LOGAN Scott Barnes recently spent a free Friday night to scout out a section of Blacksmith Fork after another long day in the Utah State athletic department.
The next day, USU's new athletic director spent hours working harder than ever not encouraging the next donor to plunk down cash to advance another athletic project on campus, but rather in pursuit of a rare salmon fly.
After four hours of searching, Barnes finally found one. He grabbed the fly, tossed it in the river, then followed it for 100 feet before a trout came up and snagged it. Barnes figured he had the perfect opportunity for a catch, so he threw his own fly in and waited, knowing a bite was coming soon. Eventually, the fish came up and pulled on the line, but the new leader of Aggie Nation missed the catch.
"That was the only action I had all day," Barnes said.
In the past, with the exception of basketball, Utah State athletics has been much like Barnes' experience fishing a huge investment of time and work, but very little action.
The glory years of the 1960s have long since faded, and Aggie fans have been subjected to countless years of football mired in mediocrity or worse. The Aggies were Division I vagabonds, becoming an Independent, making an ill-fated jump into the Sun Belt, and finally finding a safe haven in the Western Athletic Conference. Hoops success at the Spectrum made Logan winters bearable, but the program that alumni and boosters once cared most about Aggie football had been at the bottom of the competitive sports dumpster in three different leagues for too long.
On March 8, USU hired Barnes with the charge to direct the Aggie athletic program and resuscitate USU football. Former A.D. Randy Spetman had recently resigned for a job at Florida State and a roughly $400,000 pay raise.
"We wanted to find a place where my experiences could effect positive change," Barnes said of the choice to leave tradition-rich and resource-rich Washington. "We wanted to find a small-college community in the West, and preferably the mountain region for my passion for fly fishing and the outdoors. Logan is the right place to effect positive change, it's right for our family long term, and it's obviously a great career opportunity."
President Stan Albrecht said USU needed someone who could see the opportunities and challenges in the athletic department, adding Barnes was one who had "clearly distinguished himself" as a well-qualified candidate.
Fund-raising aficionado might be more appropriate from previous stops at Iowa State and Eastern Washington, to name a few, Barnes has built athletic programs from the ground up, mostly through fundraising. He increased private gift support at every stop, got facilities fully privately funded and increased revenue in never-before-thought-of ways for the time, like television, radio and even soft-drink contracts.
Once at Utah State, in his introductory press conference, Barnes said he would need 90 days to fully evaluate the athletic department's status. Since then, Barnes has met alumni along the Wasatch Front and in neighboring states to help gain perspective of the culture in Cache Valley and at Utah State.
A few things Barnes sees as strengths are:
• The achievements of the basketball team
• Conference affiliation with the WAC
• 82 percent graduation rate
• 130 academic all-WAC selections tops in the conference
• Academic accomplishments and reputation of the university
But the biggest strength is the passion of boosters and fans.
"The passion that the Aggies have in what we do is extraordinary," Barnes said. "We just have to take that energy and that passion and invest it in our program."
Barnes also sees the weaknesses at USU:
• Smallest budget in the WAC
• Less-than-stellar customer service
• Low revenue generated from ticket sales
Based on strengths and weaknesses, Barnes has come up with a plan in furthering Utah State athletics.
"We've got a football program enhancement plan, which is a three-legged stool," Barnes said. "It's scheduling for success, creating continuity in our program, and it's facilities development. I think we're making strides in all three areas."
Just like at other stops, he has many ideas to be implemented for revenue growth. The Big Blue Scholarship fund is going to get an overhaul and, for the first time ever they're going to be proactive with season-ticket sales instead of waiting for the phone to ring.
The yet-to-be-named student-athlete facility in Romney Stadium's north end zone, however, seems to be Barnes' pride and joy, though he didn't start the project. Set to open before kickoff weekend, the three-story complex is, according to Barnes, Pac-10-quality. It will feature an Aggie sports hall of fame, a physical fitness and rehab center, and a center for academics and tutoring. The athletic rehab area is complete with a full gym, numerous athletic training tables and underwater treadmills.
Barnes' resourcefulness is all over the project. Local volunteers secured top-quality wood from the desks in the state capital for study rooms in the complex and were enlisted to help complete the project. Barnes also plans to deploy weekday classrooms as luxury suites, a first-ever Romney Stadium option. The whole project, he says, cost a paltry $139 per square foot.
Another area of attention is scheduling for success. Rather than playing two or three "big money" non-conference road games (read: losses), Barnes' idea is simple. Instead of playing Oregon or Oklahoma for $230,000 to $500,000, play one road game that garners $800,000 to $1 million.
"Schools in the SEC, Big 12 and some in the Pac-10 will pay that," Barnes said. "Our student-athletes want to line up some of the best in the nation once a year, and we need those dollars."
In turn, Utah State could invest those dollars into scheduling a regional I-AA team like Weber State, Idaho State or Southern Utah, and schedule games against teams from the MAC, Sun Belt or lower half of the MWC teams USU would have a chance to beat.
Barnes also wants the Ags to play BYU or Utah, but not both of them necessarily, and especially not on the road every time.
To many fans, playing I-AA cupcakes isn't what they want to see, especially with rising ticket prices at many universities. But Barnes says the question should be why hasn't Utah State scheduled them in the past, not why is it scheduling them now.
"They (I-AA games) are bowl-eligible wins. We want the opportunity to create some momentum in our program, and one of the ways to do that is to schedule some games you can win," he said. "Another thing that people forget is that we entered a conference that has had two BCS qualifiers. The top of the conference is very, very good. In addition to playing a difficult non-conference schedule, you're having to play Boise State, Hawaii and Fresno State every year."
Barnes' take-no-prisoners attitude toward his job is engaging and should be encouraging to Aggie fans. Gone are the days of scheduling Utah and BYU at any cost, even if it was a two-for-one situation.
"We don't want to lose sight of those regional rivalries and we want to keep those strong," Barnes said. "Yet, in our current situation, playing a money game, BYU and Utah at any given year all on the road isn't balanced. In the future, our plan would not include a two-for-one. There are enough teams that want to play us where we will only play teams home and home."
Last month, Barnes again set out on a trek, this time with a donor to Sportsmen's Paradise. The water was murky and he used just as much energy as before, but the outcome was different: this time, there was a lot of action and results. "It was wonderful," Barnes said. " I caught a fish and had a great experience. I'm hoping for more."Just as he's angling for Aggie football success.
E-mail: [email protected]