Inner workings of Hawkeye athletics take center stage at bias trial

Parade of well-known witnesses testify whether former administrator was wronged

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The University of Iowa Athletics Department’s strategic plan is to “Win. Graduate. Do it Right.”

A civil trial entering its third week in Polk County calls into question whether the UI did it right when officials transferred an associate athletic director out of the department and then last fall fired her.

Jane Meyer, who worked for the UI from 2001 to 2016, is suing the university for gender and sexual orientation discrimination, as well as for retaliation after she complained when her longtime partner, Tracey Griesbaum, was fired in August 2014 as the UI’s head field hockey coach.

Meyer seeks nearly $1 million in lost wages and an unspecified amount for emotional damages. Her attorneys finished presenting her case Thursday. The UI began responding Friday.

“There was a lot of turbulence at times.”

“No dialogue.”

“It was a mess."

- Testimony against Jane Meyer

 

 

The trial has seen a parade of high-level athletic and university officials, including Athletic Director Gary Barta, Head Football Coach Kirk Ferentz, Head Wrestling Coach Tom Brands and Head Women’s Basketball Coach Lisa Bluder.

Some have been called to testify about their knowledge of Meyer’s transfer from the athletics department and eventual firing, while others have described a 2014 inquiry of Griesbaum’s field hockey program.

Ferentz and Brands kicked off the UI’s response, testifying to problems they say they had working with Meyer.

Ferentz testified he thought Meyer wasn’t working on the same team as the rest of the athletics department and that “there was a lot of turbulence at times.”

More directly and frequently, Brands testified that “it was a mess” working with Meyer.

The two coaches testified about athletic facility issues — over which Meyer presided as an administrator — being the biggest culprit.

Ferentz highlighted his frustration over renderings of what would become the Hansen Performance Center, while Brands testified to “no dialogue” and a “one-way street” when working with Meyer on the wrestling portion of renovations to the Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Ferentz said the renderings, which Meyer approved, “missed the mark.” Brands said Meyer “inserted herself as an expert” although “we knew the direction we wanted to go.”

But both coaches testified neither went directly to her with their complaints, and neither had documentation of their complaints to Barta. Barta earlier testified he doesn’t email coaches.

By far, Barta has spent the most time on the stand with testimony over portions of four days. The trial revealed Barta, who became UI athletic director in 2006, to be a copious note taker. In some cases, his hand-penned missives — entered into evidence — appear to be the only records of critical meetings with Meyer, Griesbaum or other officials.

Barta shifted Meyer out of the department in December 2014, a move he said was recommended by the Iowa Attorney General’s Office because Griesbaum was expected to sue the university.

“She had done things that certainly could be disciplined, but this was not a disciplinary matter,” Barta testified April 21. “She had access to information. If Tracey was suing us, I couldn’t keep her (Meyer) in the department.”

Barta also testified about Meyer butting heads with another associate athletic director, Fred Mims, who is now retired, and with Brands.

Barta said he made no written record of the Brands comments, but Meyer said she remembered one situation where Brands “was not happy” about NCAA wrestling coaches’ pictures not being displayed in the renovated Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Meyer’s $177,000-a-year job was axed Sept. 9. In the months that followed, Meyer applied for seven college athletics jobs — including one at Cornell College — but received no offers, she testified April 21.

“We don’t have any money to pay our bills,” she said. “We had to sell our house. We’re relying on our savings and don’t know how long that’s going to last.”

Several of her siblings have testified about the emotional toll on Meyer, who they said has experienced increased migraines, teeth grinding, anxiety and depression.

Griesbaum also has sued the UI — her trial is scheduled for June in Polk County — but much of the evidence at Meyer’s trial seems to hinge on how Barta treated Griesbaum after a 2014 investigation of the field hockey team found no policy violations.

Barta said he fired Griesbaum because of the seriousness of allegations from several students who said the coach verbally abused them. The last straw, Barta said, was Griesbaum’s refusal to change her coaching style.

However, Meyer’s attorney, Tom Newkirk, pointed to Barta’s notes from a meeting with Griesbaum in which she said she felt like she was getting “mixed messages” but that she would try to do better.

The issue of nepotism within the athletics department has played a recurring role.

Meyer’s legal team has sought to contrast how little investigation went into hiring Ferentz’s son and Brands’ twin brother compared with questions raised over the relationship between Meyer and Griesbaum.

Brian Ferentz, who is the football team’s offensive coordinator, took the stand Friday as part of the UI’s response.

He primarily was questioned about his hiring and a management plan for dealing with any conflict of interest between father and son.

Brands also was questioned about a management plan for Terry Brands, hired as assistant wrestling coach.

Brian Ferentz testified he officially reports to Barta, including for evaluations, in accordance with the plan. But he also said he reports to his dad for day-to-day activities.

Brands testified there is a management plan in place for his brother, who he said also does not officially report to him.

Kirk Ferentz and Tom Brands testified their relatives were the most qualified candidates for those jobs.

George Carroll, the assistant Iowa Attorney General representing the UI, has listed 28 potential witnesses, but about 10 of whom have already been called by either side.

Potential witnesses that remain include former UI President Sally Mason, whose testimony is recorded; and Rod Lehnertz, the UI’s senior vice president for finance and operations.

The trial started with 10 jurors, half men and half women. Early last week, Judge Michael Huppert announced two jurors had other places to be and a court attendant said at least one was sick. Of the eight jurors left, five are women and three are men.

The trial is expected to resume Monday.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

The issue of nepotism within the athletics department has played a recurring role, as Meyer's legal team has sought to contrast how little investigation went into hiring Ferentz's son and Brands' twin brother.

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