Heeke’s belief that some of school’s athletic programs are on a positive trajectory, with women’s golf, women’s basketball, softball and more all reaching their sport’s postseason.
“We are building something the right way. We're building a foundation. We're building ... it's a process,” Heeke said. “And I know you in business, processes are important. You've got to believe in what your vision is. You got to believe in what you know is right. And sometimes it doesn't work out. Sometimes it doesn't happen as fast as you want. But we've got the right coaches.”
Heeke did not touch upon the ongoing NCAA investigation of the men’s basketball team, stemming from the FBI’s arrest of former assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson for accepting bribes, resulting in a three-month prison sentence that was handed down in early June.
Longtime coach Sean Miller has denied any wrongdoing, despite reports from outlets like ESPN.com, which made unsubstantiated claims in 2018 that Miller offered $100,000 to former Wildcat Deandre Ayton to play in Tucson.
Both Robbins and Heeke have stood behind Miller so far, though neither mentioned Miller at last Wednesday’s event.
The day’s final speaker, head football coach Kevin Sumlin, touched on the importance of success to an athletic department.
Sumlin, who posted a 5-7 record in his first season last year and whose team was upset in its season opener last week against Hawaii, knows that the expectations for programs at the university are sky-high.
He also knows how much his program has to do to reach that mark, but believes the team is heading in the right direction.
Sumlin, who came to Tucson after stints coaching Houston and Texas A&M, compared running a program to being in charge of a company.
“Everybody in here has the same goal,” he said. “They have the same goal in business, to be the best. They have the same goal as these coaches, who are great coaches, that I'm able to see and coach with. And we are doing the things behind the scenes right now to get to where the coaches and programs and this university are.”
The Wildcats coach finished his portion of the day commending fans for their steadfast support of his players and assistant coaches.
Sumlin knows that the team’s performance on the field has been rough at times, including that opening week loss to Hawaii in Honolulu on Aug. 24.
He also knows that any good team, like a company, needs to shake off past failures, remaining focused on the future.
“There is a sense of urgency in this program. I want everybody to know that and it starts with me and it starts with everybody, our coaching staff and our coordinators,” Sumlin said. “Because of that we're hard at work and we can't wait to get back out on the field a week from this Saturday and put the right product on the field for our university and for the city of Tucson to be proud.”