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Gary Barta is leaving, and Hawkeye money-making machine will keep churning
There was way more turbulence under the Iowa athletics director than was desirable, but Barta leaves behind a job that will look awfully good to strong candidates
Pick a word to describe the 17 years of Gary Barta’s stewardship of University of Iowa athletics, any word.
“Stability.” You could easily make a case for that when it comes to the four most-prominent coaching positions at the school.
Barta inherited Kirk Ferentz, Lisa Bluder and Tom Brands in 2006, and they remain as he bids the university adieu. Fran McCaffery was a Barta hire in 2010.
In Barta’s time here, we’ve seen more changes in the British monarchy than the Hawkeye hierarchy.
“Facilities.” Or, “Fundraising.” You can’t deny what’s in front of your eyes on the west side of Iowa’s campus. The physical upgrades and additions to Hawkeye athletics are many and substantial, and so much money was also secured for endowments and scholarships.
While Hawkeye Internet World has been quick to belittle Barta, Hawkeye High Society didn’t shun him.
It starts with an $89 million Kinnick Stadium renovation. You protect your fortress, and Barta did.
But there was also a $55 million, 76,000 square-foot football building that allowed that program to keep up with the Huskers and Badgers. There was a $47 million renovation of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
In progress is a standalone $20 million wrestling facility next to the arena. Just a month ago, a planned renovation for the baseball stadium was announced.
As achievements go, little is as concrete as all that construction.
“Football.” You could identify Barta’s era with that. If your football program is a foot wipe, the trickle-down to nonrevenue sports would be just that.
Football is the heartbeat of a Big Ten athletics program, and Iowa’s has been a consistent winner and box-office attraction, pumping a lot of cash through the athletic department’s bloodstream.
Is that Barta’s doing? To some degree, absolutely. He kept Ferentz content and well-compensated. He backed the coach through occasional turbulent times, telling everyone to relax because things had been good, and would soon be again. They were.
Yes, he responded to outside frustration by modifying offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s contract in February with specific performance objectives. Those, however, need no sherpa to be reached.
For most of Barta’s time here, Iowa has been in the bottom end of Big Ten schools when it comes to the Learfield Director’s Cup all-sports standings.
But if Iowa had been winning NCAA titles in golf and field hockey and cross country while the football team was going 3-9, how great would it have been to be a Hawkeye?
Simply put, Barta didn’t screw up football. In 2023, Hawkeye football and the Kinnick experience have a grip on Iowans like nothing else in sports.
Alas, another prominent Barta word is “Settlement.” Or, if you prefer, “Messy.”
There was the $6.5 million settlement in a gender-discrimination suit as a result of Barta’s 2014 firing of field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum. That went to trial first, and the university was outflanked.
There was the $4.2 million settlement this March to put an end to a racial-discrimination lawsuit from 12 former Iowa football players and keep it from the courtroom.
There was a settlement of a lawsuit last year accusing the university of gender equity violations, which included restoring the women’s swimming and diving program that had been cut in 2020 along with men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics.
The financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic was Barta’s cited reason to cut the sport. But few other Power Five conferences dropped sports because of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten signed a 7-year, $7 billion media rights deal last year. Iowa’s share of the 2021-22 Big Ten revenue pie was $58.8 million.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which word you choose. The Hawkeye machine will keep running nicely. There will be no lack of strong candidates who think Barta’s job looks very appealing. Beth Goetz surely didn’t leave her post as Ball State’s AD last September to be Iowa’s deputy AD indefinitely.
Embrace NIL collectives and avoid discrimination lawsuits, and Barta’s successor will start this chapter of Hawkeye sports history standing on third base.
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