To hone her skills as a field hockey goalie back in college, Sandy Barbour would fend off shots fired by an old tennis ball machine, hoping it would sharpen her reflexes and harden her up for the live action she'd face in upcoming games.
Those weren't soft, fuzzy tennis balls coming at her, however. They were hard, plastic field hockey balls that left their mark on Barbour, both literally and figuratively. The experience helped shape the Wake Forest University undergrad into one tough goalie, and years later, UC Berkeley's athletics director. "They change color over the course of days," Barbour said, recalling the bruises she received in the name of the Demon Deacons 30 years ago. "It doesn't feel good. It hurts."
In her role today at Cal, a job she started in 2004, the 50-year-old Barbour is still facing shots on goal, albeit those of a metaphorical variety. The shots are being fired by critics unhappy with the university's spending on intercollegiate sports. Her opposition is especially concerned over yearly deficits in the athletics department as well as the $153 million price tag attached to an athletic center being built adjacent to the school's ancient Memorial Stadium, itself the subject of a $321 million retrofit and renovation. At a time of severe budget constraints, coupled with ever-rising expectations for Cal sports, such big expenditures have created a contentious atmosphere on a campus with a rich history of dissenting opinions. And Barbour finds herself in the middle, trying to run her department and serve the needs of more than 800 intercollegiate athletes while dealing with a fiscal reality that makes cutbacks inevitable.
With about $6 million in cuts set for an annual intercollegiate athletics budget of $60 million to $65 million, some coaches are nervous about the survival of their individual sports. The recent move by UC Davis to eliminate four varsity sports could be a sign of things to come at Berkeley. "I'd hate to see us be in a position to have to do that," Barbour said. "We're known for a large and robust program. ... Can you reasonably operate 27 programs or are you better off taking what resources you have and spending them on fewer sports?" That is the core question facing Berkeley and Barbour, but she is not in a position to make that decision herself. If cutting sports is deemed necessary by an advisory council formed by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to study "financial sustainability" in the athletics department, Barbour said only football, men's and women's basketball, and women's volleyball a requirement for membership in the Pacific 10 Conference are safe. "If we get to the point of discussion on reduction in sports, it's all fair game," she said, reluctantly.
Barbour is in more of a maelstrom than she ever was as a field hockey goalie. Those who know her best say she's uniquely qualified for the job. "She has a very high intellectual capacity," said Kevin White, the athletic director at Duke University who hired Barbour not once but twice in administrative capacities, at Tulane University and Notre Dame. "She can get her head around practical issues and philosophical issues as well as anyone in our profession. She can easily adjust to any environment and situation. She seems to be able to do that as well as anybody I know." That's been a necessity at Berkeley, where shortly after taking over, Barbour watched a 20-month drama play out as activists took to the trees outside Memorial Stadium to protest the planned removal of the trees and make way for her department's most ambitious project, the student-athlete center referred to as a "high-performance" center by UC. The high-performance center will become home to 13 of the university's 27 varsity sports, also serving as a de facto "think tank" for the development of the 21st century athlete, in mind and body. "I certainly get frustrated when it's described as a gym or it's described as an office building," Barbour said. "It's going to house the heart and soul of elements that contribute to the ability of student-athletes to perform at a high level, which is what we're about with students on campus." The fight to start construction was indicative of Barbour's challenges. "She does have her hands full," said Warren Hellman, a Berkeley graduate Class of '55 and philanthropist who with three partners endowed the school's Spieker Aquatics Center. "It's never easy at Cal. You never hear about Stanford professors protesting athletics. They seem to get a pass on everything that's controversial at Cal."
Eventually, a number of oak trees were removed so construction on the high-performance center could begin. According to the university, $144 million of the $153 million total is accounted for, either in private donations or facility fees to come from future football ticket sales. But that doesn't stop the criticism.
The opposition view
There is a strident group of professors on campus that believes the university's priorities are in the wrong place at a time when academics are taking a hit. They point out that while the football team stays in a nice hotel the night before home games, recent budget cuts on campus include the elimination of telephones in the offices of English department instructors. "I think sports is important," said Michael O'Hare, a professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy. "A reasonable program of competitive athletics is not a bad thing to have. I don't think we have the scale or balance right. We're talking about a $60 million company that's losing $14 million this year." One professor, who did not want his name used due to a fear of reprisals, lauded Barbour's performance as athletics director - with one caveat. "Sandy's been a breath of fresh air compared to the old regime of former AD Steve Gladstone and the people who preceded him," said this professor, with 15 years' tenure at Berkeley. "The one blemish on her record is letting the budget get away from her. It's a crisis on campus. ... The political climate on campus is not going to tolerate it." Those unhappy with the role of athletics on campus might do well to listen to a counterpoint from Hellman, the former president of Lehman Bros. and once a director of the Nasdaq Stock Market. My investment group "has donated to Cal academics four times what we gave to Cal aquatics," Hellman said. "If it wasn't for athletics, I don't know if our level of enthusiasm for Cal would be the same."
A private person
Despite her high-profile job, Barbour is at heart a private person in a public role. Of her personal life, she said little in an interview with The Chronicle other than she is single and not currently in a relationship. "When the time is right for some sort of relationship, that will surprise me," she said. Barbour lives in the Montclair district of Oakland in a four-bedroom house built in the aftermath of the devastating Oakland hills fire of 1991. She has no intention of leaving. "It's got a nice little view of the bay. I love it," she said. "Got great neighbors, it's proximal to school. It's a perfect situation." Born in Annapolis, Md., educated in North Carolina B.A., Wake Forest, Massachusetts master's in science of sports management at UMass and Illinois MBA, Northwestern and employed in Louisiana athletics director, Tulane and Indiana deputy athletics director, Notre Dame, she now considers her little slice of the East Bay home. "This is just such a fabulous area - for everything there is to do," she said. "I've been here six years and I'd be embarrassed to say what I haven't done. Bit by bit, over time, you have an opportunity to experience all that. You've got to make time to go to Napa ... or Stinson Beach." In her neighborhood, Barbour favors local businesses such as the Montclair Bistro, Crogan's, the Sunday farmers' market and "Starbucks sees me with some frequency," she said. "The guys in Crogan's know who I am and are very hospitable," Barbour said. "We've got a lot of Cal alums in the area. You always run into Cal people, which is great." Her corner office in Haas Pavilion features a number of bear icons and photos along with a conspicuous bright yellow water dish. That's for those times when Barbour's beloved black Labrador retriever, Deuce, keeps her company on the job. "She comes in when I have a short day, which is not all that often," the AD said. "It's nice to have her here. She loves the campus. She's pretty good off-leash. ... I suppose I shouldn't say that. She gets an opportunity to explore. She is a very loving dog, loves to be around people." Along with her owner, Deuce loves taking walks on campus. One of Barbour's favorites is from Sproul Plaza to the Faculty Glade. "I think it's fabulous," she said. "It's a neat pathway. It's beautiful. I love Memorial Stadium, looking west to the Bay, looking east up Strawberry Canyon." Barbour has earned the respect of the most prominent coach in her department, football's Jeff Tedford, with whom she's worked since coming to Berkeley in 2004. "She has done a nice job of coming in here trying to figure out Berkeley, which isn't an easy thing to do," Tedford said. "I really enjoy being around her. She has a great sense of humor. She has a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I don't know that I've ever caught her on a bad day when she doesn't have enthusiasm."
Goalkeeper to gatekeeper
Barbour readily admits she is where she is today because of the grounding she received from her late father, Henry, an aviator in the Navy and a Naval Academy graduate who died in 2001. Henry Barbour took the younger of his two daughters to football games, at the Academy and in Baltimore to see the Colts of old, to teach her about the game. Sports was part of her life from an early age. When the time came for college, there was young Sandy, in goal for the field hockey team at Wake Forest. "She was a player that stood out at that time," said her former coach Caroline Price, who first dragged out the tennis ball machine and put it in front of Barbour in goal. "She was a bright kid, determined, with a good work ethic." Price said she's not surprised that her former goalie made a name for herself as an athletic director. Barbour was on that track even in goal, fending off high-speed fire. "I joke that all the credit goes to the tennis ball machine," Price recalled with a laugh. "She stood out as serious-minded and focused," Price said. "She does have the temperament and focus, the ability to problem-solve. "There she is now, all grown up in the maelstrom there in Berkeley, trying to get all those things done." The former goalkeeper is now gatekeeper, still taking shots.