Erika Barnes stepped into McKale Center for the Arizona women’s basketball game against Washington State looking forward to the matchup. Six hours later, she was officially named Interim Athletics Director by UA President Anne Weaver Hart, replacing esteemed predecessor Greg Byrne, who would leave for Alabama.
“It’s been a bit surreal,” Barnes said. “As time passes, I will realize the magnitude at some point. I wanted to dive right in and make sure all the day-to-day responsibilities were being handled, which gives you much less time to reflect. It’s been really neat and touching to hear from those people and to hear how excited they were for a friend and fellow Wildcat to serve in the interim role.”
Barnes is a Wildcat through and through. She was the first baseman on the 2001 national championship Arizona softball team. Her husband Andy Barnes was an All-American golfer at the UA. Her two children, Tillie and Blake, rock UA apparel on a regular basis.
“Some people do the zoo or the park on Sundays,” Barnes said. “We do women’s basketball or soccer, and we make it a family affair. My 3-year-old, if she sees the letter A, not even in our font, she starts chanting ‘U of A, U of A.’”
Barnes’ son Blake has become a staple for the UA softball team. Now known as Juju Baby, he dances in the stands at games and has become a crowd favorite.
For Barnes, the last 43 days has seemed like a whirlwind roller coaster. In fact, she first heard the news of Byrne leaving on her son’s first birthday.
“We like to use the term ‘drinking through a fire hose,’” Barnes said. “Greg was pretty emotional throughout that process. I had to straddle from being emotional and taking on that interim AD role that this ship is still moving forward. We are all in a great place and a good trajectory.”
What makes Barnes stand out amongst athletic administrators is her first-hand knowledge of the sports and her relationship with potential donors.
“My favorite part of development, it’s their own personal pocket books that we are asking them to pull out,” Barnes said. “Being a student athlete and coming through our system, I understand what an impact their contributions really make. I speak from the heart about what they are doing for us. They are not just our UA supporters, but our friends.”
Barnes got her start at the UA as a student under softball head coach Mike Candrea.
“He has a lot of fundamentals and concepts that I still use in life,” Barnes said. “One of those is to have balance in your life. In order to be the best athlete, you also have to be the best academically and a good person. When we are making decisions, it’s what’s best for Arizona Athletics and all 20 of our sports.”
As a freshman, Barnes and her teammates saw a one-run defeat in the national championship game finals against Fresno State.
“That was a tough one because at that time we were ranked No. 1,” Barnes said. “Our senior year, we didn’t want anything more than to win the national championship. When they stuck the mic in front of Jennie Finch when we won, she said she just wanted to do it for the seniors.”
Barnes would finish out her communications undergraduate degree, moving to New York and then Los Angeles to work in sports marketing and public relations. She moved back to Tucson in 2005, eventually pursuing her MBA through the Eller College of Management.
“Doing the MBA program while working really made what we were focusing on really applicable to Arizona Athletics,” Barnes said.
She would take the lessons and skills she learned from the program and blow fundraising out of the water. Through her work in identifying and securing major gifts, she has had an integral role in raising more than $145 million for Arizona Athletics.
Barnes said she was most proud of the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium and his donation to the program. The photo album of the ceremony sits right behind her in her office.
“At the time, it was the largest gift from a professional athlete to his alma mater at $3.5 million dollars,” Barnes said. “It was a neat memory to see Richard play at the same time I did.”
With so many moving pieces, Arizona Athletics is moving forward. Most recently, on Sunday, President Anne Weaver Hart named Dave Heeke the Vice President of Athletics, to be confirmed by the Arizona Board of Regents.
“I’m excited for what we recently announced about Dave Heeke,” Barnes said. “I think he’s going to bring a lot of experience to UA Athletics. He has ties to the West Coast and Pac-12 experience previously at Oregon. We are in a good place right now. We are on an upward trajectory.”
As Barnes is set to return to her senior associate director role, she can take solace in the fact that she is just the second woman in UA history to serve in any athletic director role.
“I think you see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants,” Barnes said. “[There] are people in Arizona Athletics history that have paved the way for people like myself to have the opportunities that we have. My hope is that, somehow, if I can contribute a little bit to make our student athletes experience a positive one, I feel like I’m doing my job.”
Most recently, Barnes even saw her face in the back of ESPN College Game Day as the ZonaZoo featured her on one of the Fat Heads in the crowd. Overall, Barnes said she is proud of her time serving in the interim role and is very much looking forward to her future in the collegiate athletics industry and with Arizona.
“To help student athletes because they have the rest of their life at the sport,” Barnes said. “If they can maximize their opportunities at their sport to not just become a better athlete, but a better person. I think that’s when I’m the most proud.”
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