PSU AD Barbour faces monster task
From her dad, Henry, (who went by “Hank”), Anne Saunders — “Sandy” — Barbour got her middle name.
From Hank, Barbour also got a love of the Colts (she cried her eyes out at age 24 when the team packed up and moved in the middle of the night from Baltimore to Indianapolis), a passion for baseball (the Baltimore Orioles, of course) and football.
Hank, a former Navy pilot, was a separate man to Barbour than he was to her sisters. A 12-year age difference between she and her sisters as well as a heavy military travel schedule for Hank lent to that, and by the time Barbour came around, Hank — “not a lick of hair on his head,” cheeks bookended by huge dimples and bigger sideburns — was around more too.
“(When my sisters were growing up), it was just not cool to have a father take one of his daughters under his wing and make them a baseball fan or a football fan,” Barbour said, on a chilly Thursday morning in her well-adorned office. “By the time I came along, I guess maybe it was a little cooler, and maybe he was like ‘To heck with it, she’s gonna be my sidekick.’ ”
A large, mostly empty cup of what looked to be iced green tea sat across from her on a coaster on a large, deeply polished wooden table. Next to her, her phone buzzed almost every other minute as emails flurried in, but she didn’t once interrupt to check it. I offered to put my own iced coffee on a coaster to avoid marking the table; she shot me her signature sharp half-grin and waved her hand, saying it didn’t matter.
“Probably one thing I’ll always remember when he was on the ship, he was the Commanding Officer. And his men absolutely adored him,” she said. “And they knew he had their backs, and that he wasn’t going to ask them to do anything he hadn’t already done himself or that he wasn’t willing to do. That was really impactful to me.”
From Hank, she learned something she has taken into her professional life, and woven into her mantra as an athletic director: Trust.
A monster project: Outside her ample, slightly-frosted office window, Barbour has a view of a steely behemoth Beaver Stadium. It doesn’t quite “sit” on the sprawling fields around it so much as it is actually part of the land itself, a multiple-decade landmark for a town and a fixture in history for its enormity and part played in the history of college football and growth of its culture.
It’s unfair to the hurdles Barbour has crossed already — moving up the ranks from coach to athletic director at various institutions during a time in sports that was much more cold and withholding to women than it is today, trying to repair a stadium that sat over a fault line, becoming one of Forbes’ “Most Powerful People in College Sports” — to call this stadium “her Everest,” but it is truly correct to characterize as mountainous and incredibly difficult the project she has undertaken less than two full years into her tenure as Penn State’s athletic director.
As a part of the roll out of the athletic department’s Facilities Master Plan, Barbour and her staff have hired Populous, a global architecture firm, to appraise the needs of the 18 facilities that house 31 NCAA sports at Penn State, including (but most definitely not limited to) Beaver Stadium.
Big facility with big problems: The stadium, which is the second-largest in the nation and the third-largest in the world, has seen seven renovations, the most recent of which came in 2001 (not counting the addition of new scoreboards in 2014), and despite its emotional prominence in Penn State’s culture, it’s not without problems.
“When you stand on the Beaver Stadium field at kickoff and there are 107,000 fans in the stands, there’s not a better place in college football,” said Phil Esten, deputy director of athletics at Penn State, when he addressed the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County at the end of January. “But if you go grab a hot dog or go to the restroom, you start to see the warts.”
Panic sets in: Because of the sport’s history at Penn State and the enormous crowds drawn to football weekends in State College, Beaver Stadium of course has received the most attention — and the most feedback — of any other facility in question.
Some panic from the community set in when certain reports leaned toward a total rebuild of Beaver Stadium.
More vocal and social media-prominent “excitement” from some occurred when Penn State sent out a survey with artistic renderings of other schools that have undertaken similar projects. Some thought that the renderings were projections of what would happen at Beaver Stadium.
Barbour shook her head.
“I knew to some degree that this would happen ... It’s about, ‘Would you be interested in this? Is this something that would be value-added to your experience? And how much would you be willing to pay to have this as a part of your experience?’
“None of that is real. And the whole idea of the survey is to find out what people are interested in. I’m not renovating Beaver Stadium for Sandy Barbour. We’re not going to do certain things in a renovated Beaver Stadium for what I like, or what I think is cool. We are going to do what our fan base says they want, and are willing to pay for.”
Esten mirrored the sentiment of renovation as well.
“Our expectation, to be frank, is to renovate. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said, while addressing the CBICC.
“We’ll do what you want,” said Barbour, of the community in general. “Because it’s for you.”
Love of athletics: The thing most noticeable about Barbour, whether she’s in sweats and a thick, deep blue coat at a Penn State football game or watching an away wrestling match or volleyball game on her tablet while attending a basketball game in the Bryce Jordan Center, is that she truly loves athletics and being present in students’ lives. She loves the inclusiveness of sports, and the opportunities they provide — and she’s not willing to settle into a strictly administrative role as many athletic directors across the country are wont to do. Instead, she stays present. She does not call Penn State Athletics a business, and she is adamant about that.
“I’m not naive,” she said. “There’s a lot of money involved, and there are a lot of business elements involved.
“But when we look at our core, we look at our ‘why,’ we look at our purpose, it’s about student-athletes, and it’s about education and it’s about opportunity for success. Do we have to employ business elements in order to be able to resource that? Absolutely. But I’m not going to call us a business.”
Lots of money at stake: There is much pressure in athletics because of the massive operating funds they utilize, however, and Barbour knows it.
Especially when it comes to a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-project that renovating Beaver Stadium and many of the rest of facilities that house Penn State’s sports to bring them up to par in both safety and accessibility to the student-athlete and fan would be.
Populous has recently worked on such projects, such as the renovation of Kyle Field at Texas A&M. That had a cost of $483,888,885 (though per the university, it came in $1.3 million under budget, a rarity in these cases).
The extensive renovations at Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium, also a project managed by Populous that began work in 2014, was originally projected to cost $225 million but spiked to $256 million within a year, per the Arizona Republic — and that project only entails work on the football stadium itself — one that saw many of the same issues as Beaver Stadium in terms of fan comfort. To help pay for costs, Arizona State football will raise ticket prices by 5.9 percent, which is already drawing some outcry based on a subpar 2015 season.
The budget: Penn State athletics has, per Barbour, a $120 million operating budget that does not tap into the funds of the university itself. Additionally, Penn State President Eric Barron announced plans for a six-year capital campaign, mirroring the one that closed in June 2014 after bringing in almost 2.2 billion from more than 600,000 donors and alumni.
The Big Ten Network, according to a 2014 report in The Journal and Courier, expects to pay 12 of its 14 schools $44.5 million from broadcast revenue via the conference’s distribution plan by 2017-18.
Additionally, Penn State Athletics is thought to receive $2 million per year from a contract with Nike, though the official details of that are hidden behind Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law.
Finally, according to the NCAA, Penn State’s fall sports season ranked within the top 10 in attendance in the nation in six sports: Football, men’s hockey, women’s hockey, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball.
Football not enough: At football games alone, the Nittany Lions, who finished the year at 7-6, averaged 99,799 fans per game, about a 2,000-fan drop from 2014, which averaged 101,623 — again, several rainy home games may have contributed to that — and finished the season ranked fifth in attendance behind Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Texas A&M and Tennessee.
Football brings in the highest revenue by sheer volume, but it won’t be enough, and Esten commented on the need for creative donations to occur when speaking to the CBICC, including private partnership opportunities like the State College Spikes Minor League affiliate has with Penn State baseball and Penn State Athletics.
Though the NHL has expressed interest in playing at Beaver Stadium, that would be obviously a long way from fruition. Currently, CBS Sports has reported that the Penguins will host the Flyers in an outdoor game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Many stakeholders: Penn State interacts with many, many stakeholders and donors on a regular basis, and Barbour said with the project at hand, listening to wants and needs of those stakeholders will take precedence, just as it has with fans and student-athletes.
“We don’t get to tell a season ticketholder or a corporate sponsor what they should value,” she said. “They get to tell us. Now, we live in a highly legislated and regulated environment ... . So we can’t always do the things we want to do.
“But I had somebody give me a great analogy. And they talked about the bowl in Beaver Stadium being gray. In most stadiums, the seats are the school colors or the team colors, but our fans bring the color.”
What has been especially important to Barbour has been the feedback of the fans and the community in regards to the beginnings of work by Populous on the Facilities Master Plan. The architecture and consulting firm is still in its surveying stages of the plan, the results of which are expected to be finished by July.
“I want to hear it all,” she said. “Right behind student-athletes and their experience, which again, is our ‘why,’ right behind that is the experience of our fans. Because without our fans, of course we don’t have this experience.”
After all, Barbour mostly wants fans, athletes, coaches and the entire community she’s grown to learn so much about in such a short time to know she has their backs — and their interests at heart — just like Hank taught her.