A ‘Heart Move’

Desireé Reed-Francois returns to the place that ‘extended a compassionate hand’ in a time of need.

Spring 2024
A photograph of a woman in a red blazer smiling and waving at student athletes

Arizona Athletics Director Desireé Reed-Francois

Photos: Arizona Athletics

As of Sept. 10, 1994, Desireé Reed-Francois ’97, a former collegiate rower, was a first semester law student at the University of Arizona. Her brother, Roman Reed, meanwhile, was a record-setting linebacker at Chabot College, a community college in Hayward, California.

Roman, on the cusp of breaking the state junior college record for tackles, had a game that day. And out on the field, everything changed. He wrapped up the opposing team’s running back, bringing him down to add another tackle to his total. Then, another player landed on his neck, snapping it.

In the aftermath of Roman’s injury, which left him paralyzed, Reed-Francois and her family faced “chaos and uncertainty,” she said Feb. 20 in the football press room at Arizona Stadium, in her first public remarks as director of Arizona Athletics. “The University of Arizona extended a compassionate hand, providing support when I needed it the most. I am forever grateful.”

“Now, during this challenging time,” she continued, “it’s my privilege and my duty to give back and help guide the athletic department forward.”

Indeed, Reed-Francois, the first female athletic director in school history, returns to Tucson as Arizona Athletics confronts adversities all its own, including — at the time of the press conference — a multimillion dollar budget deficit, part of larger financial challenges at the university. Beside her on the press room podium, University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins, who announced his resignation in April, noted that “this is a critical moment for Arizona Athletics. We need someone strong, someone with a national voice, someone with a track record of raising revenue, stewarding resources and providing strong financial oversight — someone unafraid to come in right now and help us.”

Reed-Francois, he emphasized, provides “exactly what we need right now.”

A photograph of a student athlete smiling and speaking with the athletics director

Reed-Francois and Grace Reeder

Formerly the director of athletics at the University of Missouri and UNLV, Reed-Francois becomes Arizona Athletics’ ninth director, replacing Dave Heeke. At Missouri, Reed-Francois helped secure the school’s largest-ever athletics donation, a $62 million gift made in February. Under her leadership, Mizzou Athletics also turned in a budget surplus for the first time in six years, and the football team ended 2023 in the nation’s top 10 despite a daunting SEC schedule.

A Mexican American and the daughter of an eighth-grade English teacher and a school secretary, Reed-Francois said at the press conference that sports have been at the center of her life since she was very young. “Athletics provided me an opportunity to compete, and it was OK,” she said, noting more than once that her favorite part of the job is working with student-athletes. “You weren’t judged because you were so competitive, in a negative way. You weren’t told not to compete; you were encouraged. And I loved it.”

Her return to campus also comes as Arizona Athletics prepares to join the Big 12 Conference next fall after 46 years in the Pac-12. Arizona currently competes in 22 varsity sports, a few more than average for a Big 12 program. But asked if she would consider cutting teams given the budget shortfall, Reed-Francois gave an emphatic “no.”

“We’re going to raise banners here. We’re going to cut down more nets, folks,” she said, referencing Arizona’s 1997 men’s basketball championship under former coach Lute Olson. “And while these are challenging times in collegiate athletics, you know what challenges bring: Challenges bring opportunities.”

Reed-Francois’ hiring comes alongside that of football coach Brent Brennan and the extension of current men’s basketball coach Tommy Lloyd’s contract. Robbins said that with the recent moves, “We are set for leadership, stability and momentum to continue to thrive,” also citing women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes, who led her team to the NCAA title game in 2021.

A photograph of a woman wearing sunglasses and smiling while walking down the steps of Old Main

The new AD, who said that she is “looking for selfless, smart, hard workers” with “low ego” and “high output and energy,” said that today’s athletic directors are effectively “CEOs of a $140 million company.”

“And so we need to treat the enterprise like that. It’s highly regulated. It’s highly scrutinized. But it also has an altruistic purpose of higher education, and we need to make sure that we continue to tether athletics to the academy,” she said.

Calling her choice to come here a “heart move” that “just felt right,” she also said that she hopes that soon, her standing as a female AD won’t prompt questions from reporters, because it will have been normalized. “I hope that my future granddaughter, when she is a successful CEO, that she is asked, ‘What is it like to be a successful CEO?’” she said. “Not, ‘What is it like to be a female CEO?’”

“Wildcat Nation,” Reed-Francois said at the close of her prepared remarks, “please know I will work very hard every single day to make you proud.”

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