Rising Star Oversees Transformational Change At College Sports’ Highest Level

Deneé Barracato is responsible for spearheading the most expensive football stadium project in college sports, the $800 million rebuild of Northwestern University’s Ryan Field.

For Barracato, the Big 10 school’s deputy director of athletics for operations and capital projects, it’s the final piece of a comprehensive master plan for upgrading sports venues across the board on the Evanston, Illinois, campus. Renovations extend from golf and fencing to field hockey and lacrosse, plus improving recreational and intramural facilities for Northwestern students.

“You don’t want to get left behind,” Barracato said. “Jim Phillips (former Northwestern athletic director) always said Northwestern is an incredible institution, but we were getting to the point where we also need to be trend setters and lead the pack from a facilities standpoint. That was one of the things he knew Northwestern was lacking a bit from a Big Ten peer perspective.”

On her own, Barracato has been a leader of the pack for most of her professional career over the past 20 years.

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One of three girls in her family, Barracato, of Puerto Rican descent, was raised in the Bronx before moving to Hempstead, Long Island. Her father was an avid sports buff of everything from basketball to pro wrestling. The girls were raised with the “ambition to do anything they wanted to do,” supported by their parents, she said. Barracato fell in love with basketball and was a four-year letterwinner at Hofstra University before competing professionally in Puerto Rico and with the Atlanta Justice of the old National Women’s Basketball League.

“It was great, but at that point, I knew I wasn’t going to be the next Michael Jordan,” she said. “I decided to hang up my sneakers for professional advancement. I loved sports and what it gave to me as a young adult and a woman of color. I truly believe that without basketball, I would not be where I am today. I wanted to give back to a sport and an industry that gave me so much from an educational perspective and life lessons.”

At the recommendation of Kelley Watts, a former coach of hers and a mentor, Barracato started in college administration at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York at an entry level position before getting promoted to assistant athletic director three years later. From 2008 to 2010, she worked at NCAA headquarters as associate director for Division I women’s basketball and the Women’s Final Four.

After two years in Indianapolis, Barracato took a slight detour from the college space to Madison Square Garden, where she served as director of partnership strategy and service for 17 months during the arena’s $1 billion transformation. The move was tied to Barracato’s desire to start a family with husband Michael, which brought them back to New York. Her duties included managing multiple corporate partnerships averaging $5.7 million in annual revenue across all MSG properties, connected to brands such as Amtrak, NASDAQ and Sprint Boost Mobile.

Along the way, she fulfilled “every little girl’s dream who loves basketball” and MSG is the “mecca,” Barracato said.

After three years as associate athletic director for finance and administration at Queens College in New York, Barracato took another step up the ladder, taking the job as athletic director at York College of the City University of New York, a Division III school. She stood out as one of the few women of color working as an athletic director at an NCAA school.

At every stop, whether it was college or the big leagues, she was involved in sports venue development, whether it was renovating track and field facilities or upgrading basketball court surfaces. At MSG, the massive arena rebuild focused on revamping the seating bowl and marketing new premium inventory.

Midway through 2019, a friend gave Barracato a tip about a job at Northwestern under Phillips and his vision to bring the school’s facilities up to par with Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska, among other Big 10 counterparts. It was an opportunity for Barracato to challenge herself in a different way than ever before, she said.

She interviewed for the deputy director position and was offered the job, but didn’t accept it at first. She had some doubts, mainly about uprooting her family and moving to suburban Chicago. At the time, their three children, Grace, Michael and Mia, were all under the age of 10. Deneé and Michael talked about the opportunity and both decided it was too good to pass up.

It didn’t hurt that Phillips was determined to hire Barracato to help form the next generation of sports facilities at Northwestern, one of the top academic institutions in America. At the time, Phillips was seeking a replacement for Brian Baptiste, who had left Northwestern to become LaSalle University’s athletic director.

Phillips said he did not know Barracato prior to interviewing her, but heard her name recommended through several people in the industry. He was impressed with the progression of the former athlete from her work at individual schools and at NCAA headquarters, where she’s still involved as a member of the women’s basketball committee responsible for selecting and seeding the 68-team postseason tournament. Phillips expressed to Barracato the need to find a successor to help complete all facilities upgrades, culminating in the massive Ryan Field project.

KEY PLAYER: Deneé Barracato, shown during the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament Selections in Indianapolis on March 9, 2023. (Getty Images)

“When doing a search (for job candidates), I have always tried to cast a wide net,” said Phillips, now commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. “As you try to understand the landscape of who’s out there and who may be a good candidate, it goes beyond just waiting for people to apply. She crushed the interview and we were fortunate to hire her.”

The ACC hired Phillips in December 2020, about 18 months after he hired Barracato. Six months later, in June 2021, Northwestern hired Derrick Gragg to replace Phillips. Gragg, Northwestern’s first African-American athletic director, became Barracato’s direct boss.

“We had a whole list of projects we were doing at Northwestern, over $500 million worth, but the last one was to redo Ryan Field,” Phillips said. “It was when Deneé came on board that we began conversations with (alumni) the Ryan family about the stadium. She’s really been the point person between the transition of athletic directors.”

Barracato credits Gragg, who revived talks with the Ryan family for helping to fund the Ryan Field project, and many others for the momentous task to upgrade on-campus facilities in general, whether it was Baptiste or Chris Reynolds and Brad Hurlbut, former Northwestern administrators and now athletic directors at Bradley University and Fairleigh Dickinson University, respectively.

“It was a group effort and with a transformational gift from the Ryan family, we were able to see it come to fruition in a way to where we are right now,” she said.

If all goes according to plan, the teardown of existing Ryan Field would start after the 2023 football season and Northwestern would play the 2024 and 2025 seasons off campus, with the new Ryan Field opening in 2026, Barracato said. As of mid-March, the school had not announced a temporary home.

Gerardo Prado, HNTB’s national sports practice leader and a veteran designer of college football stadium renovations, said Barracato is one of those people you meet that are welcoming, exude high energy and make you feel comfortable with an ease of conversation.

“Deneé is trying to balance everything,” Prado said. “She’s an incredible athletic administrator, but she’s also a mom with three younger kids, and to be able to do everything so successfully, is amazing. She rolled up her sleeves and has been a key person during the project in what will become the biggest college football stadium in terms of dollar value for a long time.”

Barracato could easily step up to become an athletic director at the highest level of college sports, but as a mom, she will navigate that path accordingly.

“Deneé is a rising star in this profession,” Phillips said. “She’s been an athletic director and knows what it’s like to sit in that chair. Her resumé is as good as anyone could potentially have. She will have opportunities and I know she’s already had some in her time at Northwestern.”

All in due time.

“We’re doing some phenomenal things here and I’d love to see them come to fruition before making any big moves,” Barracato said.

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