Athletics | What Sets Us Apart

Oct. 30, 2023
Arizona Stadium packed with fans

Shared experiences bind people together: The roar of thousands clapping out “Bear Down, Arizona” in McKale Center. The pin-drop silence that permeates a theater just before the standing ovation after a play. Arizona Athletics and Arizona Arts are touchstones for Tucson residents, alumni and friends. The university’s “front porch” delivers experiences that draw visitors to campus and contribute to the rich cultural fabric of Southern Arizona — so much so that they are built into the university’s strategic plan and are an area of focus in Fuel Wonder.

Read on for Arizona Athletics Director Dave Heeke’s perspective on how sporting events at the university serve as an invitation to engage with campus life more broadly. He also discusses the facility upgrades — spurred by donor gifts — that permit Arizona Athletics to be the best version of itself for student-athletes, coaches and fans.

Could you describe your journey to the University of Arizona?

It’s a long journey. I enjoyed athletics, competed through my life and went on to be a student-athlete in college. That set my course to be in college athletics for my career. I was in the Pac-12, at Oregon, for almost 20 years. The chance to come to an elite university and program like Arizona — there was no way I was going to pass it up.

What did you know about Arizona Athletics before your arrival?

At a program like this, the tradition and excellence goes without saying. I knew a lot about what happens in Tucson: great players, great history, great coaches and an incredible university that it all centers around. I’m the third athletic director from Albion College in Michigan to lead this program. I’m not iconic like Cedric Dempsey and Pop McKale, but they are from my college — and McKale is from my hometown.

Athletics is a rallying point for many in our community. What sets Arizona’s program and fanbase apart from those in other places?

What sets our program apart is the people: the coaches, the staff, the student-athletes. It’s important to have people who care about our student-athletes and the university. In a community like Tucson, it’s also the people who support this program — the alums and fanbase who love it and who believe in it because we do things right.

What common culture binds Arizona’s student-athletes together?

We strive to be excellent. Academically, first, and athletically, to pursue dreams. But then to grow as a person and become ready for that next chapter. That’s what our program is about: serving our 500 studentathletes, allowing them to become life champions. Certainly, we want to compete and win along the way.

What has propelled Arizona student-athletes’ academic success?

It starts with our coaches bringing in young people who understand our culture and expectations. I’m proud of us continuing to break records with grade-point averages. For our student-athletes to collectively have over a 3.0 GPA speaks volumes.

How can donors help students, especially through the 5980 Academic Fund?

The facilities that our student-athletes compete and train in are important to their pursuits. But equally important are scholarships to support their time on campus. The new 5980 fund provides resources to student-athletes as they meet expectations in our program. We want to create the best overall experience for our students. They are students first.

College athletics has changed with the new rules around name, image and likeness. What is Arizona’s approach?

NIL is the budding issue in college athletics, but it’s one we embrace. The chance for student-athletes to explore business opportunities — we embrace it. This is something that will become a new normal in college athletics. We’re going to be behind that.

Athletics has received transformative gifts during the campuswide Fuel Wonder campaign. Can you talk about a few?

There have been significant gifts during the campaign centering around facility development, led by the Cole and Jeannie Davis Sports Center next to Arizona Stadium. We’ve upgraded Hillenbrand Aquatic Center and Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. Those improvements were generated by numerous gifts. Our new, beautiful golf facility at Tucson Country Club — with lead gifts from the Clements family and Peter and Nancy Salter — is a tremendous asset.

What do athletics donors care about most?

No question: the experience and development of the student-athletes. Whether you give to facilities, scholarships or our academic areas, it all centers around student-athletes prospering and becoming ready for next chapters. There are many moving parts in college athletics. But if we stay true to the bull’s-eye, our students, that makes us great.

What role does athletics play in the life of the campus and community?

We give people a chance to enter, come back to campus and continue to engage. They may be interested in women’s basketball, or golf, or tennis, but then they see the great things happening across campus: the outstanding faculty and research, the programs that serve our students. Athletics is a big community driver. Here in Southern Arizona, these large events, the fanbase, the drive for the economic engine of Tucson — that’s important. And we take that seriously as we bring events, activity and life to the campus.


Gifts to Arizona Athletics During the Fuel Wonder Campaign Include:

  • The Cole and Jeannie Davis Sports Center for Arizona football and other programs
  • The William M. “Bill” Clements Golf Center for Arizona women’s and men’s golf
  • The Peter and Nancy Salter Short Game Practice area, also for Arizona’s golf programs