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The Word on Coaching; A Penn State Series... Sandy Barbour on 'Why?'

by on June 25, 2017 9:00 PM

Sandy Barbour, Penn State's director of athletics, has this question she likes to ask.


For Barbour, that one word is also the answer.

The answer as to what her job and the core component of her adult life — intercollegiate athletics — are all about. The answer is easy, says Barbour, Penn State's A.D. since August 2014:

"Our student-athletes."

That's the why that drives Barbour, who was recently honored as an athletics director of the year by Under Armour and the NACDA. It's been a key part of a career that has spanned over three decades, including stints as the athletic director at both Tulane and Cal-Berkley, two universities that combined with Penn State completes an impressive triumvirate that underscores the depth and breadth of her passion, commitment and experience.

Barbour also had coaching and athletic administrative stops at Notre Dame, UMass and Northwestern, and owns two graduate degrees — an M.S. in sports management from Massachusetts and an MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

She began in college sports at Wake Forest, where she was captain of the field hockey team and played two years of basketball. So she comes about her concern for athletes honestly.

At Penn State, Barbour oversees an athletic department that runs 31 varsity sports, with more than 800 student-athletes, and a couple hundred employees, from head coaches like Cael Sanderson and Russ Rose — who both have won multiple national titles in unyielding and distinct fashion — to undergraduate student trainers earning academic credits. All under the umbrella of an annual Penn State athletic department budget that is in excess of $125 million.


Here's the word on this story and what's ahead:

Barbour kicks off an original seven-part series here on over the next three weeks called "The Word on Coaching." In recent and forthcoming original interviews with a half-dozen of Penn State's most successful head coaches — including Sanderson and Rose — we asked each coach to share the one word that summarizes a key component of his or her own special brand of coaching philosophy. Also taking part will be field hockey coach Char Morett-Curtiss, men's ice hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, football coach James Franklin and women's soccer coach Erica Dambach.

Barbour, as the chief of Penn State athletics, bats lead-off. Why "Why?"

Barbour: Everything starts with "Why?" Why do we do what we do? Everything — passion, enthusiasm, execute, ability to make a difference, impact — all stems from understanding our purpose. What is the purpose?

Barbour: For me and for us in Penn State athletics, it is all about our student-athletes. Whatever our roles are, and mine is relatively global and over-arching, it is about creating conditions for success. Our vision is to prepare students for a lifetime of impact. How do we contribute to that? How do we bring value to that? That's why you have so much passion in particularly in coaches, administrators and support staff. A lot of people want to work in collegiate athletics because they can connect so directly to a purpose and to a why and to results — and that's making a difference. Is that why you got into athletics? And has that "why" been consistent, from being a player to a coach to an administrator to the A.D.?

Barbour: That's certainly why I got into coaching. Other than my parents, the most important people in my life had been coaches and teachers. Not that my parent weren't coaches and teachers, they just didn't carry that label. I saw the impact they had on me and impact on others.

What is the genesis of "why"?

Barbour: Author Simon Sinek wrote the book, "Start With Why (How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action)." That's where it came from for me. The then-athletic director for the University of Nevada, Reno — Cary Groth — gave it to me five or six summers ago. I devoured it almost immediately. It's been a really impactful read for me in terms of being a reminder and guide in terms of how to go about things and in leading teams, managing people and motivating myself. What's your second choice?

Barbour: Absent "why?", I would probably use the word "purpose." But I like why. How do you keep everyone focused on the why?

Barbour: That's one of the reasons I came to Penn State. This is a place that has been known for being successful at a very high level. And that's while ensuring our student-athletes make an impact on the world, because during their time at Penn State they were challenged academically, from a character and leadership standpoint, as well as in the athletic venues. That combination is not singular to Penn State, but not everybody is trying to do all of those.

Today, I think we are having some success there because we focus on it, we message it, it's top of mind, there are reminders every day. It's "students first." And then within that, there is academics and all the other things that will impact their future successes. Those are things we put at their forefront. That's not just athletics, that comes from (Penn State president) Dr. (Eric) Barron, that comes from the Board (of Trustees). The folks who hold successful leadership roles at Penn State have to have those same kinds of values. That includes myself, our leadership in athletics, and our head coaches and all of the assistants who they hire. That all follows. What is the biggest hurdle you encounter when trying to achieve your why?

Barbour: In the shifting landscape in higher ed and in intercollegiate athletics, there are lots of places to get distracted form our central purpose. That's our biggest challenge. I think Penn State has an advantage in that our point of difference has been this really high-level combination.

That's what we're known for, to a large degree, and those are the kinds of people we attract. A lot of it is how successful you are in hiring the right people. Penn State has a consistency of brand that attracts the right kind of person. I won't say that part of the job is done for us, or done for me, but it does help. Who we are and what are values are is pretty crystal clear. Among the six Penn State head coaches who are part of this series, is there a commonality in their "why?"

Barbour: I would say absolutely. First, for each of those coaches, it's about students and their experiences and their growth and development.

Second, It's about team. All of those coaches — and, frankly, all of our coaches — put team first and really do a tremendous job of managing the collective. Obviously, you have to pay attention to individual wants and needs, and manage those appropriately. But they all do a very good job of managing sometimes a very challenging team dynamic. Remember, we're talking about 17- to 22-year-olds. Or, in hockey, 23- and 24-year-olds.

And I would say the third element, and this is really key, is that all six of those head coaches put Penn State first. Do many people sometimes confuse the why of the mission with the dollars to accomplish that mission?

Barbour: Definitely. It's something that's easy to do. That's one of those distractions. Yet it's part of our reality. We — intercollegiate athletics, our enterprise — operate within the academy. But at the same time there are financial imperatives and financial realities that we have to be attuned to. We have to pay attention to both.

I still firmly believe that we need to lead with education, lead with our students, lead with our purpose of their experience and their preparation for life. Then, we need to make sure that the enterprise is financially viable.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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