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Penn State Football: At Florida State, Barron Fired A.D. and Waited-Out Scandal

by on February 17, 2014 1:20 AM

In his four years as president at Florida State, Eric Barron has had similar athletics-related challenges that he could soon face at Penn State:

-- A financially-strapped athletics department fighting to stay in the black.

-- An athletic director whose future is in question.

-- Dwindling home football attendance.

-- A legendary football coach who was recently fired, although not by Barron.

-- And a sexual assault scandal.

If Barron is named Penn State’s 18th president on Monday, he’ll be taking over the reins of a university with an annual budget of $4.47 billion. And it will be a university where a 2.3% portion of that budget is more visible than any other chunk.

That 2.3% comprises the $104 million Penn State athletic department. And in many ways, it appears Barron is well-suited to address some of its biggest challenges.

ATHLETIC DIRECTOR

Dave Joyner has served as Penn State’s athletic director since November 2011, succeeding Tim Curley. Departing Penn State president Rodney Erickson said Joyner’s job was safe while he was in charge, and Joyner has said numerous time that he'll stay in the position as long as he’s wanted.

Joyner’s fate is in Barron’s hands. Determining Joyner’s future may not be Job One for Barron, but given his history at Florida State no one should be surprised if he acts quickly and decisively.

Barron fired his athletic director, Randy Spetman, in June 2013. Spetman was already the A.D. when Barron took over as FSU president on Feb. 1, 2010. Over the next two years (2010-11), Florida State athletics lost more than $9.1 million. And that’s counting more than $14.4 million of student fees that went to support athletics. FSU athletics was definitely not self-supporting – it needed the university’s help to stay out of debt. Without those fees, FSU athletics would have been in the red. (At PSU, students pay myriad fees -- but none to support athletics.)

In Barron’s third year, 2012, Florida State athletics showed a profit of $9.3 million – although $7.8 million of that came from student fees. FSU’s 2013 athletics numbers show a smaller profit of $6.3 million, but again all of that and more are due to athletics fees paid by FSU students.

Still, based on numbers from the U.S. Dept. of Education, that’s a $25 million turnaround from losses to profits for Florida State athletics during Barron’s watch. Under Barron, Florida State athletics saw gross revenues jump from $74 million in 2010 to $100 million to 2012. But that number fell to $90.1 million in 2013. Barron saw the swing in fortunes coming – and acted.

In addition to Barron, Spetman had other critics, many because of his role in firing longtime football coach Bobby Bowden in 2009 and some who were upset that Florida State remained in the ACC during an intense period of conference realignment, especially with in-state rival Florida -- a member of the hated SEC.

In 2012, Barron extended Spetman’s contract by a year with no raise. On the eve of presenting his five-year strategic plan to FSU’s Board of Trustees on June 5, 2013, Spetman was removed from his A.D. role by Barron and given a lesser position until his contract expires this month.

At the time, Barron said he would look for an athletic director who would “take the program to the next level” and generate new revenue.

“You can’t find a program in this country that is not looking at the revenue side of the issue and how it is that you’re competing,” Barron said at the time, according to ESPN.com. “There’s a national trend of having very business-oriented people as well as truly athletic-oriented people. So we’re going to look for someone who is dynamic and looking down that road and at the top of their game.”

Barron’s next steps are telling:

1. -- Barron hired an executive search firm to supplement an internal committee. “In my view, it's very important to have that broad set of constituent advice,” Barron said at the start of the search. “I don’t believe anybody is wise enough, including myself, to look at candidates and say, ‘Oh, you’re it.’ So I intend to make sure we have a lot of advice with a committee structure.”

2. -- Barron acted swiftly. Exactly 63 days – nine weeks – later, Barron introduced Florida State’s new athletic director. His name? Stan Wilcox.

3. -- The new A.D. Barron hired was an experienced multiple threat: 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.

By getting Wilcox, it’s clear that Barron gets 21st century collegiate athletics.

FOOTBALL COACHING LEGEND

Barron was named Florida State’s president on Dec. 8, 2009. That was nowhere near the biggest news of transition on the Tallahassee campus that month. Or that year.

On Dec. 1, news broke that the 2009 season would be Bowden’s last as head coach of the Seminoles. With only a bowl game remaining, Bowden would finish his 34th season at Florida State as a six-time coach of the year and two-time national championship. He was also finished. Fired.

The Florida State president at the time and Barron’s predecessor, T.K. Wetherell, was a decades-old friend of Bowden's. Wetherell made the decision to force Bowden into retirement and promote Jimbo Fisher, who had been head-coach-in-waiting since 2007 (and formally announced as much in 2008).

Barron walked into a firestorm. The firing of Bowden created a deep schism in the FSU community, one that has taken years to heal. Bowden has returned to campus and he visited the Florida State locker room after the Seminoles beat Auburn to win the national championship last month.

Certainly, a BCS title helped bring the Florida State fans together, but having been at the eye of the FSU storm – a situation he didn’t cause but had to deal with – will certainly put Barron in good stead as the university’s official stance regarding Joe Paterno continues to shift. Barron, who was at Penn State from 1986 to 2006, no doubt understands Paterno’s place in Penn State history. Now, he must take that, put it in the context of the past 28 months and determine which direction to lead.

SCANDAL

Barron is well-versed in dealing with a national scandal involving a football icon.

In November 2013, the Florida State Attorney’s Office said it was re-opening an investigation into a sexual complaint originally filed against FSU starting quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston had stated that he had consensual sex with the woman who filed the charges, but denied any wrongdoing. Three weeks later, the state attorney said that upon the conclusion of his investigation, no charges were going to be filed.

At that time, Barron issued this statement:

“Florida State University has a primary purpose to educate young people while enabling them to hone their skills and develop their gifts so they can become productive citizens. It is also our responsibility to treat students fairly and provide appropriate support.

“Recent weeks have provided a painful lesson, as we have witnessed harmful speculation and inappropriate conjecture about this situation and the individuals involved. As a result, we have all been hurt.

“A respect for the principle of due process is essential to the integrity of our community. Our commitment to each and every one of our students is unwavering and will remain our priority.”

Eric J. Barron
President, Florida State University

A little more than a week later, Winston won the Heisman Trophy. It does not appear that the case is over, at least in the civil courts. Winston’s accuser has hired two high-profile attorneys who have handled federal lawsuits involving sexual assault cases at Stanford, Harvard and Wake Forest, and with Kobe Bryant. Click here for details.

DWINDLING FOOTBALL ATTENDANCE

In 2012-13, Penn State football made a profit of just over $30 million. At the same time, Florida State football made about $19.5 million, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education. (As part of Title IX compliance, each college and university athletic department must submit annual financial and participation figures to the USDE.)

Football overall and ticket revenue specifically drive those profits. That puts Florida State and Penn State in the same boat. It’s a vessel, unfortunately for both schools, that has plenty of available seats.

Florida State’s home football attendance is on a downward trajectory, similar to what had been the case for Penn State since 2007. Last season, FSU’s Doak Camp Stadium was filled to just 91.6% of its capacity – an average of 75,421 seats per game. Penn State, at 90% capacity, averaged 96,587 fans per game in Beaver Stadium in 2013. Penn State’s numbers have leveled off; the Nittany Lions drew just 143 fewer fans per home game last season than the year.

Still, it’s a tough club to be in. In 2012, among the top 29 schools in major college football, only UCLA (at a 75.1%) had a tougher time filling every seat than Florida State and Penn State.

Sounds like another barren problem for Barron.

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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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