‘It’s home’: Desireé Reed-Francois introduced as University of Arizona’s athletic director

(Video by Jack Bartlett/Cronkite News)

TUCSON – Less than a month after parting ways with Dave Heeke, the University of Arizona introduced alum Desireé Reed-Francois as its new director of athletics Tuesday.

Making history as the first female full-time AD in the university’s storied history, Reed-Francois has served in leadership roles in collegiate athletics for more than a decade, most recently as Missouri’s athletic director since 2021.

“This is a critical moment for Arizona athletics,” University of Arizona president Robert C. Robbins said. “We need someone strong, someone with a national voice, someone with a track record for raising revenue, stewarding resources and providing strong financial oversight. Someone unafraid to come in right now and help us. (Desireé Reed-Francois) is exactly what we need right now.

“Desireé comes to us from SEC country, the University of Missouri, where she has spearheaded change in just three short years across all metrics, including on-field performance, academics, fundraising, branding and innovative initiatives to enhance the student-athletic experience,” he added.

Missouri football earned three postseason bowl bids during her tenure, including the 2023 Cotton Bowl as the program’s first New Year’s Six game. The Tigers finished No. 9 in all three major polls in 2023, and coach Eli Drinkwitz was named SEC Coach of the Year. Several players were awarded All-America and All-SEC honors.

With Desireé Reed-Francois at the helm as the new athletic director, the University of Arizona charts a course through financial adversity and conference transition. (Photo by Anthony Remedios/Cronkite News

Men’s basketball finished No. 23 in the final regular season AP poll last season for the first time since 2012, while men’s golf and softball earned NCAA regional appearances.

Reed-Francois earned her law degree from the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law in 1997. Ten months after signing a contract extension through the 2027-28 academic year, Reed-Francois said Arizona is the only school that would lead her to leave Mizzou.

“It’s home,” Reed-Francois said. “My brother suffered a life-altering (football) accident (in the fall of 1994). It was my first year in law school out here in Tucson and amidst the chaos and uncertainty, the University of Arizona extended its compassion – and provided support when I needed it most.

“The kindness that was shown to me during that time and now, during this challenging time, it is my privilege and my duty to give it back and help guide this athletic department forward.”

Throughout Tuesday’s press conference, Reed-Francois emphasized her focus on the athlete experience and her desire to be a listener for the Wildcats community. She apologized in advance for the volume of surveys she plans to send fans, but assured them that she will listen.

Additionally, she described core outreach initiatives, such as informal conversations with athletes in the cafeteria and panel discussions that feature a diverse range of athletes.

Arizona’s hiring comes amid a serious financial crisis as the athletic department has a $30 million budget deficit. While the cause of Heeke’s departure is unclear, the university’s $177 million reported financial crisis and public scrutiny over the loss of football coach Jedd Fisch to Washington are among possible reasons, according to 12 News.

Desireé Reed-Francois, second from right, steps into her role as the University of Arizona's first female athletic director, promising a strategy centered on fiscal responsibility, philanthropy and athlete engagement. (Photo by Anthony Remedios/Cronkite News)

Desireé Reed-Francois, second from right, steps into her role as the University of Arizona’s first female athletic director, promising a strategy centered on fiscal responsibility, philanthropy and athlete engagement. (Photo by Anthony Remedios/Cronkite News)

Robbins addressed the financial challenges by emphasizing the importance of increased philanthropy and revenue. The university is currently fundraising to offset the deficit with a goal of $3 billion. Robbins is confident that they will exceed that number through the generosity of donors.

Reed-Francois emphasized that eliminating any of the school’s 18 Division I sports programs will not be an option.

Earlier this month, the University of Missouri received a record-breaking $62 million anonymous donation under Reed-Francois’ leadership to support facility renovations and Mizzou’s Tiger Fund, a charitable program that benefits the school’s athletes. In turn, she plans to continue that trend as she begins her new chapter in Tucson as the Wildcats begin their transition to the Big 12.

“How we were able to cultivate that gift, that particular supporter is an incredible supporter, an incredible person that just genuinely cares about the University of Missouri,” Reed-Francois said. “How we cultivate donors is one person at a time. We do what we say we’re going to do. We live our core values (and) we get to know people and find out where their passion lies and align those passions with what the department’s needs are … I love fundraising because you get a chance to be able to meet people where you are and hear their story.”

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Reed-Francois’ 25-year career includes stints at several universities, including UNLV, Virginia Tech, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Tennessee. She recently served as vice chair of the NCAA Baseball Selection Committee and is a former member of the College Football Playoff Committee’s operations team.

While she makes history once again as the first female athletic director in school history, she doesn’t enjoy the extra fanfare.

“I don’t know how to be a man, so I’m just going to be a leader,” she said when asked about being a woman in collegiate athletics administration.

Although an external search firm was not involved in the process, Robbins said he “talked to hundreds of people around the country — many different presidents, corporate leaders, donors, other athletic directors, coaches, people from the business community and that led us every time to Desireé.”

The terms of (Reed-Francois’s) five-year contract include an annual base salary of $1 million in year one elevating to $1.2 million in year five, with an additional $250,000 annual contribution from the University of Arizona Foundation, according to a press release from the University of Arizona. Reed-Francois will have the opportunity for additional incentive compensation based on the department’s athletic and academic success, as well as retention bonuses after four and five years of employment with the University.

Reed-Francois will begin her new job March 3.

“Desireé will play an integral part in developing the strategies and tactics necessary to succeed in this modern era of college athletics,” Robbins said. “We will modernize. We will be fiscally responsible. But we will not compromise on our pursuit of excellence.”

Anthony Remedios AN-thuh-nee reh-MEE-dee-os (he/him/his)
Sports Broadcast Producer, Phoenix

Anthony Remedios expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in community sports management. Remedios also works with Varsity Sports Show, Walter Cronkite Sports Network and Blaze Radio.

Jack Bartlett(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jack Bartlett expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in political science. Bartlett has interned with the St. Joe Mustangs and the Music City Collegiate League in Nashville.