After a lot of speculation and some cryptic language, Scott Barnes' tenure as athletics director at Pitt finally came to an end last week. With all of that, I wanted to take a look back at the Barnes era at Pitt and, while it may be an unpopular opinion based on his basketball hire, there's not really much doubt that he did a good job at the university.
Now, full disclosure here. Most of our regular readers know that I'm a member of Pitt's Fan Experience Committee. The committee was headed by Barnes so take that under consideration. But, and trust me when I say this, I am not some great pal of the former athletics director. Other than some pleasantries from having been on the committee, I don't have any inside relationship with Barnes, etc. And while I think the job that Barnes did at Pitt was admirable, I'm going to do mostly present the facts here and let readers decide for themselves how Barnes did.
With that out of the way, here's a rundown of what Barnes accomplished while here.
If there's one thing I'll remember about the Barnes era, it was that he understood that the fan voice was important. Barnes introduced the idea of creating a Fan Experience Committee to help get an idea of what the fanbase was thinking and generate some ideas about what the school could do better.
That decision shouldn't be dismissed as some inconsequential thing. This isn't some collection of only high-ranking donors. There are everyday fans there along with students and some former athletes. Many schools will give a voice to the big boosters but Pitt literally opened this up to every Tom, Dick, and Harry.
There was also a survey last year to garner thoughts on the fan experience at games. Additionally a group of students also ran a similar survey of students. Those answers and suggestions were given careful consideration and, in the case of some things like alcohol sales, some of that input led to some changes. Barnes also set up a Town Hall event, providing an inside look about his direction for the athletics department.
Finally, Pitt made attracting new donors (and engaging old ones) a huge priority. The school put together a massive campaign under Barnes' direction, targeted at raising money. Barnes was a master fundraiser at his previous stops and, while the jury is still out on the future of fundraising at Pitt, he certainly did his job while here to place an emphasis on giving.
A Public Master Plan
Barnes realized that Pitt needed vision and while other universities complete master plans, he made transparency a focus by publicly revealing his five-year plan.
There is absolutely no reason for an athletics director to need to do that since it could make for an embarrassing situation. The athletics master plan has some specific goals and if Pitt doesn't reach those, it would be a bad look for him. Barnes thought it was more important for the public to know that he has a clear vision for the school than to simply be worried about a lack of success by his own standards.
The primary job of an athletics director is to produce winning programs while playing within the rules. Lots of sub-goals fall under that header but that's the big one. One of those sub-goals is to raise money to sustain a school's programs and Barnes helped Pitt raise a little more of that with the sales of alcohol throughout Heinz Field this year. Alcohol was always available in the club/suite areas but not in other parts of the stadium.
It was one of the things fans repeatedly asked for and Barnes made it happen this past year. I was concerned if it would lead to a spike in incidents but as Deputy AD Julio Friere told me at our last Fan Experience Committee meeting, that has not happened. The sales of alcohol this year was not a massive financial success but it will provide a decent revenue stream for the school in the future.
Olympic Sports Focus
Olympic sports are seen by the casual football/basketball fan as a nuisance but Barnes made sure to make them a focus while at Pitt.
Pitt often placed those sports on the back burner and as a result, some programs were driven into the ground. The men's soccer program hadn't had a winning year since 2000. The women's soccer club has had only two winning years in the past 20 seasons. Several others were well below average. While understanding that football/men's basketball were the cash cows, Barnes was interested in competing across the board, stating the need to be more competitive in the Director's Cup.
He hired a national championship winning coach, Jay Vidovich as the men's soccer coach. Barnes also hired renowed swimming/diving coach John Hargis, an Olympic gold medalist and former head coach at Penn State. He extended the contracts of softball coach Holly Aprile and women's basketball coach Suzie McConnell-Serio. The softball team in particular, is really moving up the ranks, making the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
Kevin Stallings Hire
The biggest point of contention from fans seems to have been the hire of Kevin Stallings as men's basketball coach, so no review of his resume would be thorough without considering that.
Here's the thing about the Stallings hire. I wasn't a big fan of it and, like other Pitt fans, had some reservations. But at the same time, context is needed. Dixon felt his welcome had been worn out here and left of his own accord. And while Pitt ended up with Stallings, all indications are that they made a run at Sean Miller. Because Pitt couldn't lure back a former player and convince him to leave a perennial Top 25 program isn't exactly Barnes' fault.
Now, there was the whole search firm business that perhaps steered Stallings to Barnes' doorstep (here's more on that, by the way, if you're in the dark). That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and while the press conference was a bit of a disaster, as Paul Zeise recently wrote, was in the grand scheme of things not that big of a deal. Far bigger is how Stallings performs and while search firms can make recommendations, they don't have the final say.
Finally, not even halfway through his first year, it's way too early to decide if the Stallings hire is a good/bad one, anyway. Right now, that deserves an 'incomplete' on Barnes' report card rather than a failing grade.
One of Barnes' biggest areas of focus has been on securing annual football games against Penn State. When the Panthers couldn't get the Nittany Lions beyond these four years, he turned to West Virginia, quickly setting up a series with them. And realizing the non-conference basketball schedule could use some 'pop, too, he scheduled the Mountaineers in hoops.
Some people don't like the idea of playing West Virginia again but Barnes was also smart enough to realize that their addition guaranteed the football program a sellout at Heinz Field and a chance for more years like this one, when the school sold a record 55,000+ tickets. Barnes wisely packaged the Penn State game with first only full season packages and then partial ones to maximize the school's profits. They can do the same thing in not only future games with Penn State but also West Virginia as well.
Bowl Ticket Sales Success
Having made nine in a row now, Pitt's football program is no stranger to making bowl games. The Panthers, though, haven't generally traveled to those season-ending games and that has led to not always receiving great bowl games. Some of the travel problems have been due to apathy and some have been because of downright terrible slotting issues like being placed in Birmingham, Alabama for three years in a row from 2010-2012 for the Compass Bowl.
Barnes knew what it would take to get Pitt better bowls for the future. The team not only has to win more but have its fans show up in droves to the bowl games. Pitt was aggressive in trying to sell tickets and did that in spectacular fashion last year at the Military Bowl by not only selling out its full initial allotment of tickets but by requesting two additional allotments. They are also doing another great job this year, selling out their initial allotment of tickets for the Pinstripe Bowl.
Barnes has fully taken an embarrassing situation and turned it into a positive. Pitt wouldn't even disclose their ticket sales many years in the past because of low totals being revealed. The school is now able to take that information, share it publicly, and use it as a reason to show other bowl games that fans will show up to better bowls in the future.
Barnes consolidation of the use of the script was another great example of his willingness to listen to what the fans wanted. The script was re-introduced hastily under Steve Pederson as a football-only thing. When Barnes rolled it out for all sports, it was a much bigger deal as a full event complete with a fashion show.
Fans often state that bringing the script back was no big deal and a no-brainer. Well, Pederson got rid of it, Jeff Long didn't bring it back, and in his second tenure, Pederson ignored it until the very end. Some have even wondered if it was a point of contention since Pederson was gone shortly after that. Of Pitt's last four athletics directors, Barnes was the only one that understood its importance to fans.
In summary, I'm not saying that Barnes was perfect. And if the Stallings hire doesn't work out, then it should undoubtedly count as a major strike on his resume. But Barnes did a lot of good for Pitt while here and he deserves a lot of credit for that.