By Ed McGranahan.
By Ed McGranahan
Jim Barker navigated his job as president of Clemson University with the precision and vision of an architect. His decision to retire as president and return to the classroom removes an ally and visionary of significant influence from college athletics.
Barker has been a heavyweight, overseeing Clemson’s growth as a national player academically and athletically. In addition, he has become an influential and respected voice of reason in the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference.
A fan since age 17 and a former pole vaulter, he virtually bleeds orange. Barker often speaks of the DNA and competitive spirit of the typical Clemson fan.
“There’s only one time when I allow myself to be schizophrenic and I separate Jim Barker from the president,” he said the morning before the ACC Championship game in Charlotte a couple of years ago. “I know the president is supposed to be pretty even keeled, but when I’m with my family I’m just a fan.
“I told somebody last season, I got so mad I almost wrote myself a letter.”
A year earlier rumors were ripe with speculation that he would fire the athletic director for hiring an assistant coach with limited experience to run the football program. Barker reviewed Terry Don Phillips’ body of work and reported to the Clemson Board of Trustees that he was more than pleased with the progress of the athletic department, particularly the football program under Dabo Swinney.
At the time the facts were inconclusive. Phillips had rankled some within the athletic department during a particularly difficult period of economics, and a few of his decisions were questioned, but he had pushed for facility upgrades in several sports and chose Swinney despite the backlash.
Barker must have known he was putting his neck on the block when he vouched for them. That Saturday in Charlotte he counted himself among those that did not anticipate the rapid change in football’s fortunes.
“That is the kind of the season we wanted to have but I don’t know how many of us expected 9 and 3, playing for the championship,” he said. “It’s gratifying for me to see how quickly there’s been some success. When you look out beyond right now you have to feel pretty optimistic as well.”
For three years Barker served as chair of the NCAA Division I board of directors where he pushed for reform and common sense approaches during a generation which saw college athletics become a multi-billion dollar business.
When the NCAA determined its recruiting rules needed updating, Barker was placed as chair of the rewrite committee.
Most importantly, Barker has been a major player in reshaping college football’s competitive landscape by reaffirming Clemson’s commitment to the ACC and helping the league through two phases of expansion.
After Pittsburgh and Syracuse were invited to join the ACC as the 13th and 14th members, Barker said that expansion “remains on the table” and implied that strengthening ACC’s football brand would be the primary objective.
When schools began jumping the fences, Clemson remained steadfast as Barker worked behind the scenes at the behest of his board. Notre Dame and Louisville were the primary objectives. After the ACC struck a relationship with both schools, Commissioner John Swofford credited Barker for helping make it happen.
Evidence to the contrary, there will be some who believe Barker’s contributions to Clemson athletics were insufficient. What they don’t realize is that he spent an inordinately large amount of time and energy on athletics.
Barker recently returned to work less than three months after heart bypass surgery. And while it may have accelerated his timetable, he had begun weighing this transition a good bit earlier.
Trustees chair David Wilkins, who valued and respected Barker’s counsel, said this morning that he did not anticipate “replacing” him.
The person Wilkins and the board choose must be keenly sensitive to the rhythm and DNA of Clemson athletics. Several years ago after a particularly difficult period in athletics, Clemson hired a man absent of that sensitivity. Athletics – more specifically football – suffered for it.
Jim Barker helped rediscover that rhythm. As an administrator, but now he can immerse himself as a fan.