Schu Strings: Livengood remains a Wildcat

For the second time in the new century, an established Big Ten university seriously pursued Arizona Athletic Director Jim Livengood. And for the second time in the new century, Livengood politely said no.

Polite is probably the best way to describe the head man of the UA's athletic department, and that is both a benefit and a curse, although seemingly the former is often the result. When Livengood finally does decide to move on, one wonders how he will be remembered in Tucson. Now entering his ninth season at the helm, there are those who still view him as the guy who took over for Cedric Dempsey, and hasn't managed to screw things up.

But let's be fair. While Dempsey certainly did a fabulous job establishing Arizona as a national athletic power, his ride ended nearly a decade ago. A lot can happen in a decade, and someone has to be able to keep the ship afloat. Livengood has been effective in that role.

Consider if Arizona had hired Bob Bockrath, the former Assistant AD who later ran into problems as the top guy at Cal and Alabama. If you're an alternative history buff, where might Arizona be under Bockrath? What we do know is that the UA remains a national athletic power under Livengood.

And recently, Livengood has had to make two major coaching changes that could go a long way toward determining his ability to select leaders. It's too early to tell how landing football coach John Mackovic and baseball coach Andy Lopez will ultimately benefit the program, but both bring much different perspectives to their respective sports.

Perhaps more architecturally influential, the opening of the Eddie Lynch Pavilion occurred under Livengood's watch. The Athletic Director, naturally, was responsible for spearheading the fundraising effort, an endeavor that produced 24 million dollars, more than enough to construct the Pavilion, thus giving the university options to improve other facilities.

But in some ways, that facility construction represented the frustration some have with Arizona's top man. It's a frustration of positive spin-doctoring. While certainly an impressive facility now, Lynch endured more than its share of delays. Yet Livengood routinely said the project was progressing as scheduled while at the same moment readjusting the timeline. I don't know. To me, I think it's ok to say things have been delayed if things have been delayed.

It's almost entertaining trying to get a straight answer out of the man. There's this great strategy I'm convinced someone teaches in some exclusive, yet clandestine media preparation school. I call it the Ronald Reagan approach to answering a question. If faced with an inquiry he didn't really want to answer, Reagan would do the verbal version of driving to the neighborhood grocery store via Portsmouth, Va.

Question: "The Savings and Loans continue to fail. What does the Reagan Administration propose to do to improve that?"

President Reagan: "Well, Nancy and I were discussing that very thing over dinner and a great black and white movie. Starred my good friend James Stewart. Now Stewart was a fine, fine actor. I had the pleasure of being in the same profession as James, and it was just a privilege. Nancy knew him too, and he was always great to the kids. James once starred in a fine, fine film as a bank manager during our depression era. You might have seen it. It's a Wonderful Life. Well, I think we live a wonderful life in America as well, and our life will continue to be wonderful far into the future. Next question."

Now if you're the Prez, you don't have to endure a follow-up. But this strategy works pretty well during the interview process for Livengood as well. If you get the opportunity to listen to Livengood (and as this year's NCAA Basketball tournament chairman, it might be the perfect time), he'll "answer" a potentially tough question with no less than a dozen positive sequiturs, and ball it up in a two to three minute monologue. Now here's the strategy. I think Livengood knows us media sorts have a short attention span, and he counts on us forgetting what the original question was in the first place, or counts on us basically throwing in the towel and moving onto something else. Usually he gets his wish.

But the good news: not much has gone wrong at Arizona, so taking care of the occasional brush fire has been easier than at many institutions. In the end it is a well-run athletic department. If it wasn't, the likes of Michigan, Minnesota and other universities to which we haven't been privy wouldn't be offering.

By staying, Livengood has also done a fine job in making Arizona a destination institution, as opposed to a stepping stone to greater things. And once one reaches that plateau, it must be considered among the best there is.

Much of that credit goes to Livengood.

In April, Arizona governor Jane Hull petitioned the federal government for aid in preparation of a difficult fire season. Officials knew it was going to be a tough summer, and it was still worse than they could have imagined.

For those of you who don't live in-state, the now nearly 500,000 acre wildfire in the White Mountains has been nothing short of a tragic spectacle. Despite its daunting size, firefighters have done a marvelous job protecting communities. The battle lines in Show Low were telling. Last Sunday, fire information officer Jim Paxon, now something of a state icon, said it was inevitable the fire would reach Show Low, a community of 8,000 people, basically the hub of the area. Somehow, they stemmed the flow and spared Show Low and a series of smaller communities in the vicinity.

During the crisis, Governor Hull said, "Many of our friends are without homes." While small from a population standpoint, her statement hit home. I know four families who had to evacuate as a result of the merged blazes. Three of those four families still have homes, a testament to the efforts of the firefighters in Arizona's most spectacular, and ornery wildfire.

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