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Q&A: Arizona AD Dave Heeke discusses Kevin Sumlin hiring

The Arizona athletic director chats about UA’s new football coach and other things

The Arizona Wildcats officially introduced Kevin Sumlin as their new head football coach Tuesday in an hour-long press conference.

Afterward, Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke answered questions about the hiring. Here is what he said.

(Note that some of the questions have been altered for clarity purposes.)

What have the last 13 days been like?

Dave Heeke: “It felt like a marathon with a sprint pace. I’m at the finish line and I’m trying to catch my breath a little bit and get some feeling in my legs, but it’s been a great run. It’s just the process that you have to go through. That’s the important thing. I’m deliberate, I’m trying to be thoughtful and thorough with what we’re doing and I think we did that and we got to a really good spot.”

Why Kevin Sumlin?

DH: “There was a lot of interest nationally from a lot of different people — assistant coaches, coordinators, head coaches, but it was a chance to get one of the best. He’s been at the highest level, certainly that is a real feather in our cap and what this program is all about.

How quickly did terms (with Sumlin) come together?

DH: “It was really quick. We both felt the connection and that was kind of the least of my worries. We were able to knock that out pretty quick.”

Who had the final say in the hire?

DH: “Let me be clear. The president and I make the decision. I make the decision on who the head football coach is. Search firms provide the opportunity for conversations, help us vet candidates, and bring people to the table that might be interested in the position.

“But it’s our job as administrators, it’s my job as the athletic director to determine who the next head football coach will be and I feel really good about that.”

How important do you think it is for a coach to connect with the community?

DH: “I think it’s important for any of our coaches to have a connection with the community. To be a part of the community, to not only have their players involved in what’s going on ... but themselves to reach out to the fanbase, those people who want to be connected with our program. That’s locally in Tucson. That’s in Phoenix. That’s in the state of Arizona, that’s across the country, that’s all of that. That’s part of the process. That’s what we need is people who want to engage and be a part of what makes Arizona great, and that’s the people.”

Was that lacking before?

DH: “I think every time there’s a change, there’s an opportunity to recalibrate. It was one of those key elements that we wanted to move forward and grow, and that is a connection point. Again, you’ve gotta reach out to people and let them know that you appreciate what they’re all about and their affiliation with the program. And at the same time, we want them to feel who the next head coach is.”

How do you measure [community engagement]?

DH: “Fundamentally these get down to some gut level feelings. And when we have conversations and when Kevin and I talked, that was important. He wants to be somewhere where he can be involved in what’s going on in the community beyond just the football program. He wants to be in McKale and watch basketball games. He wants to be over in staff meetings and on the street talking to fans. That’s all important to him. It’s about his core and who he is. People have to be comfortable in their own skin so they can go out and do that.”

What went into the decision to make a coaching change?

DH: “Those are ongoing evaluations of where the program is and where we want to go. The president and I had a lot of conversations going through the season of how things were going. Ultimately we had to wait for things to move through a normal process and then we got to a point where we thought it was in our best interest to move in a different direction.”

What were your conversations with Dick Tomey like?

DH: “Coach Tomey and I share some friends and some people we know from my time in the Pac-12, so I’ve really enjoyed my conversations (with him). He’s a passionate man, he obviously had some great teams here, and his insight was really key in identifying those key factors in a new head coach and what we would need to be successful. And a big part of that is relationships with players in your locker room, but also your relationships with the community and others who support your program.”

How much of a factor was Sumlin’s recruiting ability in this hiring?

DH: “It’s a huge factor. Obviously a guy that can come in, has instant credibility, instant identifiable by recruits right in our footprint is important. We think Texas is a big area so we need to be better in Texas. But (him being) able to go into California, in the state the of Arizona where he’s already recruited many players, so we think that was critical in the decision making.”

Can you tell us how many people you’ve interviewed?

DH: “I don’t want to go into specifics of that. It was a large group initially, and we narrowed it down to a few I’d use the term finalist, and then Kevin was the one that I offered the job to. The only one I offered the job to and he accepted.”

A question about funding for assistant coaches

DH: “We’ve talked about that, and we’ve committed additional dollars to our salary pool.”

Was that a talking point with Kevin?

DH: “Yeah, that was a point with me, too. We want to be able to attract and retain coaches. I don’t think it’s been a problem in the past at all, contrary to popular conversation or belief. But I think it’s important. We want to get coaches that Kevin thinks will help lead our program forward and we’re ready to invest in that.”

Whose idea was it to include the mitigation cause (in Sumlin’s contract)? It seems like it protects the injury.

DH: “That was very apparent to me early on that we needed to do that. We wanted to make sure that was included.”

(Sumlin’s contract details can be found here.)

Is that the new standard?

DH: “Yes.”

Can you give us an update on the new indoor facility?

DH: “Moving forward we’ve got a lot of facility projects on board. ... But the indoor practice facility is under design and we want to break ground as soon as possible, so that we’ll be into that sometime next year as well as starting the renovation on the East side of the stadium. So we’ll be embarking on both of those projects in speedy fashion.”

So the indoor sports center will be ready for the fall season?

DH: “I’m not going to put us on a timeline. I know we’re moving as fast as we can. We’re designing it. It will be done sometime next year in the football season, that’s our intention.

“Again, it’s much more than a football practice facility. We have all of our sports that will use that. It’s a sports performance center. We’ll use it pregame as a fan center, so there’s a lot to that. We automatically drop back to football practice, but it’s a great indoor space in a climate that needs indoor climate control even though the sun comes up everyday, we get a little bit of rain and it gets pretty darn hot. I’ve learned that since I’ve been here.”

How certain were you that Sumlin was going to say yes?

DH: “Those are the ongoing conversations. He’s checking out this side as much as we’re checking out if he’s the right fit. Sooner it later it just started to merge, and it was like ‘we both want to do this. We both wanted to go down this road together.’ So that’s when I knew. I was like, ‘yeah, this is the guy we want. He can do it.’

“He’s been at the highest level, there’s nothing that worries him about being here at Arizona. Why not? What can’t we do it? Why won’t we do it? And why can’t we do it right now? That inspires me. We want to make transformational hires. We want to do things and move it forward, and I feel really comfortable with Kevin.”

Is the fact Kevin Sumlin is due $10 million any day now help you entering negotiations?

DH: “We didn’t talk about it. We never talked about it. Those are personal issues. Kevin was in a good place. We had a lot of conversations about that. Are we both in a good place moving forward with this thing? Do you want to jump on board and do it? And he was. So that worked out really well. And timing — it’s a lot about the what, the where, the when. Is it right right now? And it was, and I thought we both felt that way.”

What did you think about the players who tweeted during the coaching search?

DH: “I don’t follow them. I try not to follow it ... I have sons that are the same age. I’ve been around kids for a long time. They do what they do and that’s great. They’re 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds. They’re figuring out where their world is. It’s an unsettling time. Your world’s been rocked a little bit, the person you looked at everyday is not there leading your team, and you’re just wondering where am I going and what’s going to happen? All I know is when I sat in the room and Kevin was here this morning, I think they were pretty happy. They were pretty locked in. He made a heck of statement to them today. I know they feel good about their future.”

What was that first conversation like with the team about the coaching change?

DH: “It was a unique situation and to not to be able to stand in front of people, that’s who I am. I want to stand in front of players, coaches, and others and deliver the message directly. That was difficult when everybody was on break. Now, we did try our best to have a phone call and do those things, a conference call, but is was good to be in the room. Sometimes you just all got to be together and look at each other in the eye. So that felt good for me and moved the ball along a little bit.

“And the chance to put someone like Kevin in front of that team, that was a proud moment for me because I know they’re in good hands. I know this thing can work with him there.”

What do you think Sumlin brings that will energize the fanbase?

DH: “The proof is in the pudding. We want to have a product on the field that’s highly successful, that’s got a lot of energy, the fanbase can see the passion of the players and the effort level of the players, but they also feel they’re in connection with the people that are out on the field. As I talked about before, that’s about the engagement. ... I feel that’s an important part of it and I feel like Kevin will really bring that. And then when they see the product on the field, we’re going to see a lot of people in Arizona Stadium.”