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What Mike Candrea said at his first press conference as Arizona’s interim athletic director

arizona-wildcats-mike-candrea-interim-athletic-director-softball-dave-heeke-budget-big12-robbins Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Since retiring in 2021 as the winningest coach in college softball history, Mike Candrea had been serving as an advisor to athletic director Dave Heeke. But most days, he was doing the kinds of things a 68-year-old retiree would do, like on the day Arizona president Dr. Robert C. Robbins called him out of the blue and asked if he would serve as the school’s interim AD.

“I was in my home in Tucson and had just played a round of golf and was enjoying retirement and all the nice things that come with it,” Candrea said Wednesday at his first press conference since being named interim AD last month. “I was honored when Dr. Robbins called me up and said would I step in and try to keep the ship afloat. And truthfully that’s kind of my job right now.”

Candrea, who ran Arizona’s softball program from 1986-2021 and won eight national titles, said his job is to be a “Band-Aid” as the athletic department navigates its place in the university-wide budget crisis. Much of what he’s done so far is gathering information while also establishing lines of communication with all employees, including coaching staffs of 22 different sports. He said he has no interest in taking the job on a permanent basis.

“I’m doing with Bobby Robbins would like me to do,” Candrea said. “Right now I’m taking life day after day. Whatever this place needs I’m here, because I love this place. But I think moving forward, I’m sure when the time comes, that they’re going to be looking nationwide for someone that can come in here and and bring in a talent level that needs to be in this chair, because there are some challenging moments moving forward.”

Here’s what else Candrea discussed with reporters on Wednesday:

On what he’s done so far: “I’m trying to increase communication, trying to answer as many questions as I can. I’ve been on the job for a week, so be kind to me. That’s all I can say right now, but I’m very excited. This is a place that I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears in and I love this community. I love this university. And when I was asked to step in and plug a hole for a small period of time, or whatever it may be, there was no doubt in my mind that I would love to do it.

On the announced price increase for season tickets in basketball and football: “That has been something that’s been going on for a lot longer than just right now. I think they have done their due diligence to look back and kind of see where we’re at in relationship to the Big 12 into the Tucson community. I’ve always been a firm believer that my job as a softball coach back then was to sell football season tickets. The more season tickets I could sell, the more it would help the big picture and that hasn’t changed. I think right now if I look back, we’re a pretty good bargain. And so I think there was a time right now that we needed to kind of get into the game when we move into the Big 12. We have made some increases, but I think looking at the response so far it’s been positive. I’m sure there’s been some negative, also, but we’ll kind of deal with that as we go.”

On moving to the Big 12 Conference: “I was at the Big 12 meetings last week, and very excited about that opportunity for this department. And I think we’re working very hard to make that transition as smooth as possible. Brent Blaylock and Krystal Swindlehurst have been on the transition team. And the good part of it is that I was a member of that, too, so I’ve got a little bit of information on what we need to do.”

On Robbins’ pitch to get him to be interim AD: “He basically just asked me if I would be the interim athletic director. It was that simple. And I had a couple of trips planned, one was to Italy, and another speaking engagement. I said, ‘well, there’s a couple things that are on my docket right now. I’m a man of commitment and I would like to fulfill these commitments,’ and I did. So right after that happened, I was actually leaving that next week. So I’ve been on the job about a week right now, and haven’t moved out of this office. That’s been a little different for me. I always loved being in the office in the morning but being on the field in the afternoon. And now sitting in a chair all day is a little different for me, but one that I’ve enjoyed right now.”

On what he brings to the role: “I think I bring maybe a different approach to the group. All I know is how to build culture. And one of the big things in athletics and on your team is just solid communication. You got to know what everyone’s doing and I am looking at it right now those are some things that I’m trying to enhance a little bit is, how do we communicate all of this information so that the right people are on the same page and anything that goes out of this office has been thought through and with a fine tooth comb and it’s one collective voice. That was kind of been my theme is that, when you get in tough situations like this, you have to rely on your people. We have very good people here. But on the other hand, it has to be a collective effort moving forward, because there is some trying times. Revenues and expenses aren’t quite matching up for a lot of different reasons. If you kind of look back the last three or four years, we’ve gone through a very challenging time in athletics. With the NCAA deregulation, COVID. When I first got here as an advisor, to Dave … when I got on the job we had just hired six new head coaches. Well, that takes money. We have done a lot of good things to get our football program where it belongs, I think our basketball program is in good shape. And I look around the department, we have some very good coaches that are doing great jobs. But there’s a price to pay that is different than it was 10 years ago, five years ago. And so I think right now moving forward, we have to look at a different model to make this all happen. And so right now we’re just trying to go back to a little bit of history as to how did we get here and and what do we need to do to find something that can be affordable, yet keep our programs competing for national championships. Because moving (into) the Big 12 I think we have an opportunity to be in the top part of that conference. And then if you look at what’s happening in football, God knows what tomorrow is gonna look like with football. So there’s a lot of moving parts that I think have got us in this position right now. I can’t really pick one thing, but I do think that we need to take a snapshot of it all and and try to formulate a plan moving forward that we can all work with.”

On how the university’s hiring freeze affects vacant coaching positions: “It does affect us in a small way right now. We have some positions right now that have been not filled yet but have been on the docket. So I think you’re gonna see us filling a few. We’ve got to get our football staff in order and ready to roll, so there are some things that I think right now immediately that we will face the challenge of completing those. But moving forward, we’re truly looking for ways that we can kind of get our hands around this thing. I can promise you, the first week has been nothing more than looking at numbers and looking at finances and looking at models and looking at ways that we can can get better at what we’re doing.”

On how long he expects to be interim AD: “It’s a day by day thing. I may not even get all my paperwork done to move into this position and I might be gone. Truthfully, I’m just hunkering down like I’m the athletic director right now and trying to make some decisions that are going to be best to move this forward. I had been around this department for a long time, so it’s not like I didn’t understand what is going on and how we’re operating. So right now my big thing right now is just dealing with tightening our communication between all of us, the executive staff, the leadership staff, our coaches. Being a coach, sometimes I felt like we we didn’t have all the answers and all the information, and that’s close to my heart and I want to make sure that our lines of communication go from top to bottom.”

On if he’d ever wanted to get into athletic administration: “I’ve been here since Ced Dempsey, so he was the (athletic director) that brought me here. I’ve been through all of them and admired each and every one of them. But there was a moment, I can’t remember back when it was, I think maybe when Jim Livengood left, that I had an interest. But I always felt like if I was going to pursue that as a career that I probably would have to have done that earlier to get a little more expertise under my belt. But I’ve always have a little interest in administration. I like people. And I think one of my strengths is building a culture. And I think the athletic director has to be able to build a culture, I’ve been able to see a lot of them do it differently. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of things that have changed in today’s climate. You have to look at what the needs are and what really this chair is all about. I can handle people and I can handle a lot of things, but I think moving forward we have to do our due diligence to make sure that we’re checking every box and I’m sure we’ll do that.”

On dealing with all of the changes to college athletics since retiring: “It’s been overwhelming for me. I mean, when I got out of the game, I looked like I knew what I was doing because I got out of it right before all of that hit. The transfer portal and NIL and then conference realignment. There was a lot of things that were happening, a lot of moving parts that, truthfully I did not think that I agreed with some of it, but it was the climate of college athletics and we have to deal with it. And so I’ve been able to sit back and kind of watch it develop. I love listening to radio talk shows and hearing all the experts out there talk about it, because it is a very challenging time. And I still think there’s a lot of things right now: is it sustainable or not? Number one. Number two, I think that the picture changes every week or every month. And I still don’t think that we’ve seen all of the changes that are gonna occur. I know there’s an advisory board that was put together between the Big 10 and the SEC. Well that kind of tells me that something is moving in that area. And so we’re going to kind of have to wait and see, but right now my focus right now is on this department and what can I do in the period of time that I’m here to keep the ship moving in the right direction and maybe hopefully make some improvements. And I think the biggest improvement for me is just the communication piece. Making sure information is out there. And as soon as I get information, I’m very transparent and I want people to know why we’re doing things.”

On the happy hour that Tommy Lloyd organized for athletic staff last week: “I was a part of that. I think Tommy has been wonderful for this department and he understands how important it is to build a culture.”

On the drawbacks of athletic growth: “I always go back when we were all in one building. I used to dress next to Lute (Olson) and Dick Tomey and we would always be talking. And as we have improved things, we’ve also kind of been disassociated, because people are in different places. And this place has gotten bigger. When I was first here our staff meetings were in the little auditorium and we used up half of it. And then we used all of it and then now we don’t have a place big enough to do that. But that’s the growth of athletics right now. I feel very good that we’re in a good place. It’s gonna take some time, but it’s not something that I haven’t seen before. We’ve been through some tough times during my career here. And I just think we need to tighten things up when it comes.”

On what he brings that would be different from an outside interim AD: “I think the one thing that I have that maybe some people walking in might not is a little bit of history, being in this department and being able to watch it grow in front of my eyes. I walked in with some ideas. I mean, I was Dave’s advisor for the last two years, so it’s not like I haven’t been around at all. I’m going to make sure that I’m doing what I can but I also understand what my limitations are. And the first thing that we did is Tommy and I got together and did the social for our people just to let them know that we’re gonna be alright. You know, I think sometimes not hearing anything is the worst thing. And so I wanted to comfort them knowing that I’m here to help them. I’m here to serve them. And I think it hasn’t changed over the years. We’re here to serve our student athletes. But asa former staff member, I think sometimes we need to also serve our coaches and our staff. I’m one that loves to walk around the building and make sure people feel good about why they’re here. That was an easy thing for me to do. And so I’m going to take the things that I feel I’m strong at. Things that I don’t know, I’m gonna tell you I don’t know. But a lot of this has been gathering information. So I’m trying to meet with everyone kind of find out where we’re at as a group and then hopefully, when the next person walks in here, I can hand off things that we’re still moving in the right direction.”

On what was discussed at that social: “We just talked about the the issues that have come before us. There’s a lot of reasons why we’re at where we’re at right now. And so now we have to find a new model moving forward to try to correct those things. I don’t think you’re going to correct them, because a lot of that was something we had to do. I think sometimes people don’t understand there’s a lot of decisions you make that you have to think about a lot of different things that go into the bucket before you can make the decision. I’m just trying to make sure that I understand why we’re making decisions and try to be as educated as I can, and then be able to feel comfortable using my expertise to do the things that I can right now to kind of keep things going. I’m trying to connect with the the coaches, trying to connect with the staff. Kind of connect with our leadership team. And I just told them, basically we need to lean on one another. We need to be collectively together, and I just kind of feel like we can communicate a lot better. I’m used to having a pitching coach and a hitting coach, and a strength coach, and when we walked in a room, we better know what we’re doing with these athletes. And I want to feel the same way in this department. We’re on the same page moving forward.”

On the infrastructure requirement that comes with ESPN+ broadcasts in the Big 12: “We’ve been moving and talking about the transition for a long time. We know that that’s one of the aspects that’s got a price tag on it. But I think right now we’re trying to find some solutions, and I think we’re getting very close to finding those.”

On taking over an athletic department compared to an athletic program: “When I came here in ‘85, it was a group of people that didn’t know who I was. I had a vision, and so a big part of it was me being able to portray that vision to these people. But at the end of the day, it was making sure that they knew that I cared about them because I didn’t recruit them. And I had a group of kids that I had to take care of. And so I think it’s it’s it’s dealing with people, making people feel good about why they’re here and what they’re doing. And I think it was no different when I walked into this position. My first job was about the people. The second part about is all the obstacles that we have in front of us (and) how are we going to collectively start working on these things and start checking the box. I must say that it’s a daunting task, but I think we have great people here that are doing a great job,and it’s just a matter of putting everything together and making decisions that are gonna be best for the University of Arizona moving forward in an exciting time when we’re moving into the Big 12.”

On how the athletic model needs to change: “Let’s put it this way: I have my thoughts. I would not want to speculate on it at this moment and have you run with it, but yeah, it’s got to be different. I’ve always felt like the athletic department is the front door of the university and it’s kind of a marketing arm for the university to bring in students. I just think moving forward that we’ve got to look at some different pots that we need to deal with to kind of make this all happen. How successful you want your athletic department (to be) I think is going to have a task on the university itself. The days of a department being self-sufficient, I think, is getting tougher and tougher because of a lot of things that have happened right now. Number one, trying to get us out of where we’re at right now, but number two moving forward, what does the model look like? And I don’t have that answer at this point. But I know it’s got to be different than what it has been over the last (40-plus) years that I’ve been here.”

On if the athletic department may some day be folded into the rest of the university: “I think that’s a topic that’s under a lot of discussion right now. I would hate to speculate on anything and give you anything to run with.”

On how all the ADs he worked under were like: I know the common thread was always the same challenge that we’re dealing with right now. It’s finances. And then trying to get your programs where you want them. There’s a price tag that you have to pay. I thought Jedd Fisch did a hell of a job here. And there was a price that we had to pay to get that to where it’s at. Every athletic director that I’ve worked with had a little different approach. Some were very hands-on people-type athletic directors, some were a little bit different. They all had their strengths and they all did the job in different ways, so I think it just depends on the person. I will always be a people person, so I think that’s kind of what I rely on. But someone may be just someone that loves to gather information and crunch numbers. You have to have a little bit of all of that to be able to balance the books at the end of the day. It’s just getting tougher to balance the books.”

On what he’d tell the next AD about Tucson: “Tucson is a very unique place. It’s a small big city. To me, it’s a college town. To me, there’s a lot more positives than there are negatives. I love the passion of our fans. And for me, I always go back to there was many times I wanted to leave here. And every time I came back, after going on a trip to explore maybe another opportunity, I always came back to the people. And I think there’s just a very unique set of people that really care about the University of Arizona.that care about Tucson. And I think the more people that we can have around here that truly that’s important to them, then I think we have a chance of making this successful again.”

On how former department CFO John Perrin, who retired in 2014, would handle the current financial situation: “I’m sure there are elements, but I think the challenges and what’s in front of us is a little bit different. I think we’ve always been here to serve our athletes, student athletes, but then when they deregulated the NCAA ... we started doing more. And so I think some of the some of the things that John was looking at back then, it was probably easier to keep a hold of. Where now it’s becoming more difficult to keep a hold of it. Because anytime you deregulate, it’s kind of like the transfer portal. It’s the Wild Wild West, right? And so there’s some factors today that were completely different than so it’s kind of hard to match. John was a brilliant guy. I’m sure there’s a lot of things John did that that would work at this point, but would have to look a little bit different than it did back then.”

On if college athletics needs government intervention and regulation: “Most certainly. We’re not the Lone Ranger. I mean, if I started talking to my people around the country, there’s a lot of people that are in the same position trying to face some of these things that have occurred over the last three years. I mean, COVID was a tough thing for us, and to try to keep your doors open during COVID, it was a challenge. And so I think we’ve done a lot of the right things. But I think now we’ve got to put the brakes on and say, wait, moving forward, what do we need to do to make this thing work? Like I said, that’s the information piece that I don’t have everything in front of me right now. But I promise you that we have a very talented people here that have a passion for this place, that are going to make this place better. And I go back to telling them all, let’s make it one percent better every day and we’ll crawl out of this. But there are some challenges.”

On if Arizona may look to cut sports to get down to the average number in the Big 12: “I’ve always been a firm believer of an athletic department. The escalation of football and basketball have caused us to take a look at everything else. The average is what, 17 sports in the Big 12? I’m hoping that we don’t get to that point for a lot of different reasons. I can’t say that that’s not going to be something that will be looked at. But I’m hoping that we do not have to cut any sports here, because I don’t think cutting sports is the answer to the problems that we have right now. And then you have to look at Title IX, there’s a lot of different things that go into this, and so I think we’ll be very sensitive to all of those considerations. If the time comes that we have to make tough decisions, and then we’re going to make sure that we have the right foundation in our decision-making to make that happen. But just because 17 is the number in the Big 12 does not necessarily mean that that’s the right number at the University of Arizona.”