Arizona’s 2 largest universities need an athletic director: Here’s a list of AD candidates
Jan 24, 2024, 7:55 AM
(Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)
It’s time for a reset at the athletic director positions for both the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Arizona Wildcats.
The schools couldn’t be at two more different places, and each job comes with extracurricular problems beyond the money-making sports. Throw a move to the Big 12 on top of it, and each of ASU and UA is at a vulnerable point in time. Getting the wrong hire could set the schools back for a half-decade or more.
Arizona State is dealing with an NCAA investigation still hanging over the football team. The Sun Devils have moved beyond former vice president for university athletics Ray Anderson with the right things on the mind: fundraising and NIL catching up for Kenny Dillingham’s football squad and Bobby Hurley’s men’s basketball team in a pro market.
Facilities-wise, Arizona State has good stuff aside from an up-to-date basketball arena.
In Tucson, Dave Heeke was surprisingly let go on Monday less than a week after making a hire of Brent Brennan as the head football coach. Everything seemed to be going decently for that program considering Jedd Fisch’s untimely departure, with key players returning to the field. The men’s basketball program is on solid footing under Tommy Lloyd.
But the university budget deficit of $240 million looms over athletics and beyond — the optics make it seem some of that is being put on Heeke and the athletics arm of the school.
Pressure is on ASU president Michael Crow and Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins for different reasons. As The Mercury News‘ Jon Wilner reported, that and their reputations will factor into how appealing each job might be to candidates.
With that, here’s a completely unsolicited list of potential AD candidates for the schools to consider.
It’s been compiled without sourcing, based on people who have Arizona ties and a variety of experiences in athletic departments across the nation. In other words, it is one writer’s list to start with if he were hired as a one-man search committee.
Some are out-of-the-box ideas. Others might have major holes in their qualifications but are worth talking to for the sake of ideating for each school president. But one thing is clear: A hire for either school can’t helicopter in from outside the NCAA world.
The top athletic director candidate for Arizona, if not ASU
Mack Rhoades, Baylor VP and director of intercollegiate athletics
Rhoades, 58, has plenty of experience and over his career that started at Yale in 1996 has been inching westward. He’s been AD at Akron (2006-09), Houston (2009-15), Missouri (2015-16) and Baylor (2016-present).
Here’s the kicker: He is from Tucson and holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona (1993). Compiling this list before Arizona’s job opened, Rhoades would have been worth a call by the Sun Devils, but he immediately becomes the first name in the Wildcats’ search.
Cross-rivalry athletic department leader has happened in Arizona before when Sun Devil graduate Greg Byrne led the Arizona Wildcats from 2010-17 before he made the leap to Alabama.
There’s an argument leaving Baylor, a private Christian school, for ASU or Arizona might be a Big 12 side-step or worse. The Bears have strong brands in the main sports and basketball especially, but if Rhoades is someone who sees Arizona State as the sleeping giant everyone talks about or Arizona as closer to his heart, you never know.
He has helped fundraise for a $105 million basketball arena and retained men’s basketball coach Scott Drew. Rhoades hired football coaches Matt Rhule (2016) and Dave Aranda (2020), as well as women’s basketball coach Nicki Collen (2021) to replace the wildly successful Kim Mulkey.
Tons of experience in the NCAA world
Pat Chun, Washington State director of athletics
Chun worked in the sports information office under Gene Smith, a former ASU athletic director, at Ohio State for 15 years before a five-year run at Florida Atlantic.
He jumped to the Washington State job in 2018 and has maintained consistent success for a football program outside of a major metropolitan area.
While it makes sense that Chun would seek other opportunities with the dissolving of the Pac-12 leaving the Cougars in a bad place, he would bring extensive leadership experience and an NCAA-wide perspective to any new employer.
Chun is currently the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics president and has been on the NCAA’s Division I council, strategic vision and planning committee, Division I transformation committee and constitution committee.
From Ohio, Chun has a bachelor’s from Ohio State and a master’s from Duquesne.
Brian White, Florida Atlantic’s VP and director of athletics
White replaced Chun in 2018 and has led the Conference USA team into the AAC. It most recently has risen to become a basketball power.
Under head coach Dusty May, White’s first hire in 2018, the program lost in the NCAA Tournament Final Four last season and has held a top 25 ranking most of this year.
Previous to his tenure at FAU, White was senior associate athletics director at Missouri in 2015 before becoming deputy athletics director for external relations in 2016. He also served as Missouri’s sports administrator for football and men’s basketball.
His experience in college athletics is shared by his family. His father, Kevin White, was Duke’s athletic director; brother Mike White is Georgia’s men’s basketball coach; and brother Danny White is AD at Tennessee.
White is a graduate of Notre Dame (2006) with a master’s from Ohio (2008). Like Byrne was to Arizona in the past decade, his NCAA administration experience runs deep in his bloodlines and that type of person is someone worth considering if you’re the likes of Arizona State, especially.
John Cunningham, Cincinnati director of athletics
After Boise State and TCU stops, along with holding the deputy AD titles at Minnesota and Syracuse, Cunningham ushered Cincinnati into the Big 12. So that experience obviously would be a plus for one of the Arizona schools.
Cunningham has a compliance background and hired football coach Scott Satterfield to take over the football program after a successful run by Luke Fickell, who left for the Wisconsin job in 2023. Satterfield (79-57 record as head coach) was pulled from Louisville and previously led Appalachian State.
Cunningham has pushed for adding psychology and nutrition departments to the athletic support teams, among other forward-thinking upgrades.
He is from Lincoln, Nebraska, and attended TCU and then Nebraska, earning a law degree at the latter in 2005.
David Benedict, UConn director of athletics
Benedict served as associate athletic director for development at Arizona State, working there from 1996-2006. He held positions at Long Beach State (2007-10) and then Virginia Commonwealth (2010-12) before working as deputy AD at Minnesota (2012-14).
Benedict was COO at Auburn from 2015-16.
He then landed at UConn, where he’s overseen the building of new facilities for the baseball, softball and hockey programs.
He also oversaw a return to the Big East from the AAC in 2020 while managing an FBS independent football team. UConn has already been heavily involved in potential realignment — it was linked to the Big 12 before the Arizona schools joined — so that gives Benedict recent experience navigating the changing NCAA waters.
Benedict’s background in developing plans for growth and improvements at a variety of landing spots should put him on ASU’s radar.
Oh, and he is a Tempe native, and his wife Lisa was a two-time NCAA champion gymnast at ASU.
The Sun Devils and Wildcats at heart
Rocky Harris, USOPC chief of sport and athlete services
Revered by fellow Sun Devils, Harris works for the United States Olympics and Paralympic Committee overseeing sports performance — which includes mental and physical well-being. He manages relationships with national governing bodies and with NCAA programs.
He joined USOPC after spending five years as CEO of USA Triathlon.
Before that, the Tempe native worked as chief operating officer for Arizona State’s athletic department.
Harris was one of the first names thrown out there, but the experience might not match up with so many new moving parts. Or be appealing to Harris who has quite the leadership position already.
Erika Barnes, executive senior associate director of athletics
Barnes will be the first name brought up in terms of in-house candidates to take over as athletic director if she is separated from any discovered financial mishandlings under Heeke’s leadership.
A former softball player under current interim AD Mike Candrea, Barnes won a 2001 national championship and has grown up in the Tucson community. She has been involved in student-athlete development and also worked in fundraising, holding a previous title of senior associate AD for administration and major gifts.
She worked in the marketing and PR department of the National Pro Fastpitch league before her tenure working in the Wildcats’ athletic department.
Barnes was interim AD in the period spanning the departure of Byrne and hire of Heeke.
Wild card candidates with Arizona ties and unique perspectives
Jamie Boggs, Grand Canyon vice president of athletics
There is a 1% chance Crow would consider hiring away an AD from the cross-town, private university that he’s beefed with. But if he wants to think innovatively, it’s worth a conversation with Boggs, who is from Phoenix and holds degrees from the University of San Diego as well as Arizona.
GCU has built an athletic program up quickly to be competitive in basketball and baseball, especially.
She previously served as director of compliance to assistant athletic director at Duke University and executive senior associate AD/COO over three years at Georgia State.
Kyle Vasey, Alabama senior associate athletics director, CFO
The former Arizona men’s basketball manager and native of Tucson secured a bachelor’s degree in accounting at Arizona in 2014 and added an MBA in 2015.
From there, he was in the Wildcats’ athletic department as a senior financial analyst.
At Alabama under Byrne, he oversees the operating budget and financial reporting for the athletic department’s fundraising arm. That specifically might be a draw if he were to take on a project of getting the books in order.
While the CPA would understand the numbers and the university, the hole in Vasey’s resume would of course be about whether he has the marketing and business background to find new sources of support and income.
Erin Adkins, UCLA senior associate athletic director, sports administration and governance
Another Arizona graduate (2006), Adkins is credited with overseeing compliance and NIL programming for the Bruins.
She is sports administrator for women’s soccer and baseball and worked from 2015-18 for Vanderbilt as assistant AD of compliance.
Adkins worked in compliance at San Diego from 2009-15.