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Penn State Athletics: Is Barron's Climate Right for a New Athletic Director?

by on June 15, 2014 8:10 PM

Last June, Eric Barron was searching for a new athletic director.

According to the Chicago Tribune, he’s at it again.

There's one very big difference this time around:

In June 2013, Barron was president of Florida State University. Now, Barron is 34 days into his tenure as Penn State’s 18th president.

And if Barron is, indeed, actively searching for a new PSU AD, that could possibly mean good things for Penn State’s hopes of further reductions of its NCAA sanctions.

According to the Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein on Sunday, Penn State has set its sights on Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips to replace its current AD, Dave Joyner. His report says:

Penn State has interest in hiring Jim Phillips to be its next athletic director, two industry sources told the Tribune, but few believe Phillips would leave Northwestern if he’s offered the job.

One source said not to dismiss the possibility, given that Penn State is likely to offer its top choice in excess of $1 million per year. Phillips’ annual compensation package at Northwestern is believed to be around $750,000.

Greenstein is connected: He covers Northwestern and Big Ten football for the Trib, is a regular on the Big Ten Network and a graduate of Northwestern. So it would appear he knows what he’s talking about.

BARRON'S NEW AD AT FSU

Given Barron’s recent history as president at Florida State, it is not surprising that he is acting quickly.

Last June 5, Barron fired the FSU athletic director, Randy Spetman. And just nine weeks later, he introduced Stan Wilcox as Spetman’s successor. Wilcox is a former collegiate athlete (basketball, Notre Dame), has a law degree, worked at the conference level and understood the NCAA (associate commissioner of the Big East, where he was the league rep to the NCAA) and was deputy athletics director at both Duke and Notre Dame. At Duke, among other things, Wilcox oversaw football, marketing and ticketing.

Great hire, right?

For the search at Florida State, Barron used an executive search company as well as an internal FSU committee. You have to figure that Barron not only learned a thing or two from that search, but his team probably unearthed a few candidates that would be good for the Penn State job as well.

It was a matter of time until Barron started searching for a new Penn State athletic director, anyway. More than a year before he arrived, Old Main indicated that Joyner’s time would be limited.

Joyner is a former board of trustees member who was named acting athletic director in November 2011 in the midst of the Sandusky scandal, after longtime AD Tim Curley stepped aside. Joyner was given the AD title by former Penn State president Rodney Erickson on Jan. 21, 2013. The Penn State news release announcing the change noted that, “… Erickson has named David M. Joyner as director of Intercollegiate Athletics through the remainder of Erickson's term of office, at which time a national search will be conducted.”

Fast forward to late May 2014. That’s when Barron – just two weeks into his new job -- told the Pittsburgh Tribune that he “would have to be convinced not to follow through” on the plans of Erickson, when it came to personnel decisions, like hiring a successor to Dave Joyner.

Erickson’s last day as PSU’s president was May 11. So, if Greenstein is correct, the national search is already being conducted – if only informally, with feelers being extended via back channels.

THE DOLLARS AND SENSE

Joyner makes $396,000 a year – the lowest salary among the 14 Big Ten athletic directors. That’s about half of what Greenstein reported that Phillips makes. How that does compare across the country and in the Big Ten Conference?

-- According to USA Today, in 2013 David Williams of Vanderbilt was the highest paid college athletic director in the United States, with an annual salary of $3,239,678. (That's right, he's James Franklin's old boss and mentor.)

-- Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com reported that in 2013, Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez was the Big Ten’s highest-paid AD at $1.23 million annually, followed by former Alvarez assistant Shawn Eichorst of Nebraska ($1.123 million) and Ohio State’s Gene Smith ($1.099 million).

There is one school of thought that says Penn State will wait to name a new athletic director until after George Mitchell -- named by the NCAA as the independent “integrity monitor” of Penn State’s efforts to comply with the Freeh Report -- makes his next report at the end of the summer. That would be the earliest the NCAA would announce any additional reduction in sanctions. Right now, Penn State is not eligible for postseason play until 2016 and is still operating under a reduction in scholarships.

Although it’s not publicly known whether replacing Joyner before then would help or hurt Penn State’s hopes for additional sanction reductions, you have to think that Barron has already checked in with Mitchell and the NCAA about that.

So if Barron does hire a new athletic director before Mitchell’s next report – especially a squeaky-clean, experienced hire with serious academic cred like Phillips – it will likely be a move that has been certainly shared with, if not tacitly approved by, the NCAA.

Phillips would fit the bill. His resume includes a doctorate in educational administration from Tennessee and a successful term at Notre Dame as associate director of athletics and senior associate director of athletics for external affairs. (Hey, ND roots -- just like Wilcox!)

That Phillips' name is being floated around should serve ample notice that Barron – a longtime national leader in the field of atmospheric sciences  – is ready for a change in climate.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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