Surprise followed Penn State’s Saturday announcement that Sandy Barbour would replace David Joyner and become the first female athletic director in school history. There were different candidates rumored to be in the lead for the position, including Northwestern’s Jim Phillips, NC State’s Debbie Yow, and even Penn State’s own Todd Blackledge, but Barbour impressed the search committee and earned the job.
So, who is Sandy Barbour?
This breakdown will help Penn State fans understand more about Barbour, her background and history, her mixed bag of a tenure at Cal, and what this means for Penn State.
Barbour was born into a military family on Dec. 2, 1959. She was the captain of the field hockey team at Wake Forest, where she graduated in 1981. She also earned an M.S. in sports management from Massachusetts in 1983 and an MBA from Northwestern in 1991. Before she earned her MBA, Barbour served as an assistant coach on the Northwestern field hockey and lacrosse teams, and won a conference championship in field hockey in 1985. She also worked in similar roles at UMass.
Barbour worked as an athletic administrative role at Northwestern, was the athletic director at Tulane, and the deputy director of athletics at Notre Dame before taking the Cal athletic director job. She’s the first female athletic director in Penn State history, and joins Rutgers’ Julie Hermann as the only female athletic directors in the Big Ten. She resigned from the Cal job in June.
Per her contract, she will make $700,000 a year as the leader of the Nittany Lion athletic program, with a $100,000 retention bonus every year, and up to another $100,000 in potential bonuses.
At Cal, Barbour oversaw an athletic department which was, overall, relatively successful on the field during her 10 years as AD.
- In Barbour’s first year, the football team went 10-2 and finished the year ninth in the polls, but towards the end of her tenure, wins were harder to come by. The team finished 3-9 in 2012, and subsequently fired long-time coach Jeff Tedford. The 2013 season brought even less success for the Golden Bears, as the team went 1-11 and winless in conference play. All in all, the football team was 68-57 (41-47 Pac-10/Pac-12) throughout Barbour’s tenure. The horizon might not be promising, either, as Cal’s 2015 recruiting class is No. 70 in the nation.
- The Golden Bears women’s volleyball team experienced unprecedented success during her term as AD. The team made it to the program’s first Final Four in 2007, and again in 2010, but lost to the eventual national champion — Penn State — in both years.
- Men’s and women’s basketball also saw great accomplishments under Barbour. The men’s team has had a winning record in every season since 2007, won its first Pac-12 championship in 50 years in 2010, and has five NCAA tournament appearances to its name. The women’s team earned its first ever Final Four spot in 2013.
- The Olympic sports were extremely successful throughout Barbour’s 10-year tenure, winning 19 team national championships and 92 individual titles. The rugby team led the way with seven national titles, while men’s and women’s swimming and diving won a combined five titles.
Much has been made of Cal’s budget problems in the past day or so, but most of the problems stem from the financing of Memorial Stadium renovations. Here’s what happened:
In 2005, Cal announced intentions to renovate Memorial Stadium, the football team’s home since 1923. The athletic department originally planned to fund the project by offering 40- and 50-year rights to certain seats in the new stadium, the most expensive of which cost as much as $225,000. When the plans were finalized in 2009 and it came time to finance the project, Barbour and various other Cal officials told the faculty, the Regents, and some members of the public that up to 70 percent of the seat licenses were sold. The Regents, feeling secure with that figure and optimistic that the rest of the licenses would be sold by the June 2013 deadline, approved the financing plan and issued $321 million in bonds to finance the renovations.
The problem was, Cal hadn’t actually sold 70 percent of the licenses at that point, according to the Mercury News. Barbour and the Cal officials counted both purchases and “intent-to-purchase” orders towards the total, causing the data to be inflated. The intent-to-purchase orders were completely non-binding and could be opted out of at any time without penalty, which many buyers ended up doing in light of the football team’s lack of success. This lead to Cal announcing in May 2013 that only 64 percent of the seats had been officially sold, and that the athletic department had abandoned its goal of selling out before its deadline of June 2013.
The seat licensing campaign was over $120 million short of its $272 million long-term goal.
While this isn’t 100 percent Barbour’s fault, she certainly shares part of the blame. The seat-licensing funding plan wasn’t hers – according to Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, that blame goes to former vice chancellor Nathan Brostrom and former chancellor Robert Birgeneau – but she helped mislead the Regents and the public about the seat license sales. It may or may not have been intentional, but it happened. If the Regents knew the exact percentage of sales in 2009, would they have approved such a massive loan? Who knows.
Along with the football stadium renovations, the school went ahead with a plan to build a state-of-the-art training center for student-athletes on campus, at a price of $150 million. The training center will be funded mainly by private donations, but it was financed through the school. Barbour and the administration also planned to cut five varsity sports due to a reduced state budget, but an influx of private donations were able to save all of the programs. Under Barbour, Cal also inked the largest stadium naming rights deal in the country. Kabam will pay $18 million to have its name on the field for the next 15 years.
As of June 2013, the Cal athletic department was $445 million in debt.
When asked about Penn State’s financial stability and her plans to improve the athletic department, Barbour said she has “the ability to look at revenue generating opportunities.”
“We’ve done some really kind of cutting edge things, if you will, at Cal,” Barbour said. “We retooled and moved from an internally oriented department, we retooled with personnel and with approach to a revenue generating approach to create resources for the student experience.”
There’s no way around this one: The graduation rates at Cal were ghastly during Barbour’s tenure. For student-athletes that enrolled from 2003-2007, the football team ranked dead last among the Power Five conferences at 44 percent. The men’s basketball team also struggled, and finished last in the Pac-12 at 38 percent.
President Eric Barron handled concerns about Barbour’s involvement in the turnaround of those numbers during Saturday’s press conference, saying he spoke with Cal chancellor Nicholas Dirks about the subject. According to Barron, Dirks referred to Barbour as a “champion for the success of the students,” and that she was “putting considerable pressure to make sure that the situation improved.”
Barbour echoed those sentiments, saying that the graduation rates were “unacceptable.”
“I will tell you, I learned some things from that situation that will benefit Penn State,” Barbour said. “Our student-athletes will be students first. Penn State is incredibly proud of the academic performance of its students, and we will continue to be.”
“We are about students first,” she said. “That 85 percent [Penn State] graduation rate is going to go to 90.”
What does this mean for Penn State?
While this may not be the hire most fans were thinking of, it is no cause for panic. Here’s why:
- Unlike outgoing athletic director David Joyner, Barbour has experience leading athletic programs. While her tenure at Cal wasn’t spotless, she has 30 years of experience in athletic departments, and will hopefully be smart enough to learn from her mistakes.
- Penn State’s budget, while still not at full capacity due to lowered state appropriations and the NCAA sanctions, isn’t in nearly as bad of shape as Cal’s was when Barbour arrived. No sports are rumored to be on the chopping block, and Beaver Stadium shouldn’t need major renovations any time soon after the scoreboard project is finished.
- By all previous accounts from outlets that covered Cal, she genuinely cares about the students and student-athletes. She was a former player and coach, so she can see every perspective. In her own words: “[Student athletes] are the “why!” You are why I’m here, you are the why athletic departments exist, and I promise you, it will always be that way under my leadership.”
- Finally, the last hire that brought this much immediate criticism was Bill O’Brien. That choice turned out pretty darn well, if you ask me.
Reservations about the hire are fair, but so is giving Barbour a chance.