‘I Was Built for This’: Diana Sabau Takes the Reins of the USU Athletic Department
Sabau brings a wealth of experience from leadership positions with the Big Ten conference and The Ohio State University
By Jeff Hunter ’96
Creating a sports strategy is nothing new for Utah State Director of Athletics Diana Sabau.
In the yearbook from her senior year at Kenmore East High School in Tonawanda, New York, then-Diana Heimiller is featured as a member of the school’s Girls Athletic Association. Dressed like someone in a classic John Hughes film from the ’80s — short hair, glasses, Swatch watch, and a sweater over the top of a shirt buttoned all the way up — the smiling Heimiller takes a break from writing at a table just long enough for the photographer to snap the black-and-white picture.
“Diana Heimiller writes up a game plan,” the photo caption states.
While she might have looked like Molly Ringwald’s best friend, Sabau grew up in western New York state playing basketball, soccer, softball, and running track. And in that photograph, she’s not wearing her most prized piece of apparel from that time period: a satin Buffalo Sabres Starter jacket.
“My godfather gave it to me I think when I was in high school, and that was such a big deal,” she recalls with a smile. “My mom actually gave it back to me recently because she still had it at home. But that was such a huge thing because not many girls back then had a jacket like that; that was more of a guy thing, right?
“But like, of course, I don’t listen to any sort of norms, or, you know, any pre-qualifiers. I just kind of do what I think is appropriate and right. So yeah, I had a Starter jacket back then. And it was cool for me.”
While it’s unlikely that having a vintage piece of clothing from an NHL hockey team got her the job at Utah State, it’s clear the search committee and new USU President Elizabeth Cantwell viewed Sabau as someone who will do what she thinks is “appropriate and right” in regard to the university’s 16 NCAA Division I athletic programs and 350-plus student-athletes.
Sabau, who most recently served as the Big Ten Conference’s deputy commissioner and chief sports officer, was officially tabbed as the first female athletic director in Utah State history on Aug. 7. Her hiring came at the end of a unique time in Aggie athletics triggered by the sudden resignation of then-athletic director John Hartwell on Nov. 1, 2022, following a seven-year tenure. Jerry Bovee, the deputy athletics director for external affairs, was immediately installed as interim athletic director, but when USU President Noelle Cockett announced three weeks later that she was stepping down on July 1, the hiring of a new AD was postponed until a new president could be hired.
Once Cantwell was officially installed as USU’s president on Aug. 1, search committee chairman Brian Steed — executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air — presented her with five candidates for the athletic director position. Cantwell said she made the decision that day, citing Sabau as the best person to head up Utah State’s athletic department at a time when college athletics around the country are in a state of uncertainty due to recent changes in conference affiliation, the transfer portal and the monetization of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) by student-athletes.
“In my mind, she is the leader for this moment,” Cantwell declared at Sabau’s introductory press conference on Aug. 10. “There are many challenges that await her and await us. All you have to do is look at conference realignment to know that we are at a very interesting moment in history. It’s not just us, it’s everyone.
“But she has the skills. She has the experience. I know a lot of us have been looking forward to this announcement, and I’m really proud that who we are and what we represent as Aggie athletics has attracted someone like Diana Sabau.”
At the time of her interview with Utah State magazine, Sabau was just over two months into her tenure as the athletic director, the first time she’s served as the head of a collegiate athletic department. However, prior to relocating to Chicago to work for the Big Ten in 2021, Sabau spent more than two decades working in the athletic department at The Ohio State University, leaving with the title of senior deputy athletics director under esteemed AD Gene Smith.
And Sabau — who spent four years at Ohio State as sports administrator for the vaunted Buckeyes football program — made sure she hit the ground running as soon as she got the ball in Logan.
“The department has been hungry for leadership, I believe. And for me, it’s been exciting,” Sabau says. “I run at a fast pace, and I don’t think a lot of people are used to that. And so, they’re figuring that out.”
Part of that pace has been attending as many Aggie athletic events as possible. Some of her early highlights during her inaugural autumn at the helm being the Aggie women’s soccer team’s upset of top-ranked BYU (and subsequent NCAA Tournament berth), and the Utah State women’s volleyball team’s historic season that saw the Aggies win their third straight Mountain West regular-season title by five matches.
After spending the last couple of years in the Big Ten office, Sabau says she’s grateful to once again be able to spend more person-to-person time with student-athletes.
“It made me realize that I love being back on a campus and love talking to coaches and administrators and being a part of the student-athlete process,” she explains. “I went to the Big Ten because I wanted to learn more about governance and about the conference structure, so I could have a complete set of skills. … And working at the Big Ten really helped fill some blind spots for me.
“… I really didn’t expect to leave the Big Ten so quickly, but then this opportunity presented itself,” Sabau continues. “I wasn’t even looking for it, and I wasn’t expecting it. And when it came to me, I kind of paused at first because I didn’t know if the timing was right. But after doing some research and talking to some others who have sat in this chair or had been at Utah State, I learned a little bit more about Logan and Cache Valley and committed to the search process.”
Sabau openly acknowledges that she had never even been to the state of Utah and knew little about Utah State University before that process began, other than being on the other side of the 12th-seeded Aggies’ upset of fifth-seeded Ohio State in the 2001 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. But she views coming without prior knowledge as an “asset because I can bring a different perspective and a different viewpoint.”
However, she points out that Cache Valley winters won’t be a complete shock because she is very familiar with cold weather and lots of snow thanks to growing up in western New York State. The oldest of Ken and Jan Heimiller’s four children, Sabau was raised just north of Buffalo in a blue-collar household that loved pretty much any collegiate or professional team from New York.
“I think I was like my father’s son for a long time because I was the oldest and I loved everything sports,” Sabau says. “We did everything sports together. We would watch games together, and he would teach me offenses or different schemes. And that really got me into athletics, more than just participating in sports.”
Although young Diana did that, as well — “You name it, I played it,” she insists — an athletic scholarship wasn’t quite within her reach after high school. That led to her applying for every possible academic scholarship to scrape together the necessary funds to attend St. Bonaventure University, a Catholic college in southwestern New York. Sabau credits athletics with providing the work ethic and goal-based determination to complete a bachelor’s degree at St. Bonaventure, and to that end, she took pre-law classes with the idea of becoming a sports agent.
“But I worked at a law firm during the summers, and I hated it,” Sabau says. “It just didn’t really feel the vibe of it. So, my dad asked me, ‘Well, what are going to go do then?’”
Her response was to start applying for jobs in athletics at colleges across the country, eventually securing an opportunity at Ohio State in Columbus. So, working odd hours for little pay, often when other people are enjoying themselves, suddenly became her life.
“I was making $12,000, so do the math,” Sabau notes with a grin. “My mom would call and ask me if I needed money because she could see that I only had $14 in my checking account. I didn’t want her to send me money because I didn’t want my dad to find out. But she would help me out from time to time.
“But I was just willing to do whatever it took because I really wanted to be a part of the enterprise of intercollegiate athletics. I don’t know. I just feel like I was built for this. I was made for this. And it’s always been really important to me.”
In addition to climbing the ladder at Ohio State, Sabau first encountered her husband, Jamie, at a Buckeyes’ football game. He was photographing the contest, while she was an intern handing out rosters to the media. “We met through sports, which is really appropriate for both of us,” Diana says of Jamie, who has shot for various media organizations such as Getty Images and USA Today, as well as serving as team photographer for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Sabaus have two children. Their son, Tanner, grew up playing hockey and is close to completing a master’s in aerospace engineering at Ohio State, while their daughter, Camille, is playing soccer and running cross country during her senior year of high school.
“I cherish the special bond we have as a family, and Jamie’s my best partner in life — I couldn’t be more thankful,” Sabau says. “[Jamie’s] worn a lot of different hats in our family. He’s the dad who’s always there. Which has afforded me the opportunity to go out and grind and do what I need to do, which usually means cheering on other people’s children and not my own. But in this role in college athletics, you’re the guardian of someone’s most prized possession, and that’s their child. And so, I take that very seriously.”
As part of her new family at Utah State, Sabau says she’s grateful for the relationship she is developing with the head of the university. Because of the unusual timing, Sabau’s introductory press conference on Aug. 7, practically served as Cantwell’s re-introduction since she returned to complete her former role at the University of Arizona after being announced as USU’s next president on May 19.
That means the two leaders have gone through similar experiences the last few months as they navigate the challenge of taking on new positions in an unfamiliar part of the country.
“I’m tremendously thankful for her bold innovation, for her trust in me, and for obviously selecting me,” Sabau says of Cantwell. “We’ve had regular calls and meetings, and it’s clear that she’s really passionate about college athletics and the intercollegiate enterprise that we’re in. And I’m so thankful for that because I don’t have to teach her a lot because she knows so much, and she brings a background in state institutions, large, bold programs and managing millions of dollars in research.
“So, she has a really big viewpoint of how we can accomplish more, and I think it’s something that Utah State hasn’t seen.”
Asked if she’s ever felt “overwhelmed” by the predicament of moving across the country to a new institution and steering the Utah State athletic department through a complicated period of time in collegiate athletics, Sabau quickly proclaims: “No. Not at all.”
“It makes me excited. It gives me energy,” she insists. “I came here because I really believe Utah State University athletics has a stable foundation, but I’m not content to just keep on keeping on. We need to keep elevating and growing, even though the times are challenging right now in college athletics.
“… But that’s energizing to me because I’m an overly creative person, and if you give me a problem, in a few hours we’ll have a really creative solution. So, I’ve told people in the community and some people nationally to just watch us grow because I do believe that we’re going to be a force.”