The firing (quaintly called a reassigning) of Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour last week made me wish I could do a history rewind, to the time when she was hired in 2005.
At the time, everybody was celebrating the rebound Cal had made with Steve Gladstone as athletic director since the Tom Holmoe years, which not only brought bad football teams but also a one-year NCAA probation because two wide receivers had been given credit for a course they didn’t bother to attend.
Gladstone was also a very successful crew coach, so he depended on assistant Mark Stephens to put in a strict accounting system and also to be the point man on the search for a football coach, which resulted in the hiring of Jeff Tedford, who put together more consecutive winning seasons than any Cal coach since Andy Smith in the 1920s.
Stephens, a Cal grad and former player who had also gotten a master’s degree in business administration, was supposed to be in line to succeed Gladstone. He was very popular with the big donors among Cal alumni. What’s not to like?
But Cal was also making a change in its chancellor, to Robert Birgenau, coming in from Canada. Birgenau wanted somebody who would be loyal to him, not to anybody else. So, he brought in Barbour.
It’s no coincidence that, when Birgenau left, new Chancellor Nicholas Dirks soon reassigned Barbour. The first sign that Dirks was unhappy with Barbour was when he overruled her on the choice of a new men’s basketball coach to replace the resigning Mike Montgomery. Barbour wanted to promote a Montgomery assistant. Dirks’ candidate was the very accomplished Cuonzo Martin. Despite Martin’s success at Tennessee, Volunteers fans preferred former coach Bruce Pearl.
Barbour’s previous basketball hires — Montgomery for the men, Lindsay Gottlieb for the women — were her best hirings.
For football, though, she fired Tedford and hired Sonny Dykes, who coaches an offensive system that doesn’t work on the Pac-12 Conference level. The Bears went 1-10 last year and their prospects for the future are dim. And though Dykes was campaigning for the job, Barbour gave him a five-year contract. That means her successor will have to pay off three years of that contract when Dykes is fired after another dreadful season.
Barbour also managed to get a new stadium built, a necessity because it’s right on the Hayward fault, expected to be the one that causes the next big Bay Area shake.
Otherwise, though, the picture is grim. The graduation rate for football players is dead last in the conference, despite the fact that more players are opting for easier academic schedules. In other words, they’re not winning or getting an education. The daily double.
And Barbour has been tone deaf on Cal tradition. She wanted to put this year’s Big Game at the 49ers’ new stadium before she heard from irate alumni.
Mark Stephens was a football player and an excellent student at Cal. He knows the demands and the rewards. If he had been named athletic director, we wouldn’t be having these discussions about Cal’s problems.