AD’s reputation, finances hinge on big season
Arizona will begin its third football season under Mike Stoops on Saturday night, and all that hangs in the balance is the health of the athletic department and Jim Livengood’s legacy.
“That’s just the way it is,” said Livengood, UA’s athletic director. “All the good things that happen can be undone by not being very successful on Saturday nights.”
Livengood has overseen plenty of good things in nearly 13 years – perpetual upgrades to the facilities plant, typical top 10 finishes in the all-sports Director’s Cup rankings and keeping the self-supporting athletic department in the black every year.
But the margin of error in a $39 million budget has been reduced to peanuts, and an athletic director, Livengood concedes, is judged mostly by the company he keeps.
Which is to say, the coaches he hires.
Livengood, after whiffing wildly on football coach John Mackovic, has double-knotted his rope to the Good Ship Stoops, which must tug the athletic department through choppy waters.
Livengood can’t afford to be wrong. Again.
“We put our professional life on the line all the time in the hiring process,” he said, “especially in the high-profile sports. They have to make it.”
Early signs are good. Stoops has stirred the fan base, with ticket sales approaching high-water levels. The Wildcats, although they finished last season with the same 3-8 record as in 2004, were more competitive. The coaching staff has recruited well above reasonable expectations.
But if something goes wrong – if Arizona fails to turn the corner and fans become impatient, or there’s some sort of football scandal – that’s Livengood’s neck way out there.
“That’s how it is in business,” he said.
It is Livengood’s blessing, and an ever-lasting credit to former athletic director Cedric Dempsey, that he has never had to replace UA’s coaching cornerstones – basketball’s Lute Olson, softball’s Mike Candrea, swimming’s Frank Busch, golf’s Rick LaRose.
Likewise, Livengood has never had to touch women’s basketball (Joan Bonvicini) or volleyball (Dave Rubio) and just had to shuffle some papers to promote ready-to-roll assistants Fred Harvey (track and field) and Bill Ryden (gymnastics).
Livengood’s third try at women’s soccer (Dan Tobias) hit the mark. So did his second attempt at baseball (Andy Lopez).
But his lack of opportunity in making revenue-producing hires (men’s basketball, football) only emphasizes the couple of choices he did make.
Stoops’ grade is still incomplete. Mackovic?
What was Livengood thinking?
“At that time, what I thought we needed was someone who was very, very organized,” Livengood said. “We needed to have someone who was offense-oriented, because fans were not finding us exciting. And I wanted somebody who had an awful lot of experience.
“Was it the right hire? Absolutely not. I thought it was going to be an outstanding hire.”
It ended up being more like an outstanding fire.
When Livengood told Mackovic to walk just five games into his third season, in 2003, Arizona had the time to conduct a two-month coaching search, a rare luxury.
“There are very few things that I didn’t know about Mike going into the final stages,” Livengood said. “That almost never happens with a football coaching search.”
What he didn’t know then, Livengood says now, is how much Stoops would be committed to a long-term plan of developing a program, not just a team.
“In my exit interviews with seniors, it is amazing how many guys say they wish they had more years to play with this staff,” Livengood said.
“The common theme I hear is that the players are going to be coached hard and coached tough, but they are also going to be cared about. That same voice that says, ‘What a horrible job you did on that play,’ is the same voice that is going to be telling them what they did great.
“The players leave the practice field with an ‘up’ feeling. That doesn’t mean it’s a love-fest, but the coaches and players are in this hand in hand. That is what is so exciting right now.”
It is telling that after the softball team won the school’s seventh Women’s College World Series in June, Candrea told a celebratory crowd at McKale Center to be sure to buy some football tickets.
Everybody in the belt-tightening athletic department, which slashed 18 jobs in the summer of 2005, is thinking about how a winning football team could affect the bottom line.
Livengood has cast his lot: In Stoops He Trusts.
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
TOP 10 UA ALL-TIME AVERAGE ATTENDANCES
Stoops’ years in bold
Year – Home games – Home W-L – Home Avg.
1. 1994 – 6 – 5-1 – 56,562
2. 1990 – 6 – 4-2 – 54,074
3. 2005 – 6 – 2-4 – 53,613
4. 1986 – 6 – 5-1 – 52,739
5. 1995 – 6 – 3-3 – 51,749
6. 1999 – 6 – 3-3 – 51,151
7. 1993 – 6 – 6-0 – 50,761
8. 1998 – 6 – 5-1 – 50,206
9. 1989 – 6 – 5-1 – 50,199
10. 2004 – 7 – 2-5 – 50,111
More football stories