(Tucson, AZ) Kim Doss
Arizona Athletic Director Dave Heeke opened the evening joking that he was still waiting for something to happen during an “interesting, sometimes challenging year.” Thursday night gave the Wildcat fans of Tucson a chance to hear exactly what has been happening straight from the people who run their favorite teams.
Arizona Road Tour 2018 kicked off with an event at the Eddie Lynch Pavilion. With the newly unveiled statue of Lute Olson looking over, new head football coach Kevin Sumlin, head women’s basketball coach and former Wildcat star Adia Barnes, and head soccer coach Tony Amato joined Heeke to field questions and let fans know what they can expect in the upcoming season.
Dave Heeke: A bright future for Arizona Athletics
Festivities got started with Heeke letting the assembled fans know about the direction of the department. While the year may have been challenging, he told the assembled fans and alumni that that he was honored and proud to be the athletic director of Arizona, and was excited about the “new people, new energy” filling the department.
“The future is incredibly bright,” Heeke said.
Part of that future is the upgraded facilities that have been announced. Heeke outlined the five major projects that are being undertaken to improve the experience for student-athletes and fans next year.
First, there will be more locker room improvements for programs that have not yet received upgrades. Some programs, including basketball and gymnastics, have already received improved locker room space. This round of upgrades will address those who have been waiting.
The aquatic center will also receive upgrades, including a new pool. Heeke said the pool will be larger and joked that it would have faster water.
Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium is getting a facelift that will improve the game day experience for fans. While the field orientation will remain the same, Heeke reeled off the list of upgrades that fans will be able to take advantage of, including improved entry way, concessions and concourse. New features include a fan shop and, most importantly, a shade structure. While not all seats will have shade next season, most of them will, Heeke said.
Another round of renovations on the east side of Arizona Stadium is also in store. Heeke remarked that the student athletics fees that were introduced this year should be used to improve the student game day experience, so these renovations will focus on the area around the Zona Zoo.They include the ground level concourse, improved access for students with an additional entry, and new concessions.
Finally, Heeke reminded the audience of the new indoor sports performance center. While it will be used for indoor practice during the heat and rains of the summer, the facility will have other uses, as well. For fans, that includes game day activities during football season.
Facilities aren’t the only changes that Heeke was excited about. He spoke very highly of the people in the department, especially the new staff that has come on board this year.
Augie Busch taking over the swimming and diving program was a return to family, Heeke said. Bringing Busch home to coach the program his father led for 22 years was emblematic of the family atmosphere in the department.
Long time assistant John Court ascended to the head coaching position of the Arizona GymCats. His steadying influence was crucial to the team when their previous coach left just before the school year started.
Finally, the hiring of Kevin Sumlin has energized the fanbase, making Arizona Football a hot topic of conversation.
Tony Amato: Women’s Soccer is on the “best run in the history of the program”
After Heeke spoke, Arizona soccer coach Tony Amato took the stage to tell the fans about the growth of the program and the conference. Amato, who took the reins in 2012, just graduated a senior class that went to the NCAA tournament three of their four years at Arizona.
The PAC-12 has had at least one team in the national championship game ten times since 2004. Only the ACC, with eleven representatives, has had more over that period. In 2017, the title game came down to Stanford vs UCLA.
Arizona excelled in this premier conference, losing just twice during league play. Both losses were by a score of 0-1, with the Wildcats coming up just short against USC and eventual national champion Stanford.
The 2018 season starts on August 11th. Amato told fans that the program is committed to winning, and encouraged them to come support the women.
“Our vision is to get to a Final Four and win a national championship,” he said.
Adia Barnes: Women’s Basketball will “actually have a post player”
Adia Barnes returned to her alma mater two years ago to lead a program that hadn’t experienced success since 2005. Every day she comes to work, it feels like home, she said, but losing has been difficult. Barnes has never lost this much in her playing or coaching career, she told the fans.
When she took the job at Arizona, Barnes said people told her, “You can’t recruit here.” Her response was, “Oh, really?”
Barnes has proven the critics wrong and sees the light at the end of the tunnel. She told the audience about the fifth-ranked recruiting class that will be on campus in June. One reason that recruiting class will be here is the first class facilities, Barnes said.
In addition to the freshman class, which will include the first McDonald’s All American to play for the women’s program, Arizona will have three transfers who are finally eligible to play. Eight new players sounds like a lot to integrate, but Barnes expressed her excitement at the prospect.
“We’re going to actually have a post player!” she joked, reminding the audience that Arizona had to play without a true post last season simply because they didn’t have enough athletes.
Although excited about the highest-ranked class the program has ever had, Barnes also cautioned fans that they should temper expectations at first.
“They’re freshmen,” she said.
The excitement about the on-court potential of the new team was real, but Barnes was also very proud of the off-the-court service and dedication her existing team has shown.
The women’s basketball team has won the award for community involvement two years in a row, she said. Serving the community is a passion the players have. They also show that commitment and passion in the classroom, where they earned a team GPA of 3.172.
Kevin Sumlin: A New Era
New head football coach Kevin Sumlin brought the evening to a conclusion with praise for the Tucson community.
“They have welcomed our staff, they have welcomed our families,” he said.
That welcoming environment has also been provided by the leadership of the University.
“It starts at the top,” Sumlin said. “How we’re doing things, it’s first class.”
Everyone wants to know about Sumlin’s new quarterback. The coach obliged with a forthright appraisal and a warning.
“Let’s slow down a little bit,” he said of the hype surrounding Khalil Tate. Noting that Tate has not even started an entire season’s worth of football games, Sumlin said that he has room to develop both in football and leadership skills.
To that end, Tate will be attending the Manning Passing Academy. Sumlin believes that being around a staff that includes men who have succeeded in the NFL will help with the skills that Tate needs in order to succeed at the highest level.
“He’s put himself in that position,” Sumlin said.
The other hot topic around Arizona Football is recruiting. This is the first week of spring recruiting, and Sumlin noted that Arizona would be selective in recruiting because there are currently only nine seniors on the roster.
“It’s good to have young guys to cultivate and mold,” he said.
It won’t be too long before those young guys will start that process. The freshmen will arrive on campus June 4th to begin summer school.
In the meantime, Arizona Road Tour 2018 will continue its stops across the state. Future gatherings are planned for Phoenix and Flagstaff. Fans can find out more by visiting Arizona Athletics website.