Bad Optics at Penn State

I have said and written for years that in the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins.

In my crisis management and crisis communications business, we sometimes have to tell clients that no matter how “right” they think they may be with, say, a controversial decision, if the widespread public perception is otherwise, they are wrong. We refer to this as “optics” – how something appears. And if the optics are bad, you likely have a problem.


Which brings me to Penn State’s recent choice of Sandy Barbour to replace the widely unpopular Dave Joyner as the school’s athletic director. This is as blatant a case of bad optics as I’ve ever run across.

Will Rogers used to say, “All I know is what I read in the papers,” and so it is with my view of Sandy Barbour. I don’t know her, but giving her the benefit of any doubt, let’s assume she has the requisite basic skills for the post. That’s the reality, but that’s not the problem, as I see it. It’s the perception of what I read in the papers that gives me – and others – pause.

In the heat of the Penn State crisis, NCAA henchman Mark Emmert very publicly accused Penn State of putting football ahead of academics. Emmert’s dunce cap must have slipped over his eyes, otherwise he would have seen on his own NCAA website that Penn State’s GSR (Graduation Success Rate) for football players that year was a very impressive 87 percent. That was second only to Northwestern in the Big Ten and tied for tenth place nationally with Stanford. Not exactly slouch schools.

Does that sound like putting athletics ahead of academics? Hardly. It sounds more like Joe Paterno’s decades-old mantra of “success with honor.”

Barbour just finished up a controversial 10-year stint as AD at Cal Berkeley, where its GSR stood at a rock bottom 44 percent, the lowest GSR in major college sports today. And that was after cutting four sports programs entirely.

To be clear, 44 percent is the average GSR of all Cal athletes. The GSR for football players was only 39 percent; basketball, at a knuckle-dragging 21 percent, was far worse.

Those are bad optics.

I don’t know who else was on the short list for the AD job at Penn State (although wouldn’t it be great to find out?), but I wonder what their respective GSR’s were. Certainly none were lower than Barbour’s.

But is it fair to hold Barbour responsible for such a low GSR? Why not? The AD sets the tone, implemented by the respective coaches. After a decade as the school’s AD, she certainly had to be aware of the low GSR. A 44 percent GSR means that 56 percent of your athletes across the board are not graduating. You’d have to be deaf, dumb, blind and stupid not to be aware of such appalling numbers, and she had to have been under some kind of mandate to improve it. (If not, what does that say about Berkeley?) But she did not. If anything, unless Cal’s GSR started out at the bottom and remained rooted there for a decade, it only got worse the longer she was there.

Remember, Penn State is still operating under draconian NCAA sanctions, so the school’s every move is under the proverbial microscope. What the school should have sought was an AD whose athletes across the board were exemplary in athletic as well as academic performance. In short, the school needs its AD to be like Caesar’s wife: beyond reproach.

On top of the GSR issue, controversy seems to surround Barbour’s departure from Cal, which some media outlets, including CBS Sports, report as her being “forced out.” And then add in her staggering 57 percent pay increase.  She went from a $400,000 base salary at Cal to a $700,000 base salary at Penn State, before adding in the annual $100,000 retention bonuses. In the business world, if you want to lure someone away from a job they already have, you dangle that kind of incentive package in front of them. But she was out of a job to begin with. This begs the question: what did she do to deserve that kind of money?

Penn State may not realize it, but the school is still deeply immersed in the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky crisis. I said back then, there was no one at the school skilled in crisis management and crisis communications, and it looks like that is still true. The school, then as now, needs to employ strategic communications – crisis communications – with targeted messages that project the school in positive, not questionable, lights. No matter her skills, the perception is that Sandy Barbour is the wrong kind of lightening rod at this juncture.

As I said, I do not know her, but it makes you ask: what were they thinking? Because, no matter how you look at it, the optics at Penn State are bad.