We caught up with Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour this week to get the latest on a wide range of topics. With Penn State’s facilities master plan due to be completed in the next month, Barbour touched on renovations to Beaver Stadium, fundraising and the next few years within the department.
StateCollege.com: It seems reasonable to say that the next 2 or 3 years are extremely important for Penn State athletics, it’s hard to say this without any hyperbole, but maybe more important than nearly any other “normal” 2-3 year span in the history of the athletic department. If nothing else it certainly seems like if things go your way in the next few years that things are significantly different 5-10 years down the road than they are right now. How do you approach that?
Sandy Barbour: I think we’ve got a huge opportunity. And so I think that’s why it’s important and we need to make sure that we’re set up to take advantage of that. That’s in every one of our sports, programs and administrative units, that we’re poised to take advantage of the opportunity that we have.
So that’s why you see a lot of the work that we’re doing our strategic planning, our organizational structure and continuing to fine tune that around every hire that we make and every replacement. Penn State has been a little immune to this over time, but athletic departments have a lot of movement in and out, and you hire young and sometimes inexperienced folks in different areas, they gain experience and then they get a better job. Interestingly Penn State has always been known for keeping people, I think we have more of that than most people but when you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to advance, and sometimes you just don’t, maybe you go away to get a promotion to get more experience, more responsibility and maybe you have the opportunity to come back.
So whether it’s hires or facilities master plan or looking at our fundraising structure going into a campaign, all of that is really, really important that we have the very best opportunity to capture success.
It’s not one coach, it’s not one administrator, today’s college athletics climate is complex.
SC.com : James Franklin’s contract is up in 2019, Pat Chambers’ contract is up after the 2018 season, it almost certainly won’t pan out this way in reality but you have to make decisions about the two biggest head coaches on campus, financially at least, in the near future. Does that put a certain amount of pressure on them and the department to have a level of success between now and then?
SB: All coaches and all athletic directors are under a lot of pressure and a lot of scrutiny to achieve success. Always. Particularly in high profile programs like those you’re never going to let those contracts run down, run down to a year or run out, just from a recruiting standpoint that doesn’t work. In those two particular cases, I’m really pleased with where we’re going. I think what Pat is doing he’s doing it the right way, it has been a long an arduous process, but you look at those two recruiting classes and I think we were better last year. I think the place we need to get better, and this is no secret, Pat and I have talked about this, that where we’re going to see and need to see progress this year is in the Big Ten. That’s where we need to start making some noise and I’m very confident that we’re going to.
In terms of football I’m really, really excited about James’ leadership. This sounds like an excuse, but people don’t really understand the toll the scholarship sanctions, and we could talk just about the public perception of Penn State through the scandal, but really let’s talk about the practical implications of the scholarship limitations. I think, thank you Bill O’Brien, thank you James Franklin, for the leadership they exhibited through those times and we’re starting to come out of that. There are going to be affects for a few more years that people would like to forget about. I think James has done a terrific job and has brought a high quality staff here, with a couple of changes that I think over time will ultimately benefit us really, really well.
SC.com There is a reasonable argument to be made that in a lot of way this is James Franklin’s first year with enough of a deck to start to make substantial progress forward. Administratively, do you take the positives out of the past two years and wipe the rest of the table clean, is this Year 1 part 2 or is this Year 3?
SB: This is Year 3, I don’t know how you discount any year, that’s that team, those student athletes, those seniors. So I think every year has mattered, I think that this is Year 3 of the James Franklin era. I think we’ve seen progress in certain aspects, and again given what I consider to be the limitations, again the scholarship piece is big, it’s really really big. I think that we’ve done amazingly well. Is it where Penn State football is expected to be? Absolutely not, everybody acknowledges that we’ve got to get there and the journey to that is progress. I believe very strongly that we’re going to see it.
SC.com There hasn’t been a fundraising effort announced yet for the Beaver Stadium renovation and the rest of the master plan. Are you waiting for the new television deal numbers, how much of a piece is that to the puzzle, or does that unfold differently?
SB: The sequence that will follow is; complete the Master Plan, which are concepts, they will be concepts probably with some gross order of magnitude of cost. Then we need to sit down and go, which are the priorities, which ones are completely philanthropic, which ones are debt serviced, which ones are some combination, which one will we ask our students to participate in from a student fee, a facility fee standpoint, and which ones will lend themselves to public/private partnerships?
The answer for each aspect of this might be a little different, what discretionary revenue we have to maybe do debt service is a piece of it, but it’s only one piece of it, and frankly the new media revenues are only a piece of that. The new media revenues are going to help us catch up. Whether it’s increased expenses or decreased revenues that we’re still trying to recoup, we’re about 15 million real dollars behind where we were five years ago, so whatever the incremental is with the Big Ten media rights money, that just helps us get back to whole.
SC.com Probably one of the bigger talking points with the average fan the past few weeks is the fact that parking for the Blue White game won’t be free anymore. Obviously the stadium costs money to run whether the game counts or not, but is this a short term change to some additional revenue or is this essentially here for good because it doesn’t seem like it’s a very big drop in the bucket.
SB: I think it’s a small piece and I certainly understand the reaction, what that reaction doesn’t take in to consideration is the thoughtfulness at which we looked at that. I respect and honor the tradition if you will that the Blue White game is an opportunity for those who otherwise can’t afford to go to games an opportunity to go to a game and that’s why we didn’t do something with a ticket. And you have options, you can choose to park someplace else and walk in, you can still come to the game for free. So that’s how we kind of looked at it. We spend over half a million dollars to put that game on, we spend more than that on a regular game but we have more revenue coming in to cover that.
SC.com August was the hypothetical date for the Master Plan? Is that still the case?
SB: The master plan will be done in August but it won’t be prepared for the public unveiling, so I would say sometime early to mid fall would be somewhere that we would be ready to come out with whatever we’re going to do. Late September, early October.
SC.com Some of the more publicized renovations or improvements, like alcohol sales in the club seats seem to impact a small percentage of the fans actually in the stadium. How to do you go about fundraising for those changes when maybe the impact isn’t felt the same by every fan, or a fan who simply isn’t a donor willing to throw $10,000 on the table.
SB: The beauty of how we will hopefully go about this is number one, everyone is going to benefit. The renovation of Beaver Stadium isn’t going to be 100% about club seats and premium seat and suites. It’s going to be about improved restrooms and egress and concourses and concessions and a wide seat. So I believe everyone who cares about Penn State football is going to benefit from these renovations.
SC.com You mentioned the seat sizes changing which implies a capacity change. Even though the plan isn’t done is that expected to change in a noticeable value in either direction?
SB: I don’t think it’s going to be significant, but given that we’re modernizing our seat size both from a leg room and seat width I don’t think that there’s any question that capacity will go down. This is not unlike what Ohio State just announced not too long ago and I loved Gene Smith’s comment that the days of the capacity race are over and now it’s about the fans, and their comfort and their amenities and that’s the sweet spot.
SC.com The NHL preseason game that is happening at Pegula certainly felt like something that was bound to happen sooner or later. How much is an event like that something of a test run for things like that on campus where you bring in things from the outside.
SB: It’s no secret that I’ve been very public about the fact that we’re looking to utilize our facilities more broadly than we have been. For one to bring value to our community and two bring in revenue, no doubt about it. That just happens to be, once we got the go ahead on the liquor licenses, that just happened to be the first one that worked out. And Terry and Kim Pegula are certainly a big part of that and certainly appreciate what would have been a Buffalo home game and bring it to State College. So yea we’re looking at a number of things for Beaver Stadium and we’re working with campus, we’re partners with the BJC and their primary business model outside our basketball program are concerts, so we can’t come in and undercut that and wouldn’t want to. But a concert that is going to attract 80 or 90 thousand people is different than what they’re going to be doing at the BJC.
SC.com Switching topics, campus assaults, be it sexual or otherwise, have been a huge talking point across the country the past few months and in a few cases it has involved student athletes. Even though Penn State has made some changes in recent years, when this comes up how much do you have to look back at those processes and the structure that is in place to see where you stand.
SB: So let’s talk about behavior, more broadly, although sexual assault, especially on college campuses is a huge issue, as it should be as it pertains to making sure that our campuses are safe. But I think that’s something that I’m really proud of on a number of levels here, doesn’t mean things do happen, but I think we, as campus administrators we deal with 17-22 year olds and that’s a challenging age and I think that it is a really challenging time to be a 17-22 year old in our society. But I think that number one, our coaches do a phenomenal with who they bring here, with who they recruit and how they assess is a fit for our community. Number two, I think we collectively do a really good job of constantly reminding them, educating them, asking them to engage in conversations about difficult topics, we’re putting a lot of resources into our student development program, harm reduction is one of those topics be it drugs and alcohol or sexual assault, one of those things. We invited our student athletes to come to a discussion last Tuesday after Baton Rouge and after Dallas, I encourage them to use their voices, if they’ve got something on their mind I want them to use their voices. I ask them to do two things, do it respectively and make sure you have the facts.
As you very well know, this is a very community and very service oriented campus and our student athletes are no different. I think so of the most powerful stuff is peer to peer, but I think one of the most important things that our coaches do is recruiting for the right fit and holding our student athletes accountable for their actions and properly messaging our expectations.