Penn State took less risky path on AD

Penn State President Eric Barron, athletic director Sandy Barbour and football coach James Franklin. (Christopher Weddle/Centre Daily Times/AP)

When she makes her first coaching hire, there's no way new Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour can or will hire a Sandy Barbour.

Coaches who get pushed out at big-time schools rarely get hired the same year at bigger-time schools.

Athletic director, however, is a different job. Athletic director at Penn State in 2014 may still be a unique job. Hiring Barbour, who was let go earlier this year after a 10-year run at the University of California, suggests that no highly regarded AD at a school of reasonable size and strong ambition would go to Happy Valley.

Still digging out from the Sandusky scandal and the NCAA sanctions that buried the school, it seems Penn State had a choice: Take somebody who would need a learning curve, maybe a successful outside businessperson, or roll the dice in a different way, on someone available who has experience in charge in the trenches of big-time college sports.

Penn State actually chose the less risky path. This is no place for amateurs. (Unless you play, of course.) Given the box the university is still climbing out of, it is better to take someone who deeply understands the issues facing the school if she can learn from her own mistakes. Is she, in other words, a pro?

It seems three things happened at Cal that cost Barbour her job. The athletic department dug itself a deep fiscal hole mainly because of infrastructure costs that were approved way above Barbour's level. The football team's graduation rates were in shambles. And the football team stopped winning.

Cal ran up a staggering debt on stadium renovation and overall athletics infrastructure, reportedly $445 million as of a year ago. Again, infrastructure decisions are made at the highest levels. That alone didn't get Barbour displaced.

Maybe if Cal was occasionally beating Stanford and at least contending for Rose Bowl appearances, one of the nation's most academically prestigious state schools would have averted its eyes from a deep downward turn in graduation rates. But winning one football game in 2013 after seeing Cal's graduation rates fall to the very bottom of big-time football schools?

"She's tried hard all the time she's been here, but she's been over her head as a manager," University of California public-management professor Michael O'Hare told the San Francisco Chronicle when Barbour was pushed out. ". . . She's been tasked to get the athletic department back on a reasonable keel for years, and it hasn't happened."

New Penn State president Eric Barron suggested his research found Barbour was trying to be the solution on the academic front and the school should have listened to her more. No matter, Barbour owns the recent graduation rates of 44 percent for football and 38 percent for basketball. (Citing players who left early for the pros and didn't return to get degrees doesn't cut it.)

In making the hire, Barron now owns those figures, too. (In addition to all the personal baggage he brings from Florida State.) Assume nobody will get away with paying lip service to graduation rates at Penn State. The bet here is it will be a non-issue.

In Barbour's decade in charge, Cal also won 19 national team titles. Non-football sports seem in good hands here.

Of course, everyone knows how Barbour's tenure ultimately will be judged. How many seats will be filled at Beaver Stadium? What will her relationship with James Franklin be? Will the place be free of scandal? Penn State's new football coach will push for upgrades across the landscape, as all coaches do, and she'll obviously have to decide when to be his strong advocate and when to hold the line. Note that Cal had gone to bowl games in seven of her 10 years as AD before spiking down the last two seasons.

Barbour gets an all-time mulligan here, to negate the damning quote from the Cal professor, to prove she is a competent manager, to make a surprising hire look smart.