As soon as her introductory news conference wrapped up, new Penn State athletics director Sandy Barbour stepped out into Beaver Stadium, accompanied by university president Eric Barron and football coach James Franklin, and stood for a series of photos in which all three adopted Franklin's go-to photo-op pose, jabbing their index fingers in the air as if to say, "We're No. 1."
Seemed like the thing to do.
Barbour's goal, which she stated several times Saturday for emphasis, is to make Penn State No. 1 - at everything.
"We're going to aspire to win national championships in 31 sports," she said. "We're going to look at the conditions for success. What does it take to be successful in football? What does it take to be successful in the competitive environment in this conference and this country in men's basketball, in lacrosse, in field hockey, in wrestling, in fencing? We're going to get after winning a national championship in each and every one of those."
Barbour comes to Penn State after a decade as athletics director at California. During her tenure, the Golden Bears won 19 team national championships and finished in the top 10 of the Directors' Cup six times. The school also built a $153 million sports facility, the Simpson Student-Athlete High Performance Center, which opened in 2011. But there were difficult times, too. The school received criticism for low graduation rates and for its handling of a stadium reconstruction project.
The overall athletics program that Barbour will inherit when she takes over at Penn State on Aug. 18 is, from a competitive standpoint, as healthy as it's been at any point since the Sandusky scandal shook the school to its foundations in 2011. Nittany Lion teams won three national championships during the 2013-14 academic year - in wrestling, women's volleyball and fencing - and finished fifth in the Directors' Cup. Barbour, who previously served as deputy athletics director at Notre Dame and as athletics director at Tulane, characterized that performance as, essentially, a good start.
The Directors' Cup, she said, "is probably the very best indicator of comprehensive and department-wide success. And it's something we coveted at Cal. We finished third in 2011, the highest finish in their history.
"Stanford has won it 13, 14, 15 years in a row. We're going to go after taking it away from Stanford. We're going to look at what we need to do strategically to get that done. Because we've got the coaches, we've got the student-athletes, we've got the resources, we've got the know-how to do that."
Barbour was athletics director at Cal from 2004 through July 2014, when the university said a "change in leadership" was needed in the athletics department. The change occurred after Cal's Academic Progress Rate, which the NCAA uses to determine postseason eligibility, dropped to 935 overall for a four-year period ending in the 2011-12 academic year. A score less than 930 can result in sanctions.
In the five major conferences - Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 - only Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and North Carolina had lower APR scores. Additionally, the program had a graduation rate of 48 percent. The numbers were particularly troublesome because of Cal's academic reputation; when the 2011-12 APR report was released, it had just been named the country's top public university by U.S. News and World Report for the 16th consecutive year.
Barron said he contacted Cal chancellor Nicholas Dirks and came away reassured that the problems with the school's graduation rates were not due to Barbour's leadership but to budget cuts that impacted student-athlete academic support programs. "One of the things he mentioned to me was that Sandy viewed this as unacceptable and pushed hard for a report in the university that was focused on the 'student' part of the student-athlete; the report that is going to come out earlier this fall," Barron said. "I asked him if there was any issue in there with respect to Sandy, he said quite the opposite, and she is a champion for the student-athlete. The university perhaps should have listened to her more closely and they would have been more successful."
The team's APR improved 46 points to 969 for the 2012-13 season, something Barbour attributed to what the Contra Costa Times summed up as "changes in the support structure and academic culture within the athletic department."
Barbour fired Jeff Telford, who coached the football team for 11 seasons, after a 3-9 season in 2012, two days after the season ended with a 62-14 loss to Oregon State. Telford told the Contra-Costa Times that he believed the football team's poor graduation rate factored into the decision but that the problem was not football players flunking out. He told the newspaper many left after their senior season and did not return to finish their degrees.
In a letter to donors and season-ticket holders, Barbour wrote of the firing that during a conversation with Telford, "it became evident that there was not a clear, direct or expeditious path to reversing worrisome trends. … It is imperative that Cal football be recognized as a leader in academic accomplishment, competitive success and community engagement."
Telford's replacement, Sonny Dykes, posted a 1-13 record last season. The team's overall GPA for the spring 2013 semester, however, improved from 2.44 under Telford to 2.74, the team's highest in five years, and its summer 2013 GPA increased again to 2.84, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
During this period, the crisis in California's state budget led to sharp decreases in funding for higher education.
Cal spent more money than any school in the history of higher athletics, the San Jose Mercury News determined, on facility upgrades. Part of the $474 million total was to seismically retrofit the football stadium, a step that the university's Board of Regents demanded and the chancellor said was needed to "address significant life safety issues."
The initial project, approved in March 2010, was for $321 million, included modernization of facilities and improvements in disabled access, and was funded by an Endowment Seating Program, which provided up to 50-year rights to about 3,000 seats - about 5 percent of the stadium - between the 30-yard lines. Payments could be spread out over a period of time, like a mortgage, but participants could drop out at any time without penalty.
The program launched in 2008, and initial sales were "less than ideal because of the economic climate," Barbour said at the time. When the plan was announced, the regents stressed that no state money would be used.
The goal was to raise $270 million by the summer of 2013, but the Wall Street Journal reported in March 2012 that the school had "collected $31 million in cash… and secured another $113 million in long-term seat agreements, the majority of which will be paid over 30 years and are nonbinding." The story noted research that showed Cal's athletic department had needed more than $88 million in campus funds to "stay solvent" from 2003 to 2011, although a Cal official said the figure didn't include donations. The same official, vice chancellor John Wilton, told the WSJ that under most projections, the school wouldn't need to use state money for years. Barbour told the newspaper, "We're not asleep at the wheel here." (She also wrote a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education saying that the WSJ story relied on false information.)
The Wall Street Journal story also noted that California's budget crisis had caused a $650 million drop in funding to Cal and that tuition had increased 17 percent.
Stanford economics professor Roger Noll, an expert in stadium pricing who consulted with Cal when the plan was being developed, told the San Jose Mercury News in April 2012 that Cal's goals were "extremely ambitious," requiring it to raise three to five times the amount of schools like Texas and Michigan, which have stronger football traditions. Noll told the newspaper, "That seemed implausible."
Noll noted, as well, that Cal's debt on the $153 million Simpson Performance Center and the budget cuts constituted a "double whammy."
When Cal hired Barbour in 2004, the stadium renovation project was already on the school's radar; shortly after her hire, she told the Contra Costa Times the renovation was the "800-pound gorilla." At the time Barbour was an associate athletic director at Notre Dame, where she headed the facilities department and oversaw compliance, athletic training, and strength and conditioning. Prior to that, she had been the athletic director at Tulane from 1996 to 1999.
Barbour said on Saturday that she was proud that Cal was able to improve its infrastructure during her watch, despite the economic headwinds. "They were certainly great achievements, no doubt about it," she said. "That university had been talking about those projects, or some version thereof, for 30 years, and hadn't been able to get it done. So I'm very proud that it was our time and our team that got it done."
A Maryland native and a graduate of Wake Forest, Barbour said she was excited to return to the East Coast after a decade in the Bay Area. She will be the Big Ten's fifth-highest-paid AD with a base salary of $700,000, a $100,000 annual retention bonus and performance incentives tied to on- and off-field success. Although her exit from Cal was not as harmonious as she would have liked - "I stayed too long," she conceded - she is eager to get started at Penn State, especially given its perennially high level of fan engagement.
"The passion at Cal is incredible," Barbour said. "The difference between Penn State and Cal is that Penn State does it every minute of every day of every week of every year. It's constant and it's consistent. There's incredible passion at Cal, but it wanes a little bit sometimes, and at Penn State it's every day. … We're competitors, we want to win, and we need it every day, and we need support every day to get that done, and our student-athletes need to feel that every day, and that support exists at Penn State."
Lori Shontz contributed to this report.