clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sandy Barbour steps down, John Wilton steps in, Sonny Dykes steps on eggshells

UC Berkeley vice chancellor John Wilton appears to have taken command of the Cal athletic department until a new director is hired. Barring a drastic turnaround, with Sandy Barbour gone does Sonny Dykes have much time left?

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

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

Just like with Jeff Tedford, it was time.

Sandy Barbour was what Cal needed in 2004.  The Bears needed an athletic director who could get Memorial Stadium renovated while building what felt like an impossible capital project in the Berkeley bureaucracy. The blasted thing took eight years to finish (which I believe is six weeks in Berkeley years), but it got finished, and she deserved plenty of credit.

But getting the SAHPC completed in the Berkeley climate had its ramifications. As the years passed and the project stalled, the cost rose, and rose, and rose. This raised the ire of many academics on campus who saw the project as just one huge boondoggle. So Barbour (at the behest of the Chancellor) were forced to make plenty of decisions to try and recoup the huge debt that the project incurred.

The decision to cut five sports might have been a fiscally responsible decision to get programs to sustain themselves and cut some of the bloat that the non-revenue sports had built over the years. The way it was publicly (emphasis on "publicly") executed by the athletic department turned it into a PR fiasco. While the Chancellor probably had more to do with the decision than we know, Barbour's inability to come up with a better strategy for executing it made her an immediate figure of ridicule. She made permanent enemies among two of the four most popular athletic programs on campus, and this is not a time for Cal to have an athletic director that doesn't enjoy uniform popularity among potential donors.

The need to constantly rely on the big-monied donors forced her to look up rather than down in terms of ticket prices at football games, and you can see the impact with the ridiculously high cost of the current ESP seats (that empty yellow kills me every game). New Memorial might be stable and seismically sound, but it has not yet regained the magic of its older counterpart. It hasn't helped that our football team has been the Walking Dead, but the environment has become extremely corporate to milk every dollar out of the football experience, and it has been noticeable. The lack of outreach to the common fan has been noticeable and puzzling, and fundraising needs to be a critical aspect of the mission of Cal Athletics going forward.

Her non-revenue hires have been uniformly great. Perhaps her best decision personnel-wise was finding Dave Durden, and Boyle/Gottlieb has risen Cal women's hoops into a national player. Luring Monty to Berkeley and ignoring the Furd stench that might have repelled an Old Blue is still an underrated coup.

But bad football decisions will kill you as an athletic director.  Always. At the moment, her two most important football decisions have been the final Tedford extension and the Sonny Dykes hire. The former really wasn't as bad as people say it was, but it came a little too quickly after a solid but unremarkable 2008 season, and Tedford's immediate decline as a coach followed that extension. The buyout is just extra money the athletic department has to fork up that cuts away from other pressing needs (like new facilities for hoops and adding needed staff).

The Dykes hire has been bad...for Sandy. It might work out for the football program in the long-run if they give Dykes the three years he probably deserves, but bringing in a coach to clean house that Tedford left at the end rather than trying to find a coach who could win immediately put Barbour in a lose-lose situation. Even if Dykes eventually starts winning at Cal, it's hard to survive as an athletic director when your football team goes 4-20 over two seasons while also sporting a bottom-of-the-barrel APR. Additionally, the Cal athletic department is paying two football coaches who will not be coaching Cal football next season in Tedford and Andy Buh (Dykes's handpicked hire).

There have been several other recent missteps. There was the near-bizarre decision to make a home Big Game a neutral site game in Furd territory. There was the inability to fight back against moving a home Big Game to October in 2012 (you couldn't convince Larry Scott that Colorado-Utah was the rivalry game worth moving?). And she used a search firm to find the next Cal basketball coach, only to end up right back in Berkeley with Travis DeCuire as her final candidate, and then get overruled in the end.

To be fair, it doesn't seem like she's been given enough institutional support throughout the course of her tenure, which is probably why the debt has ballooned to its current state. The Birge was an academic Chancellor first and foremost. He may have cheerleaded at many Cal events, but giving the rising deficits, he really didn't seem to exert proper financial control over the department and seemed more interested in placating the academics who have always been at the throats of the A.D. Her predecessor Steve Gladstone was not a good fundraiser, and the debt was already growing by the time Barbour took over. That being said, she could do little to improve fundraising over her tenure and capitalize on the most successful period of Cal football in decades.

Barbour getting overruled on the Cal basketball hire was the writing on the wall. An athletic director who no longer has power to make her own hires might as well be just writing press releases. With Nicholas Dirks now firmly in place as the new Chancellor and the chance for fresh starts everywhere, the reboot came swiftly.

Barbour was the right choice for Cal in 2004, in a weak conference with a hot head coach and only one big mission on the horizon. In 2014? The Bears need a different mind for the job and have different goals, almost all of them having to do with improving sales and marketing, restructuring financials, and hiring competent staff. They unfortunately match up with some of Barbour's most glaring weaknesses, and that's why starting over from scratch feels like the right move.

John Wilton, the King's Hand

Regardless of who Cal hires as their next athletic director, it seems like they will be an extension of John Wilton. The UC Berkeley vice chancellor for administration and finance is the man flexing his muscles in athletic department circles, and in the past few months he's been making small moves that culminated in last week's decision.

This year has been earmarked with decisions that have had Wilton's stamp on it, and he appears to have the full support of the new Chancellor. The Cuonzo Martin hire was Wilton's decision. He helped sell naming rights to Memorial, culminating in the Kabam Field decision. He organized what should be a very profitable soccer event for UC Berkeley, moving a Real Madrid-Inter Milan game from a stadium that hosts the Super Bowl to Memorial Stadium. He has been trying to utilize the stadium to regain financial windfall, and has plenty of other ideas to help the hurting athletic department make money. He has been present at most of the recent Cal Athletics announcements, including coaching hires. Wherever Sandy has been publicly, Wilton seems to follow like a shadow.

He also wrote a recent paper stressing the importance of intercollegiate athletics in the fabric of the university--you can read it here. It's a paper well-worth reading if you want to get an idea of the vision that Wilton has for the athletic department. His proactivity is a welcome sight to an athletic department in need of fiscal responsibility.

The interim athletic director is H. Michael Williams, a former Cal wrestler who is currently a trustee with the U.C. Berkeley Foundation (Wilton is also a trustee, so I'm fairly confident that there was a relationship in place prior to the hiring). I don't know much about Williams outside of the fact that he worked in finance (like Wilton), so I'm guessing that the new athletic director will likely follow in similar footsteps.

I don't know much about Wilton, but I am really liking the moves I've seen from him. Cal has cut its subsidies three years straight (which coincide with the three years that Wilton has been on the job).  He is a business/financials man and seems to be doing his best to raise revenues as quickly as possible from the inside. I'm not sure if he has the ability to be the face of Cal Athletics, but he has been willing and eager to do a lot of important work to get that debt pay off. His task will be to find the next athletic director who knows how to fundraise effectively and mobilize the Cal community. The roar has to be restored in Bear Territory.

Sonny Dykes's hot seat burns now

And then there's Sonny. Poor Sonny. All this man wants to do is coach exciting football. All he seems to have done since arriving in Berkeley is cleaning up messes and watching his back.

Obviously, Wilton was part of the search committee to bring in Dykes as the new football coach, so he's not totally blameless in the football hiring either.  You might think that he'll provide the head coach the necessary three years he needs to make the Bears competitive once again in the Pac-12.

But with the shuffle in leadership from up top, the benchmark for Dykes this season moves from "decent improvements" to "drastic turnaround". While I doubt he needs to go out there and produce a Tedford-style change (no one is expecting 7-5 this season), I doubt Dykes can go out there and go 2-10 or 3-9, have an average margin of defeat of three-plus touchdowns, and expect to feel comfortable that he'll get one more year to turn this thing around. Dykes will need to produce some quality wins against teams not named Sacramento State if he expects to get that critical third season.

With Barbour gone, Dykes's security net disappears with it. Sandy was Sonny's biggest ally in the athletic department, and her early departure could mean that the hiring has been perceived by the higher-ups on campus as a grave disappointment (if not outright failure). A new athletic director will have no ties to Dykes, will want to make a big-time hire, and can be set to make a change if no change comes from the gridiron.

Dykes's contract is five years, but his buyout would only be $3 million if he is fired prior to the end of the 2014 calendar year (By contrast, Tedford's settlement with the university was around $5.5 million over three years, so this would be a much cheaper buyout). Although Cal is getting used to the practice of paying football coaches they no longer employ (Buh is currently in the athletic department somewhere, getting them checks thanks to the lack of a buyout in his contract), it's not the worst option in the world for Cal to consider pulling the plug if they feel another lousy season could be in store in 2015 if immediate changes aren't made.

Changes abound in Cal Athletics in 2014. Dykes will have a lot of work to do this season to ensure he's not one of them.