2019-04-01 / Features

Home Stretch

Sandy Barbour, VP for Intercollegiate Athletics, shares her home’s contemporary, sports-themed style.
By Robyn Passante | Photos By Georgianna DeCarmine

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Sandy Barbour plans to retire at the end of her contract extension. The story has been updated.

If you’ve ever thought you might have seen Penn State’s Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour trudging up University Drive with the masses heading to a home football game but second-guessed yourself, thinking “That couldn’t be …”

It might have been.

Barbour, recently granted a contract extension through August 2023, has been known to walk to a home game, a luxury afforded her because her contemporary house sits in an unassuming State College borough neighborhood a little more than 2 miles from Beaver Stadium.
The location is just one of many things she loves about the four-bedroom, four-and-a-half bathroom house, built in 2014 by Levi Homes and bought for $700,000 by the athletic director who’d spent her first month on the job living at the Residence Inn State College while she searched for just the right place to call home.

“I love the openness; I love all the light. I love the decks,” says Barbour, 59, who initially made only a few minor changes to the mostly completed 4,190-square-foot house before moving in in January 2015. That included swapping out the green paint for a more neutral color that would complement a considerable amount of carefully acquired blue and white décor, and trading in the plush white carpet in the lower level rec room for a more traffic-friendly color and style. Barbour knew she’d be entertaining in that basement — a lot.

Many of the university’s coaches, student-athletes and biggest supporters have seen Barbour’s hospitality firsthand, but she recently gave State College Magazine the chance to have a look around and find out more about the first female AD in Penn State history.

The first thing you notice upon entering the house are the expansive windows in the main living areas, stretching multiple levels and letting light stream in on even the bleakest of early spring days.

“I wanted to capture the view, and that’s what started the house,” says the home’s designer, Olga Levi of Levi Homes. “The front was not of importance, and I wanted to have a contemporary look, and that’s why I don’t have as many windows in the front, because all the windows are in the back.”

Those windows offer views of Mount Nittany in the distance and Gordon D. Kissinger Meadow and Slab Cabin Run far below the backyard, which Barbour transformed through hardscaping a patio and adding an outdoor fireplace a couple years ago.

“I’ve done a lot of work on the patio downstairs to make it a livable space, with the ability to entertain,” she says. She made sure to leave enough grass within the fenced area of the yard for her dogs, Lucy and Bindi. “I’ve always had dogs, and as an adult, it’s always been Labs.”

Much of that entertaining happens on the decks on the main floor and walkout basement — there are also two smaller decks off the second-story master suites — as well as in the “Penn State room” in the basement, which sports a wet bar and pool table that doubles as a Ping-Pong table.

“Downstairs is only Penn State, the ‘fun room,’” Barbour says. “I also made the decision that it would be populated by items that represent something during my time here, it would kind of grow organically.”

To make sure everyone is represented and sufficiently supported, team posters from every Penn State sports team line the walls; there’s even a Penn State Blue Band poster. A wooden jewelry case behind the sofa holds every conference championship, national championship and bowl ring and watch that a Penn State team has earned in the past four and a half years.

“As (women’s volleyball coach) Russ Rose likes to say, ‘You never forget your first,’ and women’s volleyball in the fall of 2014 was my first national championship at Penn State,” says Barbour, pointing out the first ring earned during her tenure. Equally sparkly rings signifying the successes of women’s soccer, men’s basketball, men’s hockey and wrestling — “… wresting … wrestling …” she continues, pointing out multiple bands — are also kept on display. “I’m missing the Citrus Bowl (ring), I don’t have it yet.”

Canvas prints lining the walls are all from national championship and Big Ten championship teams during her time here, with several more waiting to be hung. And, in the corner nearest the three television screens, there’s a framed, signed picture of Joe Paterno’s signature rolled pant legs, a gift given to Barbour “that obviously belongs in the Penn State room.” It is the lone exception to her rule of the Nittany Lion décor in the room signifying something that has happened during her tenure.

The space also showcases some of Barbour’s considerable wine collection. She became a fan while living on the West Coast as the athletic director at the University of California, Berkeley, a job she held for 10 years before coming to Penn State. She estimates that the wine fridge keeps about 300 bottles perfectly chilled, with many more stored in another room in the basement.

Open-riser staircases between the levels were another intentional choice, Levi says, made to complement the openness of the living space and the contemporary design. “The staircase was a very central part of the design.”

Maple flooring, light wood fixtures and kitchen cabinets with frosted glass doors add to the home’s warmth and airiness. The kitchen appears spotless, and with good reason: “I like to cook, but I don’t really have the time,” Barbour says. She sometimes opts for takeout when home but is often still working during dinnertime, whether that means attending a business dinner or catching a game on campus.

“For me, that’s about 1.) I enjoy it. But 2.) I do feel it’s important that in particular our students, our coaches and others that support the programs understand that I care. And the easiest way you can do that is by showing up,” she says. That translates to a lot of time away from home, either at games on campus or traveling to tournaments and other big events.

A former student-athlete herself, Barbour played field hockey and basketball at Wake Forest University and served as a field hockey assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts and assistant field hockey and lacrosse coach at Northwestern before her career turned fully in the direction of administration.

“When I went to college, I wanted to coach and teach at the high school level, because other than my parents, my coaches and teachers had been the most important people in my life. They had a huge impact on me; I wanted to have an impact on others,” she says. “But then when I got to college I was a part of the field hockey and basketball programs at Wake, and I was kinda like ‘Oh this is kinda cool.’ This was 1977-81, so Title IX was still not taking hold yet. But I said, ‘This is really cool, I want to be at the college level.’”

Her career path took her through Tulane, Notre Dame and Cal before the opening at Penn State, which she says was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“This is an incredible place. It’s a great community, it’s a place I feel at home and comfortable,” says Barbour, a newly minted university VP with a salary that will average $1,294,000 over the next four academic years, in addition to various bonus opportunities. “I think we have a values alignment. The things that are important to me are important to Penn State, and vice versa. I love to win, and I hate to lose. But I’d rather lose than cheat. I’d rather lose than do it with students who aren’t serious about their academics, or who aren’t serious about being role models in the community. And that’s what we have.”

There are two giant buckets in her home, one in the Penn State room and another in her office, that are stuffed to the brim with credentials and game tickets spanning much of her career. She has no idea how many there are, but it’s easily in the hundreds.

“I’ve been collecting credentials and tickets for … I haven’t done it the entire time, but pretty close,” she says. “When people come over they love to pick out random ones, see where and when they were from.”  
Her office on the main floor houses a collection of signed memorabilia, framed articles and other mementos from her long career, reminders of lessons learned and milestones achieved along the way. Her favorite item, though sports related, is not affiliated with any of her former (or current) employers: It’s a Baltimore Colts football helmet signed by former quarterback Johnny Unitas.

“That signifies my relationship with my dad. … That was our bond — sports. And the Baltimore Colts epitomized that.” Barbour’s father, who died in 2001, was a career aviator for the U.S. Navy and retired to Annapolis, Maryland, when Barbour was still in high school. Back then, “there weren’t women doing this, so that was hard,” she says of her professional ambitions. “My dad said ‘You can be anything you want to be, you can do anything you want to do.’”

A few decades later, she has proven that sentiment to be true. Barbour earned the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Under Armour AD of the Year Award in 2016-17, and in April 2018, Forbes placed her at No. 13 among the “Most Powerful Women in Sports.”

Recognition in the industry is nice, and memorabilia is a fun way to represent milestones and memories. But when she sits in her home office surrounded by it, Barbour says she thinks mostly about student-athletes — past, present and future.

“You think about why you do what you do, and in what way what you do might be impactful.” •SCM

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