Sandy Barbour had been Cal's athletic director for less than three months in 2004, had barely moved into her new office, and already Bay Area skepticism about her had ramped up into four-alarm panic.
Only three years removed from a 1-10 catastrophe, Jeff Tedford had turned Cal football into a national-title contender. For his miracle turnaround, Tedford was rumored to be the leading candidate for openings all over college football and even the NFL -- and it was up to Barbour, a newcomer from Tulane, to keep him.
"People were really worried, but in the end, I was able to re-sign him to a new long-term contract and keep him at Cal," Barbour said. "All the boosters exhaled, and said, 'Oh, OK, maybe this is a good thing.' ... I never doubted my ability, but [signing Tedford] gave me credibility with people who did."
And there are a lot of those doubters in major-college sports, judging by the numbers. Though the NCAA says nearly 45 percent of varsity athletes are female, it's much rarer to find a woman in charge. Only 36 universities of the 347 that play Division I basketball have athletic departments headed by women, and only five of them are among the 120 schools that field teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. And at the BCS level? Barbour is one of three, along with Arizona State's Lisa Love and N.C. State's Debbie Yow.
Most Big Ten schools haven't had a women in charge of a department that included men's athletics; Merrily Dean Baker, a somewhat recent anomaly, ran Michigan State's sports programs from 1992-95. Minnesota is currently in the process of searching for a new leader of its 25-sport athletic department to replace Joel Maturi, who is retiring after a decade in Bierman Hall. Would the Gophers consider putting a woman in charge?
In two news conferences dealing with Maturi's eventual successor, university president Eric Kaler, who will make the final decision on Maturi's successor, has notably never used the pronoun "he" to describe the next AD, and he confirmed through a spokesman that the candidate pool will include "diversity in experience, background, gender and race."
"I'm open to qualified candidates from really a wide range of backgrounds," Kaler said last week in announcing a search committee to aid in the hiring. "We want the best qualified person in the United States to take this job."
Since Love's hiring in 2005, however, the only major university to hire a women for that job in the past six years was N.C. State, which lured Yow away from Maryland, where she had been in charge since 1994.
"It's taking a long time, unfortunately," Barbour said, for women to close that gap. "It's been the five of us [at FBS schools] for some time now."
Would Gophers fans and boosters, thirsty for turnarounds in the bottom-half-of-the-Big-Ten results turned in by their football and basketball teams, support putting a female in charge?
"I would think that Minnesotans want a great leader running their program, that's the most important thing," said Chris Voelz, whose Athletics-Plus consulting firm trains female sports executives in the finer points of athletic fund-raising. "You have so many strong female leaders in Minnesota, and there is such a history of giving there, I'm sure a woman could succeed."
What might have been
There was a time when Voelz believed that woman would be her; when she was hired to oversee women's sports in Minnesota in 1988, then-president Nils Hasselmo told her that the separate men's and women's departments would eventually be combined under her leadership.
When unification finally came in 2002, however, Hasselmo was no longer president. Voelz, who had considerable success in raising money, expanding women's sports infrastructure and winning championships, opposed the timing of the merger and left the university when Maturi was hired.
Since then, she has campaigned for increased opportunities for women in sports as a fundraiser and ambassador for the Women's Sports Foundation. She doesn't miss the job, Voelz said -- "I've had less stress in the past 10 years than in one week at the university," she jokes -- but is frustrated that more women haven't been given a similar opportunity.
The reason, she suspects, is football.
"I remember when I was an aspiring athletics director, people would say, 'Chris, you don't know football.' And I would look around the table when I was [senior associate AD] at Oregon, and I was the only one who had been a coach. The only one!" Voelz said. "What happens is, university presidents hire males because they look like football players. Not on purpose, it just culturally happens. They assume because he's a man, he must know football."
That's why the football credibility she gained by retaining Tedford was so critical to Barbour when she came to Cal.
"I'm a former field hockey coach, and there were [boosters] who needed to know, OK, she's not going to try to turn this into Field Hockey U. She understands the place that football holds on this campus," said Barbour, who holds an MBA along with her academic and athletic credentials. "And when they realize that, it kind of all goes away. And then the job is just the regular hard."
The revenues that football provides, which dwarf all other sports at the BCS level, make that sport priority No. 1 in most places, and it's why Love hired Dennis Erickson as head coach in 2007, then replaced him with Todd Graham in December when Erickson went without a winning record for four seasons.
"Managing football is the biggest part of the job. Internally, dealing with football coaches, that's never been an issue," said Love, a former USC volleyball coach and senior administrator. "But connecting to the primary donors and boosters, that's very important to the economics of the success of the overall program. A woman perhaps has to work a little bit harder to get connected in that regard because it's atypical. And maybe there isn't quite as much forgiveness if everything isn't perfect. But there are pretty high standards in this job, no matter who is in it, male or female."
Barbour said she knows "literally dozens of qualified women with sports-administration backgrounds" who could excel at the job, "and we're working with the executive search firms to identify them. It's a matter of getting the opportunity, and I think we have more qualified candidates than ever before."
But not everyone relishes such a high-profile job, Love noted.
"I've got so many colleagues around the country who are first lieutenants. They could do the job, but they don't aspire to it."
It's odd, Voelz said, that in an academic setting, where diversity is valued so highly in so many areas, that athletic administration could lag so far behind, four decades after Title IX increased opportunities for female athletes.
"We keep saying a president who makes that decision is ahead of their time," Voelz said. "Well, when is it time?"