Giger: Barbour odd choice for PSU

UNIVERSITY PARK – It’s just a bizarre hire. A major head-scratcher in so many ways.

Whether it will turn out to be good or bad, nobody knows at this point. That will take years to find out.

Sandy Barbour was forced out a month ago as Cal’s athletic director. They called it a resignation and mutual parting of the ways, but that’s just playing nice with words.

She had overstayed her welcome, and they wanted her gone.

Now, just a month later, she has an even better gig as Penn State’s athletic director. And many fans are up in arms – rightfully so – over exactly what PSU president Eric Barron and his search committee were thinking with this peculiar decision.

Barbour left serious, serious issues behind in Berkeley after making some very poor and in some cases extremely costly decisions. The story on Page A1 has the details, but here’s the Cliffs Notes version.

n Cal’s football (44 percent) and basketball (38 percent) programs had graduation rates that would embarrass any institute of higher education, let alone one of the country’s greatest academic institutions.

n The school’s athletic department is swimming in red ink, to the tune of a reported $445 million debt from stadium and facilities upgrades.

n The Bears’ football program was a joke last year, going 1-11 with a putrid defense and no wins over FBS competition. Barbour hired the head coach, Sonny Dykes, after firing Jeff Tedford in 2012 and watching him leave with a cool $5.5 million settlement.

On the surface, none of that adds up to Barbour even being a qualified candidate for the Penn State AD job, let alone getting it.

But here we were Saturday, listening to Barron not only sweep those serious issues at Cal under the rug, but also refer to Barbour as a “clear choice” and a “unanimous choice.”

Wait a second. Somebody who was essentially fired a month ago from another school is a unanimous choice at Penn State?

Come on, president Barron.

But let’s take a step back for a second. Back from all the rhetoric and headline-grabbing details about Barbour’s supposed failures at Cal.

She did manage to stay there for 10 years. No way a terrible AD would last that long.

She did win a ton of national championships in Olympic sports. Penn State takes pride in those, too (e.g. wrestling and women’s volleyball).

She did hire basketball coach Mike Montgomery, who had success on the court (four NCAA tourney appearances in six seasons), although the program’s woeful graduation rate sullied those accomplishments.

She won the respect, according to Barron, from those around her for how she handled some of Cal’s incredibly difficult financial problems. (Not the football ticket sales problem, for which she has been blasted.)

What we ultimately have here is a matter of faith. And trust.

Anyone who Googles Barbour’s name can instantly see the myriad reasons why it’s every Penn State fan’s right and duty to question the decision to hire her.

But will the fans give Barron, who’s been on the job only two months, the benefit of the doubt on his first big hire? Do they have enough faith in him to believe he looked deeply beyond the surface issues and did indeed come up with someone who can lead the Penn State athletic department to great heights?

Trusting Penn State administrators has been a very difficult thing to do the past two years. The supposed leaders of the university have shown a propensity time and again for making lousy decisions, generally under duress or for some warped sense of clinging to the past instead of trying to embrace the future.

Barron will be judged for many things during his tenure at PSU, but, with so much riding on football and athletics, he certainly will be judged heavily on whether or not Barbour can handle the very challenging job of athletic director.

One of her biggest challenges will be getting maximum use out of Beaver Stadium. James Franklin can talk all he wants about having 107,000 at every game, but when the opponent is Akron or UMass, plus with all the issues still involved with the STEP program, having 15,000 or more empty seats for several games will remain a problem.

Barbour failed to fill seats at Cal football games (the Bears averaged 49,329 last year in a stadium that seats 63,000), but, then again, Cal was terrible. At Penn State, she inherits a dynamic new coach in Franklin, one of the best quarterback prospects in the country in Christian Hackenberg and a fan base that remains fired up about shoving it down the NCAA’s throat by succeeding on the field despite the sanctions.

Had she come on board two years ago, there would have been little reason to believe Barbour could have handled the PSU AD job anywhere near as well as Dave Joyner did. Oh, and how incredible is it that, after hearing Barbour was hired, so many fans who enjoyed ripping Joyner were saying Saturday that they wished he was still the AD?

With Barbour getting the job now, Penn State has so many things going for it that it would be hard for any AD to mess things up. All of the coaches in the major sports are in place, and the only one who could be on the hot seat soon is men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers. I’ll have more on that topic in Monday’s Mirror.

But short of firing Franklin for some ridiculous reason, or botching the STEP program even more than it already is, Barbour should find herself in a situation where she can lead the athletic department with little or no fanfare – for at least a little while.

She won’t have to deal with all the other crazy factors that came into play at Cal, so maybe this is the fresh start she needs to prove she is a better AD than her track record there would indicate.

She has to be, right? I mean, why else would Penn State have hired her?

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.