After the Sun Devils left the Rose Bowl with their third and last win of the 2023 football season, Ray Anderson announced his resignation from his post as athletic director.
That same day, senior vice president of educational outreach and student services, James Rund, was announced as ASU's interim athletic director.
Arizona's football season was quite the opposite. For the first time, the Wildcats finished the season in the Top 15 of the College Football Playoff rankings, which showed the country the progress the program has made since Jedd Fisch took over in late 2020.
Then, Nick Saban's retirement as Alabama's head coach started a chain reaction when the Crimson Tide poached Washington's head coach, Kalen DeBoer. Washington, the runner-up of the 2023 College Football Playoff, then bought out Fisch's contract and brought him to Seattle, leaving Arizona with a sudden head coaching vacancy that seemed inconceivable just days earlier.
Arizona ended up hiring Brent Brennan from San Jose State. Within the week, athletic director Dave Heeke announced he was parting ways with the University in a press release that UA president Robert Robbins called "a transition in the leadership" of the athletic department.
The two jobs are similar in market, conference and size. The Arizona Board of Regents oversees both universities, and both are moving to the Big 12 conference this year. As of Fall 2023, over 40,000 students are enrolled at UA on campus, and over 70,000 students areenrolled on campus at ASU. ASU is in a larger market, Phoenix, but Tucson is not a small market itself.
Despite the universities having the same vacancy and the same destination next year, the two universities' athletic programs could not be in more opposite circumstances.
Same conference, different performances
The University of Arizona's athletic programs have seen on-field success recently, and the football program's recent success is a testament to that.
Their nationally competitive men's basketball team has been a fixture on national television, and at one point this season, it was ranked No. 1 in the AP and Coaches' Polls.
In 2021, the Arizona women's basketball team came within a bucket of defeating Stanford for its first women's national championship. While the team has regressed somewhat, the recent success has led to needed growth in that program.
The Wildcats' success also includes reaching the NCAA tournament in baseball last season and winning eight national championships in softball.
ASU's athletics have recently been more of a mixed bag, as the University's larger sports have underperformed. The football team has gone 3-9 in back-to-back seasons and has been on a coaching carousel that’s seen Todd Graham, Herm Edwards and now Kenny Dillingham within the past decade.
The ASU men's basketball team has skirted greatness over head coach Bobby Hurley's eight full seasons at the helm. He's taken the Sun Devils to three NCAA Tournament appearances, but they’ve never advanced further than the Round of 64.
The University also added men's hockey as a Division I sport in 2014. The team has hovered around mediocrity, but they have a bright future, with head coach Greg Powers and their upcoming inclusion into the National Collegiate Hockey Conference next season.
Small sports have been the shining point of the athletic department. Triathlon has won seven team national titles, wrestling has won a national championship, men's and women's golf consistently produces tour-level players, and the men’s swim & dive team is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Off-the-field trouble in Tucson
In Nov. 2023, UA president Robert Robbins announced in a meeting with the Arizona Board of Regents that the University severely miscalculated the amount of cash on hand Arizona thought it had. Their estimates were off by nearly $250 million.
The miscalculation resulted in a hiring freeze and a suspension of pay raises across the board. Tuition for the 2025 class and beyond will also be raised — current students and students who were just enrolled in UA.
The hiring freeze does not appear to apply to the football program, which hired former ASU defensive coordinator and University of New Mexico coach Danny Gonzales as its new special teams coordinator and linebackers coach. The school also hired Bobby Wade from ASU as its wide receivers coach.
In a meeting in Dec. 2023 with the Arizona Board of Regents, UA president Robert Robbins said he plans to balance the athletic budget by reviewing ticket prices, taking advantage of media rights deals and consolidating administrative duties.
"I've said many times before (that) athletics is the most difficult part of the University's budget," Robbins said in the meeting. "I also believe that athletics is a core part of the University of Arizona and a key element to our long-term success. I have had many great meetings with the athletics department, and we are committed to putting together a multi-year plan in place to bring their budget into balance."
ASU is in a far better financial position than UA, but the University also faces challenges in funding athletics. ASU currently boasts 26 varsity teams, which must be supported with everything from coach contracts to facility upkeep and travel expenses.
"They're having some issues, then you'll get into financial stresses, financial issues and financial difficulties," ASU president Michael Crow said in a meeting with the State Press in Nov. 2023. "But each university has its now own financial design that is different than theirs, our university culture is different. Our circumstances are different."
Several of ASU's minor sports, like triathlon and wrestling, have garnered national attention, but money-making sports must compensate for their financial losses. Football and basketball aren't enough to make up for every other team, as the University has reported over $2 million in losses in past years.
Razor-thin margins also impact ASU's ability to maintain its athletic facilities. Mountain America Stadium has undergone massive renovations, and Mullett Arena is a brand new facility for its blossoming men's hockey team, opening in 2022.
Desert Financial Arena's expensive future has been debated for years. However, University leadership has shown no interest in renovating or rebuilding DFA.
"I don't know what he meant by 'dire,'" Crow said in a meeting with the State Press in March 2023. "You've been there. It's completely functional. It's actually a fine facility and just needs some updates."
The DFA problem was almost resolved with the Arizona Coyotes’ proposal to build a new arena in Tempe, but any chance of ASU playing on a new court died out in the ill-fated public vote. In the March 2023 meeting, Crow said the Coyotes' doomed arena was "not in our wheelhouse."
However, ASU's next athletic director will have to address the future of DFA and the necessary expenses the University will have to bear.
Despite its lackluster facilities, ASU benefits from Phoenix's numerous professional sports facilities. Sun Devil teams have been able to play games at the Footprint Center and host the Final Four at State Farm Stadium twice in the last decade. A former professional sports facility even gave Sun Devil baseball a new home when the team moved into Phoenix Municipal Stadium in 2015.
In comparison, Arizona updated its facilities as recently as 2022, when it built an upgraded football locker room. They also renovated part of their football stadium in 2018. Other upgrades include significant upgrades to the aquatic center and the softball stadium in the past decade.
There are no details on who each university is looking at, but we know that ASU coaches want an athletic director focused more on taking advantage of NIL. For Robbins, the more hands-on of the two presidents on athletics, he is going to be looking for someone to continue the football momentum and balance the tedious and uncertain financial future of the athletics program.
Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Walker Smith and Caera Learmonth.
Shane Brennan is the Editor-in-Chief at The State Press. He was a sports and politics reporter, before becoming the editor of the politics desk. He has covered local and state politics for the Arizona Capitol Times and Cronkite News.