Val Cleary is in the eye of the storm with Portland State athletics, and she wouldn't have it any other way.
The Orland, California, native and Chico State graduate is coming up on her one-year anniversary as the PSU athletic director, overseeing 13 sports and a $15 million annual budget.
It's a labor of love for Cleary, 39, who is serving her second stint in the PSU athletic department. The divorced mother of two spent a year and a half as senior associate AD and then interim AD at the school before leaving to become AD at Willamette in spring 2015. When Portland State AD Mark Rountree left last December to become deputy AD at Georgia Tech, the Vikings brought back Cleary to head up the program beginning on Jan. 1.
The bright-eyed, high-spirited administrator most enjoys her interaction with the student-athletes, and the opportunities for that at a mid-major school such as PSU seem to be a good fit.
But it's not been all fun and games on the job. Cleary was involved in the recent administrative decision to discipline head football coach Bruce Barnum after an investigation into charges of sexual harassment in the athletic department. Barnum — who is contracted through the 2021 season — suffered significant economic sanctions and received individual training on appropriate work-place conduct, according to a statement released by the university to the Portland Tribune.
Cleary sat down with the Tribune recently to discuss her position and the state of PSU athletics.
Tribune: How have you felt about your first year as the Vikings' AD?
Cleary: It's been a whirlwind. I don't know how it's already been a year. It's crazy. It has been an unreal busy year. We're in construction on our new $51-million arena (the Viking Pavilion, capacity 3,200). We've had three head coaching changes, including men's basketball (Barret Cleary for Tyler Geving), which is a big hire. The others are women's soccer (Katie Burton for Laura Schott) and track and field (David Hepburn for Brent Ericksen). We also hired three new staff members.
Tribune: In what areas?
Cleary: We need to focus on restructuring our external side to help raise money, create sponsorships and sell tickets. That's what keeps the wheel greased. We hired Cory Hansen as director of marketing and creative services in September and Lindsey Webster as our director of external operations in November. We've also just brought on Kristin Williford from Furman University as an assistant trainer. We have room to add a few more bodies, but we don't yet have the funding.
We've moved (associate AD/external operations) Tygue Howland over to the university foundation office so he can focus on major gifts. It's a really good move for us. Tygue is a great spokesman for Viking athletics.
Tribune: Has anything surprised you in your first year on the job at PSU?
Cleary: I don't know if it's surprised me, but I've found that at a place like Portland State, you wear so many hats. A lot of people think an athletic director's main thing is fundraising, and it's certainly important, but I don't have the luxury of focusing only on that. That's why I like a place like Portland State, frankly. I get to have contact with student-athletes daily. That's where I get my energy.
But there are so many things to cover, from little things to big things like long-term budget planning to strategic planning to PK80 (basketball tournament) stuff. It's that way with all of the assistant ADs, too. It's all hands on decks. Everyone is doing what we need to do for the team.
Tribune: How is it different at the NCAA Division I level as opposed to Division III Willamette?
Cleary: I recently spoke with our former school president, Wim Wiewel, who is now at Lewis & Clark. I was asking him how it was going. He nailed it on the head. He said, "It's the same issues on a different scale." You're still having budget issues, still having staff challenges, with maybe a little bigger expectations. At Willamette, the big expectation was contributing to the university enrollment. We don't have that impact, but we have the impact of campus and community engagement, sponsorships, that type of thing.
Tribune: How did you feel about your football season?
Cleary: No one likes to be 0-11. I did a little research and found there were five other schools that went winless (UTEP at 0-12, Indiana State at 0-11, VMI and Gardner-Webb at 0-10 and Davidson at 0-9). Misery loves company, so it made me feel a little bit better.
What surprised me the most, though, was how positive the staff and team stayed through the whole thing. A lot of times when a season goes that way, the locker room and sidelines can get ugly. It didn't. I traveled with the team to most of the games. I didn't see it happening. That spoke volumes to where the team is heading and where the program is today. No one was happy with all the losing, but people found a little bit of hope or solace in that we had really good guys on our team. They also have a lot of hope and vision for the young guys we haven't seen on the field during games yet.
Tribune: After the season, defensive coordinator Malik Roberson was fired. Was that solely Barnum's decision?
Cleary: The way I handle it with our head coaches is, barring any outside events, they're responsible for their staffing decisions. It's a really bad move for an administrator to tell coaches who they have to hire or get rid of. If the staff recommendation doesn't go well, it's on me. It's important to me that head coaches need to have ownership over their program. In evaluating his program, that's what (Barnum) considered best moving forward. From my perspective, sometimes you can make sweeping changes and sometimes you can't. You have to look at what changes can be made that will have the impact you're looking for.
Tribune: You chose not to make the sweeping changes you mentioned. Are you confident that Barnum — who went 9-3, made the FCS playoffs and was national FCS Coach of the Year his first season in 2015, then went 3-8 and 0-11 the past two seasons — can turn things around?
Cleary: Yes, 100 percent. Based on what I know and I see from on the student-athletes and our staff, I have no reason to believe otherwise. I feel really confident about where we are.
Tribune: Football attendance averaged 4,136 for five home games this fall, down from 4,590 the previous season and 7,180 in 2015.
Cleary: People like to watch a winning program. When you're in a city like Portland that has so much going on in this state sportswise, people want consistency. They want to know it's a strong guarantee they're going to come out and watch a pretty good game. We need to put a better product on the field next season, that's for sure.
Tribune: Peery's first men's basketball team has started well.
Cleary: It's been a fantastic start. We've played very competitively against three Final Four-level teams (Duke, Butler and Oregon) and beaten a Pac-12 team (Stanford). We're not just trying to be competitive; we're trying to win. Coach Peery's energy with the guys is phenomenal. Their willingness to play hard and play for a team and for their coaches and their university ... the heart and grit they've shown is second to none.
The coaching staff is passionate about what they do. It's an up-tempo game the guys are playing, and they're going to scrap and claw to win. Their practices are the exact same way. The practice court is next to our offices, so we all know when men's basketball is in there. We can hear it and feel it. We're very excited. It's perfect timing to build that excitement, with the Pavilion's debut looming.
Tribune: When will it open?
Cleary: Tentatively April 1, so it's close enough we can touch it. There are a lot of events already scheduled. The first sports-related one is April 28, our annual Wine and Roses (fundraising) dinner and auction. If there's a (men's basketball) selection Sunday show we need to host, I'm not sure the JumboTrons will be up, but maybe we can get in there a little early.
Tribune: Lynn Kennedy is in his second season as head coach of women's basketball. The year before he took over, the Vikings finished 4-26. Last year, you were 16-17 and made the Big Sky Tournament semifinals.
Cleary: Coach Kennedy is fantastic. He's like quiet intensity, but he has a young team (no seniors) playing well again this year. They have a tough schedule by design, because he scheduled some home-and-away dates with great teams that will be coming in here to play next season. There will be some great women's basketball to open the Pavilion next year.
Tribune: You just finished a successful volleyball season, going 21-9 overall and 11-5 in the Big Sky while reaching the conference tournament semifinals.
Cleary: I wish more people came out to watch. Volleyball is such an exciting sport. Coach (Michael) Seemann has them competing at a very high level. He has been here for a long time (11 years). He runs a great program. Their success will continue.
Tribune: You have two children — Olivia, 14, and Sean, 9. How do you balance your life between work and family?
Cleary: My kids don't know any different. Their dad (Tim Cleary) was a college basketball coach. They've been born and raised around athletic departments. Last night, when I was in Eugene with men's basketball, Olivia had basketball practice (with the Forest Grove High freshman team) and Sean had basketball practice at Banks Elementary School. I had a babysitter cover. Tim and I have joint custody. We make it as flexible as we can. It works.
Tribune: What do you see as major issues you'll face on the job over the next couple of years?
Cleary: We need to retain good people, which always comes down to finances. I always say, let's focus on making these the best jobs possible and make it hard for people to leave. The things that are typically hard to fix — inadequate facilities, being located in the middle of nowhere — are not issues. We're in a great city, and our facilities are strong. It's not just the Pavilion, it's our entire Stott Center. We have new offices, practice and sports medicine facilities, weight room and locker rooms. All of that is changing how we operate and who we're able to attract.
But it's a matter of not becoming complacent. We need to keep getting better. That's why we'll make sure we're in the community and treating our people well. We're very fortunate we have a strong group of supporters. We just need to broaden that base and draw new people in.
My whole reason for being in athletics is what it does for a campus. I don't think we've tapped into that yet. I want the Pavilion to be rocking during the time students are here. I want students, whether they're an athlete or not, to identify with it as a place to go on Thursday or Saturday night. Hopefully, the way we're setting up the facility will take care of that.
Tribune: You're one of the nation's youngest Division I athletic directors, and one of a handful of black females in the position. Do you see yourself as a pioneer in the field?
Cleary: I'm learning to say, 'Yes, I do.' I don't put enough weight on it, though. To me, it's what I love to do, and it's just what I do. Whatever the job that's given to me, I'm going to try to do it the best I can.
But I've learned that may be doing some disservice to the young women coming up behind me. I need to make sure I focus on that a little bit more. By being here, it's showing them that you, too, can do this, if you have the work ethic and commitment. It helps young women or young minorities to see someone of color in one of these leadership roles.