After 10 years in Northern California, Sandy Barbour found herself in Beaver Stadium on Saturday, being coached up by James Franklin on the proper hand signals to use when posing for a photograph.
Barbour, not even a month removed from being ousted as athletic director at Cal-Berkeley, had just been introduced as the new head of athletics at Penn State.
It was a situation even Barbour didn’t believe she’d be in.
“If I told you yes,” Barbour said, “you’d know I was lying to you.”
Penn State’s newest athletic director — the first woman in school history to hold the title — brings plenty of experience running a department at a major university but also a mixed reputation after being removed from the position at Cal.
Introducing his first major hire as Penn State president, Eric Barron called Barbour “the clear choice, the first choice of every single member of the screening committee.”
“You dream about the opportunity to lead a program like Penn State athletics,” Barbour said. “Why? Because it represents the opportunity to have it all.
“Every experience I’ve had in 33 years has led to this day. … I will give my best, and I expect the same in return from every aspect of our community.”
Barbour was introduced at Beaver Stadium shortly after the compensation committee of Penn State’s board of trustees approved her contract, which runs for five years at an annual salary of $700,000. That figure that makes her the fifth-highest paid athletic director in the 14-school Big Ten, according to Barron.
Additionally, Barbour can earn up to $200,000 in bonuses each year — a $100,000 retention bonus for remaining at the school each year and a maximum of $100,000 based on the department’s academic and athletic success.
Though she won’t officially take over for outgoing athletic director Dave Joyner until Aug. 18, Barbour will represent Penn State this week in Chicago for conference meetings during Big Ten media days.
Barbour, 54, fits the profile of an experienced athletic director from a major university that Barron said he was looking for. Her tenure at Cal, however, featured some unflattering numbers for the Bears football program on and off the field.
Ultimately, Barbour was removed from her position in late June, and her final day as a Cal administrator was July 15.
Barron said many of the problems at Cal were the result of “severe budget cuts” in the University of California system of schools.
In 2010, the athletic department had been prepared to cut four varsity sports outright and demote another to club status for financial reasons before a fundraising campaign helped spare them.
“Let’s look at it this way,” Barron said. “I can’t see anyone who’s gone through a severe budget problem that’s had to fix it that comes out the other end with more friends than they started with. It’s always the opposite.
“When you have those types of stresses and you have a chancellor that says to cut five sports — that doesn’t put you in a particularly good position. … Everybody took it on the chin.”
A Maryland native and graduate of Wake Forest who also holds advanced degrees from Northwestern and Massachusetts, Barbour served as deputy director of athletics at Notre Dame before taking the top athletics job at Cal in 2004. She also previously served as athletic director at Tulane.
She had been one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in the Pac-12 at the time, but Cal administrators were dismayed with the football team’s mediocre 44 percent graduation rate, the lowest figure for any team in the NCAA’s five major conferences.
“Unacceptable,” Barbour said. “I will tell you I learned some things from that situation that will benefit Penn State.”
Not helping matters, the Bears went 1-11 in 2013 under Sonny Dykes, whom Barbour hired to replace Jeff Tedford as head coach.
Barron said he personally called Cal chancellor Nicholas Dirks to ask about the sagging academic numbers and said that Dirks gave a vote of confidence to Barbour as someone who was working to turn those numbers around.
“It was an interesting conversation because basically he suggested that Sandy was a champion for the success of the students,” Barron said. “And she was actually putting considerable pressure to make sure that the situation improved. … I asked him if there was any issue in there with respect to Sandy. He said quite the opposite.
“The university, perhaps, should have listened to her more closely and they would have been more successful.”
In Barbour’s favor, Cal won 20 team national championships during Barbour’s tenure as the Bears’ Olympic sports did very well.
The Bears also saw a surge in men’s basketball following Barbour’s hire of former NBA and Stanford coach Mike Montgomery to lead the team. When Montgomery retired earlier this year, Cal and Barbour hired away Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin to replace him.
Barron also said Barbour’s experience running a multi-million dollar department was a considerable factor in her hiring. He also liked the fact that Barbour had a background as a basketball and field hockey player as an undergrad and as an assistant field hockey coach at Northwestern before climbing the ladder as an administrator.
The hiring of Barbour marks the first time since 1952 that Penn State brought in an athletic director with no ties to the school and its football program.
“I have something to learn from everyone,” Barbour said. “And we will figure out what our gaps are and what we need.”