clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Look At Sandy Barbour's Job As Athletic Director At Cal

Let's look at her performance

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.


Local newspapers usually take an interest in Cal Athletics when something fantastic happens or something atrocious happens. Sadly, it's the latter these days.

Over the summer, we looked at a series of articles relating to the Cal Athletics Memorial Stadium upgrade project.

There, we saw how misinformed and inaccurate those articles were. I trudged through the slapdash handwaving to debunk many of those claims. Today, I have a new, but related topic to discuss: Sandy Barbour's performance. She is the athletic director for Cal and ultimately responsible for the success of our 29 Cal sports.

There are recent two articles discussing the disturbingly poor academic news we learned about Cal. We're dead last amongst college football teams in graduation rates.

DEAD LAST! That is the type of eye opening stat that is going to wake people up and focus on Sandy Barbour's job performance.

The Contra Costa Times wrote an op-ed saying that if the academics don't improve, Sandy should leave.
Then, Wilner Wilner'd with the question "How does Sandy still have a job?" His analysis is decent, but that question is so loaded that it colors the article before you even dive in.

The academic numbers have actually shown improvement since that initial burst of discussion, which is promising. However, it raises the question of "How good of a job is Sandy Barbour doing as Athletic Director?" Let's discuss!

Sandy Barbour's job performance has two components:

Field successful teams in all sports, including Olympic sports: She has a stellar record here! Cal has won (by my count) 20 NCAA championships in various sports during her time as an AD and generally had winning teams across the board.

Field successful MBB and football teams: The above success pales in comparison to the importance of men's basketball and football. Our standing in the public eye rests on these two teams. She could win national championship in all the Olympic sports and a winless football team would override them all.

Fundamentally, criticisms of her job performance don't necessarily relate to whether the football team is winning or not, although that is directly relevant. However, she's only had the opportunity to hire one football coach and although it's been an unmitigated disaster to date, it's only one year in. Let's look at some criticisms that relate to her entire tenure here at Cal. The three criticisms levied are: (a) budget, (b) stadium upgrade, and (c) academics. Let's take each in turn.


This has been in contention since 2010 when people were stunned by Cal's announcement to cut four sports and downgrade another. This was especially true given that America's national pastime, baseball, was one of the threatened sports. Wilner characterized these circumstances as poor fiscal management:

But the amount of direct institutional support essentially tripled under Barbour's watch even though revenues increased by less than 50 percent.

What Wilner means by "direct institutional support" is money from the UC Berkeley budget used to make up for Cal Athletics shortfalls. This has been a major concern raised regarding Barbour's time at Cal. There are several important things to note:

1. Only 7 of 228 NCAA Division I programs do not receive DIS from their schools. Most athletics programs have only a few profit generators (football, MBB) and many money losers. Cal is special in having 29 sports (more than most athletics programs). This number means we have a LOT of non-revenue sports counterbalancing the 2 profit generators. Enter: DIS.

2. The subsidy for FY 2013 and FY 2014 will be less than 0.5% of the total UC Berkeley budget (approximately $2 billion). So, while DIS is indicative of Athletics needing financial help from UC Berkeley, it is a speck in the Berkeley budget. It is only relevant because of recent budget crises outlined below.

3. With no statistics or evidence, Wilner attributes the increased DIS to Barbour's "free-spending ways." While spending is one aspect, another aspect to the financial crunch is the worst financial catastrophe in decades that Barbour and Cal Athletics had to deal with starting in 2007. The financial catastrophe certainly played a role in Cal Athletics' financial struggles.

On top of that financial disaster, the professors at Cal were in open revolt against the Athletics Department.

Budget cuts forced the university to lay off or furlough many of its employees. The budget crisis has placed increased scrutiny on the Athletic Department's budget deficit. Several professors began demanding that the university stop providing ANY support to Athletics. Decreased revenue from the financial downturn and intense pressure from UC Berkeley became a massive albatross around Sandy's neck. The DIS was viewed as wasteful, when it is the by-product of forcing an entity to run under a capitalist structure without letting it actually be a capitalist structure.

4. DIS is going away. As I noted in the media post:

Having said that, UC Berkeley wants DIS to be as low as possible, particularly essential in the current budget climate. Valued reader BandAlum has put together a chart of DIS from 2002-2012, using Cal's own numbers:

Wilner notes that the $4.5 million subsidy number for FY 2012 stems from the approximately $7 million UC Berkeley gave to Cal athletics minus the money Cal athletics returned to UC Berkeley. Yes, in FY 2004, FY 2011, and FY 2012, Cal athletics gave money back to UC Berkeley. Band Alum put this chart together that shows the DIS with subtractions taken out when Cal athletics gave money back to UC Berkeley.

You can see in the first chart that DIS peaked in 2010 at nearly $10 million. At that time, Cal athletics tried to minimize DIS funds by proposing cutting 5 sports if donors didn't step up. The support number has decreased substantially each year since. Notice the immediate and rather large decrease in the second chart from 2010-2011.

Wilner notes that the subsidy for FY 2013 will be approximately $2 million, which means that it has decreased yet again!

The articles here do not provide this additional context. Instead, they portray Cal athletics as suckling alone at the teat of its mother school. The reality is more complex. The reality is that Cal athletics is taking steps to minimize its subsidy and that it is but a miniscule fraction of UC Berkeley's total budget.

Budget Conclusion

It is true that 2008 was a difficult financial time for Cal Athletics. Some amount of blame does fall on Sandy for that. However, given the financially idiotic way athletics programs are set up, coupled with the Great Recession, it seems likely that most Athletics programs would struggle. Add in the intense pressure from UC Berkeley for Athletics to be self-sufficient and you have a once in a lifetime (hopefully) disaster.

Now, it looks like Athletics is tightening its belt appropriately and making the right choices to become self-sufficient. Credit should be given to Barbour for helping right the ship here. Although Cal Athletics was in a very difficult financial situation during the Great Recession, it has taken steps to tighten its belt and establish a path towards self-sufficiency.


We've gone over this ad nauseum. There are a few subpoints to the stadium issue here.

1. Misleading Regents. Wilner notes in his article that the initial financing plan was not Sandy's idea. However, he notes that she was involved in the sales program:

But Barbour is largely responsible for the athletic department's stunningly inaccurate description of the premium seats sales.

This is sadly true:

I'll also note this one item from the KQED story:

At a meeting of the Board of Regents in September 2009, a Berkeley campus administrator, armed with numbers from Athletics, told the Regents that 65 percent of ESP tickets were sold to date, even though the actual figure was far lower. Convinced the plan was viable, the Regents approved $321 million in debt financing for the stadium.

When asked about the discrepancy, Barbour and other administrators said Athletics had changed its definition of the word "sold."

My understanding is they used a broader definition of "sold" to indicate ESP seats that had not been 100% sold. So, Wilner is accurate here that she misled the Regents and that is unfortunate.

However, the flip side to this is what the Regents would have done were she to have used the real numbers. I'm in no way trying to justify misrepresentation. My question is whether the Regents relied solely on these inflated numbers or if that was just one part of the equation. The KQED story makes it seem like a one to one relationship, but even if the Regents known about the true numbers of "sold" seats, they may have still approved the loans. Unclear and without that additional context, it is difficult to determine the fullest level of blame to place on Sandy here.

2. Upgrade Price Tag. The second subpoint is the entirety of the cost. Wilner:

And the price tag is stunning: Cal spent more on facility upgrades ($474 million) than any school in the history of collegiate athletics.

Sure, a portion of that was unavoidable. But even when you back out the cost of the seismic retrofit, Cal still spent approximately $250 million.

Firstly, Wilner has Wilner'd a bit here. $474 million is MORE THAN ANY OTHER SCHOOL EVER! Except that part of it is not necessarily a "stadium upgrade." $224 million or so was to de-deathify the stadium in case of an earthquake. This was legally required by the Regents (which is why they may have approved the debt anyway, independent of sales numbers). I also cited another aspect to the massive cost never discussed:

All of the articles harp on the eye-poppingly large cost of over $400 million dollars. However, no analysis is provided regarding the years-long delay thanks to litigation and illegal occupation. For those new to the story, Cal tried to upgrade the stadium, but starting in 2006, people moved into the trees next to the stadium in an attempt to stop the upgrade. They were merely a sideshow to the lawsuit from the Panoramic Hill Association (people who live next to the stadium). This whole process delayed the building for years. This delay increased costs substantially and forced Cal to play one season at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

So, when you see the $400-plus million, remember that some amount of that stems from the delays inherent to Berkeley. Building ANYTHING in Berkeley is complicated, and the price tag is inflated due to this. None of the articles come close to mentioning this.

Firstly, valued reader Band Alum provided me with information regarding the increases due to the delays:

One part of the cost of the stadium was the increase of material and labor costs over time. While these increases were not as large as they otherwise would have been without the recession, based on the ENR Construction Cost Index for San Francisco, these costs still are estimated to have increased $20m due to the delay of construction. It certainly could have been worse, had the recession not tempered the increase in construction costs so much.

Projected Initial Cost

Bid Cost

Increase (millions)




ENR cost index (SF)




$ 120.12

$ 129.00

$ 8.88

Projected Initial Cost

Bid Cost

Increase (millions)




ENR cost index (SF)




$ 333.46

$ 345.00

$ 11.54


$ 453.58

$ 474.00

$ 20.42

This additional $20 million is approximately 4.5% of the total cost. 4.5% might not seem like a lot, but $20 million is a non-trivial amount of money and it all comes together in determining the total cost. Wilner mentions none of this.

Secondly, let's take out the earthquake safety funds; Wilner states that $250 mil is spent on a "cosmetic" upgrade of the athletics facilities. Part of that money is due to the disastrous legal delay outside of Sandy's control. So, then the question is whether Sandy overreached by trying to add on the "cosmetic upgrade" given the large sum that HAD to be spent on the earthquake safety upgrades.

The answer is "No." First, we had the worst facilities in the Pac-12 by a large margin. If we don't take this opportunity to upgrade the facilities, we miss out on an opportunity to help our athletic teams improve--Sandy's job description! Football is hindered by the bad facilities. If we need football to win big so that we can pay off the debt, then we need the best facilities possible. It would be short-sighted NOT to improve the facilities.

Another aspect to the upgrade were cosmetic improvements to the west side of the stadium (club seats, ESP seats). Not including these would have been short-sighted, because they are a value add to the customer and help increase sales etc etc. Compared to the overall cost of the project, they were probably fairly minimal.

Yes, it is an eye-poppingly large amount. However, when you dig deeper, the decisions made on the SAHPC were the right decisions. Perhaps Sandy could have saved some money by skimping on the non-essential retrofit fixes, but Wilner misrepresents how much money could really have been saved by bombarding readers with the $400M+ figure. Sandy made the best decision in that time and place.

3. Paying off the debt. The final subpoint here ispaying off the debt:

Recap: Cal Athletics has a complex plan to raise money to pay off the $400 mil in debt. The two key factors are sale of ESP seats and then investing that money to pay off the debt. ESP sales were slower than expected, so Barbour and Cal re-did the math and now have a more realistic scenario to sell all ESP seats by the 2020s.

Cal commissioned a report by independent professors at the Haas School Of Business (see posts above). It appears highly unlikely NOT to pay off the debt. Cal doesn't even have to meet its goal of selling all ESP seats within the next decade to pay off the debt:

If Cal can sell at least 54% of remaining ESP seats and get about 6% of return on investing those proceeds, they should be fine. Sell all those seats and get a decent return and Cal could make itself a decent chunk of change!

Cal has a massive margin of error here.

Stadium Conclusion

However, people never say that. Instead they talk about how flawed the initial plans were and how Barbour misled people. Yes, those initial plans were flawed. Yes, Barbour did mislead people. I'm not here to deny that.

However, credit should be given to Barbour and Cal Athletics for their course correction. They now have Cal on a different course that, given extremely conservative estimates, would be more than fine for Athletics going forward. If things go as or even better than anticipated, Cal Athletics will make a significant amount of money in the next century.

So, this section is not necessarily a mark against Sandy Barbour. Sandy Barbour got the upgrade despite tons of institutional forces against her (aka tree-sitters lawsuit). She made some mistakes, but has fixed those mistakes, Cal will have the best facilities in the Pac-12, AND people won't die in an earthquake.


This is where things go south and fast. During the season, news emerged that recent graduation rates for the 2003-2006 athletics classes were disturbingly poor for football and MBB.

The reality is that graduation rates for the university as a whole were really good:

Women's water polo - 100%
Women's volleyball - 100%
Women's tennis - 100%
Women's lacrosse - 100%
Women's crew - 96%
Women's swimming - 95%
Women's soccer - 93%
Men's golf - 92%
Men's track - 92%
Men's swimming - 89%
Women's golf - 88%
Men's tennis - 86%
Men's gymnastics - 86%
Women's track - 76%
Women's basketball - 75%
Baseball - 74%
Men's soccer - 63%
Men's water polo - 58%
Women's softball - 57%
Football - 44%
Men's basketball - 38%

While it is great that women's water polo et al. are amazing, however, people will focus solely on football and MBB.

Before we move forward, let's understand a key concept here. This is merely for athletes who started in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. They are given 6 years to graduate, meaning the numbers can't emerge at least until 2012. Then, it takes the NCAA a year to crunch the numbers as they are run by a giant group of untrained pelicans.

So, this is actually for older players and doesn't relate to the newer crops of players. The numbers have already started to improve, too, so hopefully going forward this can all be placed in the rear view mirror.

Cal prides itself on its academics along with its athleticism. While each individual coach is in charge of the academics for the team, the buck stops with Sandy. Although nothing specifically rides on the GSR, Sandy ultimately has to build the department and increase donation levels from fans--fans who care about academics.

Anything that hurts donations is a negative on Sandy's ledger. Dead last in graduation rate in the nation is the type of eye-popping statement that makes people sit up and pay attention. While the promise of the next few years' of scores inspires some hope, the sad truth is that recent performance is probably the most damning indictment of Sandy's performance.


One quite note here is that there is another aspect nobody really touched on: communications. The Department's communications have been substandard for many years. Recent improvements have been promising, but many of the complaints against Sandy stem from mis-information of/by fans who don't understand entirely what is going on. It is the Department's responsibility to best project confidence and help people understand what they are doing and why it is in the best interest of Cal Athletics. They have failed to do that and that falls on Sandy. Nobody is really talking about that issue.

The arguments against Sandy regarding the budget or stadium upgrade aren't persuasive. These are incredibly complex matters and the decisions made within the context of the facts are rational and even best practice. It does appear that there were some problems with the department several years back. No matter how much blame you place on Sandy for those problems then, course corrections have been made resulting in impressive progress.

As for the academics, that could hamstring the department. Tedford left the Academic Progress Rate in a position where Cal could get potential sanctions! Now, being dead last in graduation rate. Bad. Period. While I don't view this as sufficient to call for Sandy's head, it is a justified argument against her tenure.

Recall the 2010 football season. Prior to that point, Cal had not had a losing season under Coach Tedford. It was unreasonable to call for Tedford's head without any losing seasons. In 2010, however, Cal went 5-7. That was the wake up call that Tedford either needed to get the team back on track or his time at Cal was over. Tedford didn't.

It appears that these academics are improving, so that might lower the seat temperature here. Cal fans will rightfully continue to monitor these issues, but Sandy has done an amazing job navigating Athletics through historically difficult times and accomplishing the stadium upgrade in a uniquely hostile environment. Credit for that should definitely go to her. What do you think? Tell us in the comments!