Getting to Know Athletics VP Dave Heeke
Dave Heeke has lived and breathed sports from the time he was a child growing up in Michigan. That's where he and his brother cut their competitive teeth on the ice as hockey players, while their two sisters competed in figure skating.
"We were all heavily involved in athletics, right from the very beginning of our lives. The goal for our parents, I think, was to keep us out of trouble and keep us busy," Heeke said.
Little did he know then that his life journey would eventually take him from the ice rinks of the snowy Midwest to sunny Tucson.
Heeke, 53, started as the University of Arizona's vice president for athletics on April 1. He's spent his first month on the job getting acquainted with the department, the University and the greater Tucson community.
"I'm spending a lot of time listening to our staff and learning from our staff about the program and how strong it is, listening to and learning from our supporters, our stakeholders, our donors and the campus community and University leadership," said Heeke, who came to the UA from Central Michigan University, where he served as athletic director for 11 years. "I think it's important that I have a good understanding of everyone's perspectives of what Arizona Athletics is about – what it's been and where it can go."
From student-athlete to athletics administrator
Heeke was born in Munich, Germany, where his father was stationed as a dentist in the U.S. Army. Two-and-a-half years later, the family moved back to the states, to East Lansing, Michigan, where Heeke was exposed to college athletics from an early age, living near Michigan State University.
Over the years, Heeke played many sports, including golf and basketball, but his main loves were ice hockey and baseball.
He attended Albion College in Michigan, where he played on the baseball and club hockey teams while pursuing a degree in economics. By the time his junior year rolled around, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life. That's when he heard about an emerging area of graduate study that seemed right up his alley: athletics administration and sports management.
Heeke went on to earn his master's degree in athletics administration from Ohio State University in 1987, where he worked as an intern in the athletic department.
"That's when I knew I wanted to work in college athletics," he said.
After completing his master's, Heeke started his career at Michigan State University, where he worked for nine months before getting his first big professional break – a job offer at the University of Oregon.
A newlywed at the time, Heeke and his wife, Liz, packed up and headed west to Portland, where Heeke would work as a regional fundraiser for University of Oregon athletics. It was his first time traveling west of Chicago.
During his 18-year tenure with the University of Oregon, Heeke rose in the ranks to senior associate athletic director and chief of staff, overseeing the school's football and men's basketball programs. He gained experience working under four university presidents and four different athletic directors, and with three different football coaches. During those years, he and his wife also welcomed their three sons into the world.
In 2006, Heeke and his family returned to Michigan, where he served as athletic director at Central Michigan University for a little over a decade. While there, he led fundraising efforts for $22 million in renovations to the college's basketball arena and fitness center and oversaw the planning and design of a $6 million lacrosse and soccer stadium, as well as $10 million in other facilities renovations.
Central Michigan also became the college of choice for Heeke's three sons – Ryan, Max and Zach. His oldest, Ryan, played baseball there before graduating and getting a job as a financial analyst in New York City. Heeke's younger sons are still enrolled at the university, and Zach, a freshman, is on the baseball team.
Heeke says his personal experience, first as a student-athlete and then as a parent of student-athletes, gives him a unique perspective as an administrator.
"To have my two sons in a program that I was helping to manage and run, and to get their perspectives, was really powerful for me, and it keeps me really driven toward the core of being student-centered," Heeke said. "These are students. These are someone's sons or daughters – just like all the kids that come to our campus – and it's our responsibility to do tremendous things for them and give them great opportunities, and hope that they grasp those and run with them as far as they can."
Heeke sees bright future for Arizona Athletics
Heeke was drawn to Tucson by a "rock-solid" athletics program at a "world-class" university.
He had been on the UA campus several times during his tenure with the University of Oregon and was always struck by the level of enthusiasm for Arizona sports.
"It felt like everyone in the community was all-in for Arizona athletics – whether it's football, basketball, all the sports – people were really engaged, which is kind of unique for the Pac-12," Heeke said. "You have different communities that may not be as involved or engaged as it feels like they are in Tucson."
The weather, of course, was another selling point for Heeke, who isn't deterred by warnings about Tucson summers.
"I keep hearing about the summers, but I always ask people, 'Would you like to trade it for the winter?'" he joked. "When it's below zero and the wind chill is 40 or 50 below, I think I'd rather be hot."
Interestingly, Heeke is not the first UA athletic director to come out of Albion College in Michigan. The famed James "Pop" McKale, who served as UA athletic director from 1914 to 1957, also graduated from the small, private liberal arts school, as did Cedric Dempsey, who served as UA athletic director from 1983 to 1993.
"I have a lot to live up to, that's for sure," Heeke said. "Big shoes to fill."
Shoe size aside, Heeke has big plans for Arizona Athletics, including prioritizing some much-needed infrastructure improvements to campus athletic facilities, which he considers to be a key piece of student recruiting efforts.
"We have some big projects ahead of us. A big part of that is the oldest facility we have – Arizona Stadium. It's a gem, it's a beauty, but it has a few years on it and we need to look at it and address the shortcomings we have, while not changing the tradition and the wonderful atmosphere there," he said.
Heeke also wants to focus on keeping existing sports programs strong, engaging donors and building what he calls a "culture of excellence," or "championship culture," that fosters student-athletes' success in sports, academics and personal development.
"We want young people to grow here and mature and be ready to combine athletic rigor, academic rigor and growth as a person to become great leaders and contributing members of their communities," Heeke said.
The daily pace has been fast since Heeke first arrived in his office at McKale Memorial Center at the beginning of April, and he doesn't see that changing. And while his official workday starts around 7 a.m., you're never really off the clock as the director of a major college athletics programs.
"It becomes part of your lifestyle. We spend a lot of time on the clock, off the clock, as part of the program, and we're dedicated and that's what we like to do," he said.
On the rare occasions he's not at work or attending athletics events, Heeke likes to travel and spend time outdoors, and he looks forward to biking and exploring hiking trails in Tucson's mountains. He's also passionate about fly-fishing, although he knows that hobby might be a bit more difficult to keep up with in his new desert home.
To get to know the UA, Heeke has been taking lots of walks around campus and has been impressed by what he sees, from historic Old Main to some of the more contemporary buildings. He says he views the role of Arizona Athletics, in part, as bringing people to campus to experience not only a good game, but also all the other things the University has to offer.
"The alignment between athletics here and the entire university – you can feel it's very positive. It is ingrained in the mission, and part of this university," Heeke said. "It's not bigger than anything else, it's not more important. It's certainly a very visible piece that we take a lot of responsibility for, but we're all in this to do the same thing – to make the University great."