Barbara Hedges might always be known by University of Washington football fans as the athletic director who hired coach Rick Neuheisel away from Colorado.
Neuheisel leads the No. 4 Huskies into the Rose Bowl to play No. 14 Purdue on New Year’s Day--Washington’s first Rose Bowl appearance in eight years.
The Neuheisel hire “was a stroke of genius on her part,” UW President Richard McCormick said.
“I couldn’t be prouder of that achievement. She has, on a whole, made outstanding coaching appointments, but he’s the most famous. I have great confidence in her judgment in lots of areas, especially in hiring coaches.”
Hedges, 63, is the only female athletic director in the Pac-10 Conference. She oversees an annual athletics budget of about $30 million and a full-time athletic department staff of 160.
“It seems that everything she touches turns to gold,” said Husky women’s basketball coach June Daugherty.
The UW men’s and women’s basketball teams are playing their first seasons in the renovated 10,000-seat Bank of America Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilio--a Hedges project.
The project was part of a $90 million campaign to build and renovate five athletic facilities. There’s a new shell house for the crew teams in the works, along with an indoor practice facility set to open in August 2001 and new soccer and baseball stadiums.
“She’s simply amazing,” Daugherty said. “She has great vision. She’s done it all and takes on unbelievable projects. Not only does she get it done, she gets it done in a world-class way.”
There are many long days and weeks for Hedges. She travels to every road football game and has regular public speaking engagements. She works 10- to 12-hour days, but strives for efficiency.
She says being an athletic director is an action-packed job--all the time.
“It’s a great job in an arena in which I love,” Hedges said. “I thrive in the athletic arena. I’m high-energy. I’m lucky I don’t run down very easily.”
Her nine years at UW haven’t always been easy. She fired football coach Jim Lambright in 1998 after six seasons as head coach.
She also dealt with a two-year bowl ban for the football program because of NCAA rules violations. That led to the retirement of Don James after the 1992 season and the promotion of Lambright from defensive coordinator two weeks before the ’93 season began.
It was a gutsy decision to fire Lambright, who had compiled a 44-25-1 record and coached Washington into four bowls after the Huskies’ troubles with the NCAA.
But Hedges didn’t like the way she saw the program going by the end of the ’98 season, when the Huskies lost their last four games to go 6-6 for Washington’s first nonwinning record since 1976.
“The difficulties are that this job is so public,” Hedges said. “Everything is so public. When you’re dealing with people you have to do it as carefully and respectfully as you can.”
Hedges became reacquainted with Neuheisel at the 1996 Holiday Bowl. She had known him when she was senior associate director of athletics at Southern California and Neuheisel was coaching at UCLA.
When she needed to replace Lambright, Neuheisel was at the top of her list.
“People questioned her when the Rick thing went down, but I have gained respect for coach Neuheisel,” said Steve Emtman, a former Husky All-America defensive lineman who now works in the athletic department. “It takes a lot of guts to do what she’s done. It takes a lot for someone to do their job and face the possible ridicule.”
Neuheisel received a five-year contract that pays nearly $1 million a year. That was another controversial decision, as he is the state’s highest paid employee.
Hedges says he’s worth it.
“The timing was just right,” Hedges said. “I have never looked back and I don’t think he has ever looked back.”
“I had heard a lot of good things about her prior to that,” Neuheisel said. “Certainly the reports were accurate. She’s the full athletic director. She doesn’t just concentrate on one sport.”