Sandy Barbour is all in when it comes to Penn State.
When it comes to her first year on the job, the athletic director is unambivalent about her commitment to the university. She spoke candidly Monday with the Centre Daily Times about the good, the bad and the the future.
She may have come from a diverse background of different colleges, serving time at Cal, Notre Dame, Tulane and more, but when she stepped on campus, Barbour added “We Are” to her vocabulary, turned her back on the old schools and cleaned out her closets. What extra Cal T-shirts and such that stowed away in her luggage were promptly donated to charity.
“I don’t even own anything red,” she said, meaning there will be no embarrassing appearances in Ohio State, Rutgers or Maryland colors.
And she is serious about that, even at the pro level, last month tweeting #NoRedTeams to Nittany Lions in the NFL draft.
Her first two semesters took her from a football team still playing with one hand tied behind its back by NCAA sanctions in August to the thrill of an oh-no-they-didn’t bowl win in December.
She saw an uncharacteristically disappointing season for women’s basketball and a men’s season that saw social media excitement (#whynotus) and calls for changes at the top, but she stands strong with both coaches, calling keeping men’s coach Patrick Chambers “one of my better moves.”
“Those kids would have run through a brick wall for him,” Barbour said.
That kind of spirit was a revelation for her. She says the biggest surprise of her first year was a football game day. Despite years in college athletics, and visits to many other storied venues, she had never been in Beaver Stadium until she entered as AD.
“I thought I knew what it was like,” she said, then shook her head. “You just don’t know.”
Players, students, grads and locals all brought one thing to the experience that sticks with her: passion.
“That connection that Penn Staters have, in particular the alumni but also those who adopt Penn State as their own, should be the envy of all colleges and universities in the country,” Barbour said.
Even her other schools can’t measure up. “I’ve been great places. Notre Dame is no slouch at all, but it’s not the same feeling,” she said.
That passion has been a double-edged sword, though, biting back at Barbour for unpopular decisions and missteps, like a tweet about unauthorized 409 stickers on hockey helmets after the NCAA lawsuit settlement restored those erased wins in January.
“I learned a ton from that,” she said.
For one, she learned that complex issues are best not handled in 140 characters or less. For another, she realized that sometimes a number is more than it seems.
“To the outside world, 409 is just a number and it represents football wins,” Barbour said. “I knew then, but I know even more now, that 409 is a lot more to this community.”
And while some people may hem and haw around mentioning longtime football coach Joe Paterno, walking a tightrope of concession to one camp while not offending another in a post-Sandusky scandal Penn State, Barbour is to the point.
“There will never be another Joe Paterno,” she said. She called his successor Bill O’Brien the right man to lead the Lions through the next two years, after the legendary coach’s November 2011 dismissal and January 2012 death.
“Now I think James (Franklin) is the perfect fit to move forward,” Barbour said, reiterating “he’s not trying to be Coach Paterno” but that he, like all of her coaches, is building on a culture of specific values and philosophy that seems special to Penn State.
She credits those values with being part of one aspect of student athletics Penn State has always prided itself on, no matter who ran the show: academics.
“The standards that Penn State has set for what is acceptable and unacceptable are key,” Barbour said.
Her department’s expectations of the 800 players is simple, that they will all graduate, and 101 did that this weekend. What she loves is that her staff are not alone in expecting that performance off the field.
“The community is involved. They expect that same academic success,” she said, and then poked fun at those who say Penn State’s fan base is cultlike.
“If that’s a cult, I’ll take it.”
From here, she plans to build on her first year with a strategic plan and facilities review that will help all of the athletics programs develop and grow.
And what would she like her own tenure at Penn State to say to future fans and athletes?
“That I helped to continue the Penn State legacy,” Barbour said. “That’s what it’s all about. Success with honor. Excellence everywhere.”