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Oregonian: Goe: Valerie Cleary prepares to take the reins of the Portland State athletic department
Author: Ken Goe, Oregonian
Posted: December 16, 2016

Incoming Portland State athletic director Valerie Cleary has been scrambling this week.

Cleary is wrapping up a 21-month stint as athletic director of Division III Willamette University while debriefing outgoing Portland State AD Mark Rountree.

"It's happened very fast," says Cleary, who doesn't officially start her new post until Jan. 2.

Cleary is returning to PSU, where she spent two years as an associate athletic director. She was the Vikings interim AD in the fall of 2014.

Cleary left after PSU hired Rountree. She says she didn't want the job then and didn't interview for it. But she clearly left an impression on school president Wim Wiewel.

He didn't waste time with a formal search after Rountree decided to depart for Georgia Tech. He called Cleary and dangled the position.

It's easy to see what Wiewel likes.

Cleary knows the territory, the staff, the sponsors and the donors. She is savvy and has just the right mix of charm and steel.

She pulled the trigger after the 2014 season by firing football coach Nigel Burton and promoted offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum to succeed him.

Barnum began as interim head coach, and since has earned the job outright.

Cleary calls the decision to relieve Burton "gut-wrenching."

"I didn't set out for it to happen that way," Cleary says. "It wasn't easy. In the world of athletics you have such a strong culture together. I mean, you're together all the time."

In the end, she says, she did what she thought was in the best interests of the athletes, the athletic program and the school.

Maybe more interesting is how Cleary, who wasn't a college athlete and has a master's degree from Long Beach State in counseling, who previously worked in the admissions office at Pacific in Forest Grove (2010-12), wound up as an athletic administrator.

She says she came to appreciate the value of an athletic program as part of the total college experience while an undergraduate at Cal State Chico, and while working at Boise State (2006-08) in student-athlete enhancement.

She wants to transfer what she learned in Boise to PSU.

"During my time there, Boise State was the underdog," Cleary says. "Totally. Look at the heights they are at now. I don't think we're that different here. I really don't. It's just a fascinating challenge to figure how we get there and how fast it's going to happen."

The Vikings have a long way to go. The football and basketball teams struggle to draw fans, even from PSU's student body.

But where others see problems, Cleary sees opportunities.

Like Rountree, she intends to keep the football program. Her job, she says, is to give Barnum the tools to win consistently, and then to get the word out.

"Oregon has two great Pac-12 schools sitting just down the road," Cleary says. "We have the Blazers across the river. The Timbers do an excellent job. So it's like how do we get into that mix to show folks there is another option available to them. ...

"I think that is part of the exciting challenge of a place like Portland State. We have to figure out how to tap into that market."

The Viking Pavilion, now under construction on campus, should help. The Pavilion will seat 3,000 for basketball and volleyball, roughly double the capacity of the current Stott Center.

Cleary will need to shepherd that to its scheduled completion in the winter of 2018.

In all, this is a big job for a divorced mother with two school-age children.

Maybe it's why a recent Washington Post story mentioning Cleary will be a rare African-American woman athletic director at a Division I school caught her by surprise.

"I lose sight of that sometimes because I'm just trying to get through the day and get the job done," she says. "I think it's important. There are young men and young women watching and aspiring to get into these careers. It's important for them to see someone like themselves doing it."

It raises the stakes for Cleary, and for PSU.

Because this isn't an experiment in gender equity or racial diversity. Cleary is taking charge of a $13.8 million budget.

And, as she seems to prefer to look at it, one terrific opportunity.

"You're in this beautiful city," Cleary says. "You're on this great urban campus. You just need a few tweaks.

"Everybody knows Portland State is this little diamond in the rough."