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BSD Interviews Sandy Barbour

At last week's DC stop of the Coaches Caravan, I sat down one-on-one with Penn State's athletic director, Sandy Barbour, nine months into her tenure at PSU. We talked facilities, what her goals are, basketball, and most importantly--which coach she'd want to sit down and drink with.

Apparently there has been no photos of Sandy taken by USA Today or Getty in PSU gear the past 9 months.
Apparently there has been no photos of Sandy taken by USA Today or Getty in PSU gear the past 9 months.
Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

BSD: What kind of advice would you have given yourself nine months ago when you accepted the position as Penn State's athletic director?

It was advice that I got from James [Franklin], that I got from Eric Barron, similar to maybe how they had approached their--return, in Eric's case--introduction to Penn State in James' case. It was listening, knowing and acknowledging up front that I've got a lot to learn. And I remember saying, over and over again, "I've got something to learn from everyone." And that we need to do a lot of listening. I knew I was going into an organization that is...Penn State and Penn State athletics and Penn State football are very mature, tradition laden, successful entities and there's so much good here and I need to make sure that I understand that, understand how we got there, what the underpinnings of that are, how we maintain it, how we feed it, how we nurture it, and then what things we need to be better at and what things we can do better. And I've definitely been listening to folks.

I've been saying in my remarks [at the Caravan] that no one gets to tell people that 'you should value this [thing],' 'you should value this opportunity'--you get to tell us what makes you feel good. What do you value? What makes you connect  with Penn State, connect with Penn State athletics? And then we build our programs and our offerings around that. So, I think the advice is about listening, and it's hard--this is a big program with a lot of moving parts, and a lot of success, a lot of compassion, and you can't learn it overnight. You can walk in and say, I understand it in general, now I need to deep dive and understand the particulars but now, nine months in, I don't know it all. There's no way. I've learned a lot. I've learned a lot from listening, I've learned a lot from making some mistakes.

As evidence of that asking for insight was your announcement that you're leaving it up to the fans to vote on the white out game and the white out t-shirt. Obviously, every year, fans vote on the shirt--that's not new, but the voting on the game is a new initiative. What brought that about?

I think it's this concept of "we want to hear it". Let's solicit our fans' opinions to assist us in choosing that game. And I think there's so many ways we can do it. Some of it is very public, like an opinion poll. Some of it is questionnaires, some of it is focus groups, some of it's taking advantage of opportunities like the caravan to listen to people. Some of it is just people are going to tell us--give us opinions about what is important to them. So I think it's that concept and, frankly, that promise to our fans that that's how we're going to operate, and I just think if we want to provide value, if we want to maintain and continue to stoke that passion...the most important part of that is that connection and it's so impressive at Penn State, then we've got to do that. We've got to listen. We've got to ask, and we've got to listen.

Are there any more long term vs short term goals in place? Can you break any for me?

I don't know that we can break any. We've talked about the strategic plan and there's no doubt that out of that strategic plan will come some very clear, strategic imperatives and from those will come initiatives. We know that facilities are an absolute key. We are in the process of securing a facilities master plan process that I think is going to lead us to some really exciting progress on a facilities front, as I've said. We know that the renovation upgrade of Lasch is a part of that--we've let that get a little bit out up front. But what are the other moving pieces? We think we know them, maybe, sport by sport, but where do they belong, and what do they consist of? And then once we define that, what's it going to cost us and how do we do that? Is it some combination of philanthropy and athletic department resources? Is it all philanthropy? Is it some other kind of commercial revenue? That's all to come, and I think a really exciting opportunity for Penn State.

On that, we're one of the few outlets that follows Penn State men's basketball very intently [Barbour gets visibly excited, and gives me two thumbs up]. Penn State men's basketball makes money, obviously, but it's not that well known outside of many die-hards--

And my question is, why not? Why not us?

Exactly! Well, we saw that there were some plans to rebrand some of the Bryce Jordan Center. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Those are in the very, very early stages, but you know that's where our men's and women's basketball teams play, and it should look like and feel like Penn State basketball just like any of our other facilities do. So that's a part of it. The BJC, because it's a multi-purpose facility for the University run by business auxiliary services, it has some challenges from a basketball standpoint because it's not strictly a basketball [arena] but there are some things we can do to increase that and one of them--very simply--is to make it look like, feel like, a little bit more of our home. So we can certainly start there.

We also were really happy to see your announcement of Pat Chambers being "your guy" because a lot of us are very...I've had the opportunity to interview Pat one-on-one, and he's very motivating, to say the least.

He's very motivating. I think he's an outstanding coach. Most importantly, for me, he shares our values in terms of the students in our programs and their development inside and outside of basketball being the number one priority. And if we do all of those things the basketball part happens. And also, I was so impressed through the course of this season--obviously, there were very difficult parts of that season, and it would have been relatively easy for that team to have kind of lost itself a little bit. And Pat never lost that team. Those kids would run through a brick wall for him.

I probably would run through a brick wall for him, and I'm probably not alone. Which coach you've met at Penn State, who is your favorite? I know it's like picking one of your children, but I'm not talking as a coach, I'm talking about sitting down and have a beer with. Tell me it's Cael Sanderson, I know he doesn't drink...

That doesn't mean I wouldn't want to sit down and have a beer with Cael! I'll have the beer. He can just talk. [laughs] You know, you can't answer that question. It's the way I answer the "which is my favorite sport", you know? You get so passionate once you get to know the teams, the student athletes. If Penn State had varsity tiddly winks, I'd enjoy watching varsity tiddly winks because you know the stories, you know the student athletes, you've met their families or interacted with their families. Then it almost doesn't become about the sport, it becomes about them. From a coaching standpoint, probably my biggest challenge this year is there are so many things I want to do. I want to do it all once.

I'm sure right now you wish you were out in California with the men's volleyball team [who went on to lose to Hawaii in the NCAA semifinals :( ]

Well, I'm going to be. They've got to win tomorrow night, and I will hop on a plane first thing Friday morning and head out. But there's so many--and again, this is our strength and my weakness this first year--so many opportunities. So much at Penn State that are opportunities for athletics to partner with different entities on campus, we haven't scratched the surface of that. I believe that we're off to a good start in terms of our coaches trusting the direction we're headed in, that our values align. Penn State brought us all here, so I think there's a good chance that the values are going to align. But I certainly look forward to the opportunity to spend more time both in strategizing in how we move the programs forward and how we provide better and more opportunities, conditions for success for our student athletes.

But also getting to know our coaches. Head coaches AND assistant coaches, and staff and administrators; getting to know them personally. I absolutely subscribe to James' thoughts around the better you know somebody, when you've developed a relationship with them, when you develop a trust with them, mistakes are gonna happen. And it's the whole "Simon cynic" concept about people don't care what you do, they care why you did it, and if you've gotten to know them a little bit, they're going to understand the why, and might excuse the what if it's a little off-center. But that takes time. And I wish I'd had more time up to this point; we can certainly argue that I needed to take more time, and spend it here, or spend it here, or spend it here, but you only get one first year, and there really isn't any aspect of the enterprise you can ignore so that you can spend deeper time over here. And so I hope that people will be somewhat patient in that I absolutely want to invest in relationships, and that over the course of time that's absolutely going to happen. Particularly with our staff and our coaches.

Thanks to Sandy for answering our questions! What do you, BSD readers, think of the answers that the AD provided? Sound off in the comments.