Penn State AD Sandy Barbour 'very confident' in James Franklin's leadership moving forward
As rough as Penn State's 2020 football season was, athletic director Sandy Barbour is still beyond thankful that it occurred.
Yes, the revenue from the Nittany Lions being on TV for nine Saturdays likely plays a role in Barbour's happiness. But, just as importantly, head coach James Franklin's squad being the first of 31 Penn State teams to play a season amid the coronavirus pandemic gives the other 30 groups — all of which are competing this spring — a model to follow.
Penn State and Rutgers were the only two teams in the Big Ten able to play all nine of their games last season, and the Nittany Lions finished the year with only one positive COVID-19 test result.
"We learned that the mitigation protocols, the masking, the social distancing, the not gathering, that stuff works," Barbour told reporters Tuesday afternoon on a Zoom call. "Because those were the sacrifices that the young men in our football program made to have a full season and to be one of only two teams in the Big Ten to get all of their games in."
Barbour added that the other Nittany Lions programs also realized what can and what cannot get done "from a sports standpoint" over Zoom.
Now, as several Penn State teams have their seasons underway — and others are set to begin in the next month — other coaches on campus have reached out to Franklin for counsel on how to make it through an entire season.
"Thank goodness we got a football season in," Barbour said. "And thank goodness we had an opportunity to learn a lot from our probably largest and most complex sport."
Evaluation of Frankin in down year: Last season was far from ideal for Penn State — the Nittany Lions had a program-worst 0-5 start to the year and finished with a losing record for the first time since 2004.
Still, Barbour's faith in Franklin hasn't wavered. The Nittany Lions' eighth-year athletic director thinks the latter half of the season — when the team rallied to win four consecutive games — "is way more indicative" of the program than the rocky beginning it had to the year.
"Certainly our start was challenging and disturbing," Barbour said. "But we also have to remember the context of which it was in, in terms of the pandemic. And ultimately, everybody was going through that, so certainly the start was concerning. But I think that James and his staff certainly found a lot of answers."
Franklin won 11 games and took the Nittany Lions to New Year's Six bowls in three of the four seasons prior to 2020. He's compiled a 60-28 record over his seven seasons as head coach.
Though Barbour feels "very good" about the trajectory of Penn State's football program based upon the results she's seen in the past, she admitted that there are areas in need of improvement. She and Franklin are constantly looking at how the program measures up with other national powers, using categories like amount of financial resources, number of personnel and just overall success.
"I think — whether it's things that James has from a football side or that we do more holistically for the program and for the department — there are certainly things that we need to shore up," she said.
Overall, Barbour believes that the 2020 season was merely a bump in the road, rather than a preview of what's to come.
"I feel very confident about James' leadership, where our staff is and where our young men are right now," Barbour said. "And I'm looking forward to (the) 2021 (season)."
Will spring practice or Blue-White Game happen? Just last week, Franklin said he had received no word on if spring ball would happen for Penn State or other Big Ten programs.
On Tuesday, though, Barbour said that the Nittany Lions will have spring ball. But when asked if that news was official, she seemed to suggest that her statement was coming from a place of optimism rather than from any formal word from the conference.
"Just like with all of our sports, we're gonna continue to train and — if it's appropriate in a particular sport — compete," Barbour said. "... We're gonna continue to do that, unless the conditions change and it's not safe or healthy for us to do it. So, yeah, we're a go."
Unless conditions were to change for the worse in regards to the pandemic, Barbour doesn't envision Penn State not "going through a traditional spring practice."
As for the annual Blue-White Game, which usually is played in April but was canceled last year, Barbour said it's "too early to tell" if it'll take place this year.
Barbour added that if the game were to happen under current conditions with the virus, Penn State would be limited to only hosting 2,500 fans due to Pennsylvania's current requirements for events and gatherings. And if the Big Ten had purview over spring games, only families of players and staff members would be allowed to attend, as was the case for most of the 2020 season.
"We're gonna have to get a lot closer to what the time frame would be before we can really decide if we're gonna have a Blue-White Game, and/or what that might look like," Barbour said.
Managing financial challenges: Barbour also disclosed Tuesday that the net loss for Penn State's athletics department because of COVID-19 is approximately $20-25 million.
While that figure is far less than the $90 million net loss Barbour had projected prior to the 2020-21 season, it's still a sizable hit. But — regardless of the revenue lost or the lack of funds available for some of the Nittany Lions' facilities improvement projects — Barbour felt it was appropriate to allow Franklin to fire offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca after one season and hire offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
Penn State must now pay Yurcich — who was one of the richest assistants in college football last season as Texas' offensive coordinator — as well as pay the buyout on Ciarrocca's multi-year contract.
"(Franklin) did a lot of evaluating to make the decision that what was best for the long-term success of our football program was to make a change," Barbour said.
Barbour justified the choice by stating that success in football will provide the Nittany Lions' athletics department with "long-term financial stability and viability." Because of that, she said, investment in the football program will always be a high priority.
"Yes, we have some financial challenges because of COVID," Barbour said. "Those ramifications, it's still to be determined how long we might be dealing with those. But I also know that growing revenue is going to be a big part of the answer to any question or any way out of financial challenges.
"And certainly football sits at the top of that list."