The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two women make history as chair, vice chair of NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee

Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour is chair of the Division I Football Oversight Committee. (Penn State Athletics) (Penn State Athletics /Penn State Athletics)
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In a first, two women oversee the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee, as American life keeps tilting toward some juncture of the future when such stories won’t be stories anymore.

To the helm of a 20-member committee that studies changes in football rules, chair Sandy Barbour and vice chair Patty Viverito have brought along their voluminous CVs and their crucial good humor. All of it can help when, say, grappling with the regulation of college football roster sizes amid the proliferation of college football transfers.

That’s what they’re up to in their committee rooms and Zoom boxes, which include two souls who wouldn’t have believed the same during their childhoods spent either entirely or mostly during pre-Title IX prehistory.

Viverito, a whopping 36th year into her post as football commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference, grew up on the South Side of Chicago largely free of the sports affliction.

“I’m a Bears fan, I suppose,” she said, possibly the healthiest way to be a Bears fan.

Barbour, an eighth year into her post as athletic director at Penn State after holding that same title at Tulane and California, plus roles at Northwestern and Notre Dame, grew up in Annapolis and Hawaii and suburban Brussels and Norfolk and Virginia Beach as a Navy daughter with a serial sports memory almost too idyllic to fathom. It stars herself from about age 8 and her dad, Henry, riding on Sundays from Virginia Beach up to Baltimore to see their cherished Colts.

“Crushed, for weeks,” she said of the famed Jets-Colts Super Bowl III, a big game from so long ago that the Jets won it. “I think one of our next-door neighbors put black crepe paper on our front door.” At the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl, she gushed enough over meeting former Colt star Lydell Mitchell via Mitchell’s business partner, former Pittsburgh Steelers star Franco Harris, that Harris’s wife, Dana, said, “Hey, you’ve never acted like that with Franco!”

Viverito, asked if she would have foreseen ever helping decide college football rules, answered as follows:

“No. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no,” laugh.

Barbour, asked likewise, said: “I’ll tell you, I give my dad a whole lot of credit. For a guy who was born in 1920, he certainly adapted to the times and told his three daughters, especially his youngest [Sandy], that they could be and do anything they wanted to do. But I didn’t see anybody who looked like me doing the kinds of things I wanted to do. Was I precocious enough that if you’d asked me, I would have said, ‘Yeah, that’s cool?’ Yeah, but I’d walk away and think, ‘How’s that going to happen?’”

It happened, and now they’re running around with their advanced fluency in 2021 football lingo. They’re talking about concussions, which Viverito studied with a rarefied depth during a previous vice-chair term when the committee recommended the revisions that govern football practices. And they’re talking about recruiting classes, as when Barbour said, “Let’s say you sign in December or February a signing class of incoming freshmen of 25, and then you lose another 10 transfers during spring ball, and you can’t replace them under the current rules, because you’re capped out at 25.”

That’s the primary puzzle of recent weeks.

Both bios zigzagged through the country, even if both women did stop by for a master’s degree in sports management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Viverito has sat on so many sports committees that you wouldn’t want to drop the paragraph listing them on your foot, while Barbour’s eternal meetings include a previous term on this same committee, which weighed one of the uppermost matters in all American life: bowl eligibility for teams with records such as 6-6.

How did it all happen? It happened as life happens when a culture starts realizing it hasn’t been using half its available brains.

Viverito bounded out of Northern Illinois as a marketing major who hadn’t yet gotten to her athletic pursuits of later on — tennis, pickleball, trapeze — and she landed with Procter & Gamble in South Bend, Ind. Only there did she begin an earnest inhalation of the fumes of college football, getting Notre Dame football seats because she knew the Notre Dame track coach.

“The glib answer that I tell people,” she said, “is that there had to be more to life than selling toilet paper, and perhaps marketing women’s sports had to be a more fulfilling career.” So: “Title IX had just started,” which stirred a marketing need. So: “I thought I could fill that hole.”

Through those nascent days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, she worked with the pioneer Donna Lopiano at Texas and then with the Class AAA Tidewater Tides in Norfolk while her husband, Frank, nowadays the president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, worked at Old Dominion while reminding her their next relocation would chase her career. He happened to spot an item in the NCAA News one day and say, “I found your next job.”

She became the first commissioner of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, then the Gateway Conference.

“To say I was green to the sport was absolutely factual, but I knew how to run a sports league,” she said. “I would say that I approached my first meeting with football coaches with some trepidation. It probably helped that I was several months pregnant, really pregnant visibly,” which, as Frank put it, might stave off any meanness from the coaches.

So began a life of days spent learning the mechanics of officiating with the former Big Eight ref she hired, Ed Tschannen — “probably the smartest decision I made as football commissioner,” she said — and so began a life of football Saturdays.

“I tend to cheer for the officials,” she said. “So when I go to games, and I get to every campus every year, I try to do two things before every game: I try to get down on the field and shake hands with the coaches and wish them good luck, and I meet with the officials, not in a formal sense.”

And: “I don’t want to overstate some level of expertise.” And: “I’m still not the X’s-and-O’s person. I’m the behind-the-scenes, what-do-you-need-to-be-successful person.”

That’s even if she can rave with the best of them about the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the North Dakota State dynasty that hails from her league, the time in 2002 when Jack Harbaugh’s Western Kentucky up and won the whole thing.

Long about the time Viverito began, Barbour had spent teen years attending Navy games with her father the retired aviator, had known families of Navy football royalty such as that of George Welsh, had loved Mike Curtis and Raymond Chester and Earl Morrall and Mitchell et al., had jettisoned the Colts from her heart for a while when they left town in the wee hours.

When she bounded out of Wake Forest in 1981 having captained field hockey with two years of basketball to boot, she already was well on her way to saying this of football: “I would say I like it conceptually because of all the intricate aspects of the teamwork requirements,” and, “The right guard takes, you know, half a step to the right instead of half a step to the left, and the play breaks apart.”

“I’ve never been shy,” she said, “about acknowledging that football drives the train financially and, at every place I’ve been, emotionally.”

She has watched life grow around her until that Notre Dame intern she knew, Nina King, becomes athletic director at Duke. “We’re at as high a point as we’ve ever been with female ADs at collegiate institutions,” Barbour said. “We’ve added three in the last 18 months. I think that’s only going to continue to increase.”

It’s almost not a story anymore. “We’re not there yet,” she said. “We’re getting there.” Yet it has been a few years since somebody learned she was an athletic director and said, “Oh, for women’s sports?”

“I used to joke,” Viverito said, about enjoying short lines to the bathrooms at meetings.

“Now there are lines,” she said, “and I think sports are better off for it.”