Sandy Barbour spent the bulk of her time as the athletic director at California with the descriptor “embattled.” Thursday, the battle was finally declared over.
Barbour is reportedly “stepping down” as AD, although the heavier betting is that she was shown the stairs by the school after nine tumultuous years engaging the resuscitation of the basketball and football programs and rebuilding the deteriorating infrastructure of the stadium and athletic support facilities.
[RELATED: Report: Sandy Barbour to step down as Cal AD]
In that time, she discovered the great dichotomy of Cal athletics – seeking to be a big-time program without engaging the sins of the big-time programs, including tapping regularly into big donors without losing control of the department to those donors.
There were other problems, especially with a football program that lost under Jeff Tedford after years of success and had academic problems to boot, but mostly the Barbour years were marked by her inability to keep the athletic department on a par with bigger money generators at Stanford, Oregon, USC and Arizona.
Because that, and that alone, is how modern athletic directors are evaluated – as rainmakers. The ADs that not only survive but also thrive are the ones who can raise money, convince the rich alumni to give that money time and again, and hire the coaches that make it a more joyous experience to give that money.
There are two ways to make that giving work – to find one huge donor who will act as a 24-hour ATM, or to build a network of them while making sure no single one becomes enough of a power to discourage the others from giving as well. Barbour mad neither, at least not in a way that could make the stadium renovation not become a money pit.
Barbour had stylistic problems as well, in that she was not a natural schmoozer. She was a forthright person to be sure, but she didn’t travel easily from group to group. Cal has too many competing interests to make the job an easy one, but Barbour didn’t travel easily between them either.
She will be given a transitional job in the department that in all likelihood is a placeholder until she finds one outside the university, and that’s as it should be. She was a loyal, sincere and devoted toiler for the school, but loyalty, sincerity and devotion don’t get you a cup of coffee unless you can hand the barista a $5 bill.
As for successors, the battle that tore Barbour apart will continue in the search for her replacement. Doubtless a search firm will be engaged to find athletic directors ready for nine-figure-debt-style challenge, but two interesting notions outside that framework leap to mind though – Roy Eisenhardt, part of the Haas family through marriage and a longtime fixture in the Cal support system, and Sandy Alderson, who once worked under Eisenhardt with the Oakland A’s when Walter Haas owned the team. Eisenhardt is considered more of a consensus-builder and has had more experience on the corporate side, while Alderson is more a top-down administrator currently working as general manager for the New York Mets under the Wilpon family. Draw your own conclusions on that.
But whoever gets the job will find it far more daunting than can easily be understood from the outside. Cal as an entity has to finally decide at a touchy time for college athletics in general whether it can wed the competing philosophies of athletic department administration: As an adjunct of the academic world, or as a bank.
The answer to that question is probably no, given that the NCAA is increasingly finding itself as surplus to the needs of the most powerful athletic conferences. Cal is in one of those conferences, and the laws of Darwin and Adam Smith can harm the seemingly protected as well as the smaller operations.
Sandy Barbour’s successor is going to be confronted by that central truth, as she was. The difference will ultimately be whether that successor will be able to dance more nimbly in that field of rotating knives than Barbour could.