New athletic director Scott Barnes talks plans, policy for Pitt sports

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New athletic director Scott Barnes talks plans, policy for Pitt sports

Athletic Director Scott Barnes looks out at the horizon of fundraising for Pitt athletics.

Athletic Director Scott Barnes looks out at the horizon of fundraising for Pitt athletics.

Athletic Director Scott Barnes looks out at the horizon of fundraising for Pitt athletics.

Athletic Director Scott Barnes looks out at the horizon of fundraising for Pitt athletics.

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

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When Pitt hired Scott Barnes as its new athletic director on April 24, Panther fans were curious about how the former Utah State AD would impact the University, following the departure of Steve Pederson.

Last week, The Pitt News sat down to speak with Barnes, who officially began his post on June 15, discussing topics ranging from improving fan experience to NCAA policy.

TPN: What made Pitt an attractive destination for you? Why did you decide to pursue this job?

Scott Barnes: Certainly getting to know the Chancellor [was a big factor]. When I was contacted, I didn’t know a lot about Pitt. And as I learned more about the Chancellor and his leadership and his vision, it became very exciting. As I learned more about the city [I became more interested]. I, as a west coast guy, had my own perception of [the city]. I had never been to [Pittsburgh]. And as I learned more about the city and the fit for my family, that was a really good transition as well. I’d say, most importantly, the things that the Chancellor and the committee were looking for, I felt I could bring. When you take a new job, you want to have the opportunity to make an impact. You want to have an opportunity to affect positive change. We felt we could do that for sure here. And certainly, being a Power Five [Conference] school was a step up from where I was. Those are all pieces of the puzzle.

TPN: You’ve been a west coast guy your entire life. What were you expecting moving to the east? What was your perception of Pittsburgh?

SB: Well, I think the perception was what this town was founded on. Big steel, industrial steel town. And you know, it’s very different. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in America. It reminds [me and my wife] a lot of two cities we’ve lived in, a combination of Spokane, Wash. and Seattle. [My wife] and I talk about that all the time. It’s got a very much midwestern feel. It’s an unbelievable transformation that has occurred here, in every way. It’s exciting.

TPN: As a former college athlete who played basketball at Fresno State, how does your experience alter your perspective as an administrator?

SB: My wife is also a former student athlete, and we’re a bit of a team in that regard. But as it relates to my perspective, yeah, I think you’re a little more sensitive to the needs and the issues that the student athletes and the coaches have, because you’ve been there. And so, I think that puts you, with all other things being equal, a little more in tune with the circumstances.

TPN: You served as the NCAA Basketball Selection Committee Chair last year. What was that experience like?

SB: I literally felt like I was walking around with a bullseye painted on my forehead … It was a life experience. [In terms of] the chair position, it was an honor to be selected by my peers. It was an incredible experience. [There was] absolutely a lot of pressure. You better be able to take a punch in the gut, because you can’t please everybody. At the same time, you want so much to operate with integrity and consistency, and we feel great about the job we did there, in doing that. But it’s also one of those experiences where once you’ve done it, you’re kind of glad it’s in the rearview mirror. Because it’s so exhausting, it was emotional, it was time-consuming. It was an unbelievable experience and I’m glad I’m moving on to the next phase.

TPN: Where do you stand on the issue of college athlete compensation? Why do you think the movement gained so much momentum recently?

SB: We haven’t changed for decades the scholarship model, it’s been the same — room and board and tuition. I also think that we in our industry could have been more proactive to come to the table with a model more representative of today, and we didn’t do that. I think the pay-for-play caught fire with the talking heads and as leaders we didn’t step in on the front end of that, we became reactive to that. I believe wholeheartedly that in the collegiate model, there’s no room for pay-for-play. Now, we have to define that. And how I define that is that it’s suggesting that a student athlete should receive market value, you know, $500,000, because he’s a Heisman Trophy candidate in football. That takes us away from what we don’t talk enough about, which is that we have a purpose in higher education. We advance the mission of the University. We do it by graduating our student athletes at a higher rate than the general student body in most instances. We do it by teaching life lessons every day. Our coaches are teachers. They are unique, but they’re complementary to faculty on campus — they teach life lessons everyday. And then equipping student athletes for the next step of their lives, that’s critical to our role. There’s another piece to that, too. We serve as a front porch. We’re not the most important room in the house, but we’re the most visible. We know that with that visibility comes opportunity and responsibility. All of that helps advance the mission of the University. When you start looking at pay-for-play models, the Kessler case, the lid blows off of this and then you become a business enterprise. That’s not what the model is. I think people forget all the success we’ve had with the model. We talk a lot about the negatives, but it’s been an incredible opportunity to galvanize alumni to put student athletes in a tremendous position for the next step of their lives, because almost all of them are going to go into something else other than sports. And we forget that. You look at the captains of industry, and the people that are in the marketplace, people who are leaders in this country, a lot of them played high school and college sports. There’s a reason for that. I support improving the student-athlete experience — cost of attendance is a great example — within the confines of the collegiate model. I think we need to bring great focus to that, and we need to do more. And we are doing more. I really like what we’re looking at legislatively, whether it’s meal legislation or cost-of-attendance legislation, we’re doing those things right now. And we should be. Other than that, there’s not a place in collegiate athletics for [student-athlete compensation] and if a student-athlete has that as their primary goal, they need to go to the pros. They don’t need to stop in college.

TPN: You recently announced the formation of the Panther Fan Experience Committee. What was the genesis of this idea, and how do you go about forming the 20-person committee?

SB: We did this at Utah State. If we’re truly going to build attendance, particularly in football, we’re going to have to listen to fans, and determine what they want in their experience. I took that to our external staff [at Pitt] and they did a great job putting a plan together. Just a wonderful job of mapping it out from timelines to the process for applications. And this will be almost like a part-time job. There will be interviews and applications. We want as diverse segments as we can get. We want those folks who buy one ticket a year, we want season-ticket holders, we want donors, corporate sponsors, we want students. We want every segment of our fanbase to contribute to what the fan experience should be. In a perfect world, if I had started earlier, we probably would have got this out in the early spring, because then you can actually have some things to actually implement. But a positive is that because the timing of this, the committee can actually be observing at football games, and bringing back their observations. So in some ways, this makes it a more powerful process, because they’re in real time observing and bringing in feedback, and we think we might be able to make some changes halfway into the season that correct some things. And then we’ll move on to basketball and the other sports. Our focus is obviously where the largest area of fans are, but customer service is something that we want to get better at across all of our sports. So this committee will impact all of our sports eventually, with focus on the larger groups first.

TPN: How much do you think Pitt’s struggles to fill up Heinz Field for football games are part of the nature of having an off-campus stadium? How much of that do you think can be improved with improved amenities and fan environment at the games?

SB: I think there are a lot of things that contribute to fan attendance. We’re all grappling with the issue across the country, whether we’re thinking about student attendance or fans in general. We want Pitt to serve as the city of Pittsburgh’s collegiate team. And it’s also our alumni base. Wins always help. But let’s not use that as an excuse. What else can be done? I think this Fan Experience Committee puts together an opportunity to bring unique ideas that meet fans where they are. This city is a pro sports city, but we think that Pitt football can grow based on having a better experience in games. Obviously wins will always help. Also casting a wider net. We have the largest living alumni base in the ACC, let’s make sure we engage our alums as well as the non-alumni fans in the city. If we can tackle those things, and bring a really good experience to them, and certainly get some enthusiasm with some wins — and I think we have that opportunity with our current student athletes and our leadership of Coach Narduzzi — then I think we have a recipe to continue to grow and sustain growth.

TPN: Programs like baseball and basketball have had one coach at the helm for years, but the football program has had more than it’s fair share of turnover. How crucial do you think stability is to a program?

SB: [It’s] one of the most important pieces. Because when you have continuity, and particularly continuity in a successful program, the synergy that’s created there is a positive. Conversely, when you don’t have it, you’re re-creating new offenses, you’re re-creating new systems, you’re re-creating everything. This needs to be looked at, and you talk about football because that’s currently the problem child, in terms of continuity. This should be a destination job, and so, what do we need to do to treat it as a destination job. Coach Narduzzi is from the neighborhood, Youngstown, Ohio, two hours away. We need to make sure his assistants, as they do the great job we know they’ll do, [stay], and that we’re keeping as many pieces in place as we can. Hey, this is college athletics, it’s a bit of a carousel in that regard. The more stability we can bring to the top end of the leadership in football, the more success we’ll have in implementing our plans. And that’s the elephant in the room in terms of things we need to change.

TPN: With the return to the Pitt script logo last year for Pitt football, is rebranding to that logo currently in the works?

SB: It is. But we’re gonna make sure that we move this process forward in a strategic way. We’re gonna make sure we do it the right way. Slapping a logo on a helmet, there’s a lot more to it. It involves every team, it involves all 19 programs, all 480 student athletes, an alumni base, a recruiting base, it involves a lot of things. So we’re going to make sure that as we move forward and look at the opportunities across all of our programs, we put a plan in place to do it. So that’s kind of where we’re at with that.

TPN: How important is alumni outreach for an athletic department?

SB: I think that the engagement in our alumni is critical. Just in my short time here, I think we have a tremendous partnership budding between athletics and our alumni association, with the Panther Prowls that have gone on here. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend two of those, and we want to take that and build on those, because that’s an opportunity to reach out to those alumni and connect them back to the institution. Ultimately, they will give, through season tickets, through being volunteers or giving gifts, and when you think about the reliance on external revenue for our program, it’s critical. Because we are reliant significantly on those dollars to fund scholarships, to fund operations and the like. But it starts with reaching out to them and getting them engaged, and we’re looking forward to finding ways like the Fan Experience Committee to do that, to give them a voice, and literally a vote in some ways into what we should be doing moving forward.

TPN: In light of Tyler Boyd’s recent incident, how high of a standard do you think college athletes in general should be held off the field?

SB: Again, with my front porch analogy, we take very seriously who we put on our front porch. In the end, we want our student athletes to represent the University and themselves in a remarkable way. We all make poor choices, it doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It means we made poor choices. Our focus is to minimize those poor choices, to educate, to make student athletes accountable for the decisions that they make, which we will do. We will hold our student athletes to a higher expectation due to the front porch they sit on, and that’s more of in terms how they conduct themselves publicly, obviously, and the quality of people they are and the quality of people we recruit. And it starts with a coach and who they’re recruiting and how they’re training them up, and I’m really excited for Pat [Narduzzi’s] leadership in that regard, because of the expectations he’s going to set and has set for those both on the field and how they conduct themselves. It’s a learning process. Because of where we sit, we do have higher expectations for our student athletes than we do have for the general student, because the scrutiny is on them. It’s a burden, but they carry it, and they have to. It’s a part of their role. And they’re role models in a lot of ways. They have to take that role that they’re playing very seriously.

TPN: Most fans tend to focus on the revenue sports. As an athletic director, how much of a challenge is it to balance not just those but the other programs as well?

SB: It’s a challenge. Our move to the ACC brings to light our need to continue to invest in all of our programs. The ACC is an incredible platform. It’s incredibly competitive. It’s every bit as competitive in Olympic sports — if not more — than revenue sports, so we want to be excellent in everything we do. So our plan is to work toward putting our coaches and student athletes in the best position to compete, and we’re working on that every day.

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