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IOWA CITY — Under blue skies and blanketed by 80-degree temperatures last Friday night, Iowa softball fans filled Pearl Field for the final regular-season series against Minnesota.
The juxtaposed match-up showcased an ocean-like competitive gulf between the border rivals. The Gophers outscored the Hawkeyes 35-5 in a three-game sweep, with the outcomes crystallizing their differences as much as their final records. Minnesota, the Big Ten runner-up at 19-3, finished 38-12 in regular-season play. Iowa placed last in the 14-team Big Ten with a 3-20 league mark and 13-39 overall.
Iowa's Big Ten mark this year by far is the program's worst. In fact, since the league started keeping regular-season standings in 1983, the Hawkeyes have notched double-digit wins in softball all but six times. Five of those seasons have taken place under sixth-year coach Marla Looper, who has compiled a 145-189-1 record. In Big Ten play, she's 56-100.
Looper was 84-74 overall and 33-34 in Big Ten play in her first three seasons, and she was rewarded with a contract extension through 2018. But in the past three seasons, Looper's teams are 48-109-1. In Big Ten play, they're 20-49. This year in the Big Ten, Iowa ranked 13th in runs, hits and batting average, 12th in earned-run-average and opponent's batting average and 14th in fielding percentage.
'I don't think anything's gone wrong,' Looper said. 'We didn't catch some breaks early. We've continued to battle all year long. That's the best thing. Our student-athletes, our girls here at Iowa, they don't quit. They don't understand that word. They don't know that word. Sometimes we make mistakes. It's a game of failure.
'Are they where I'd like it to be? No. They're not where those young ladies would like it to be, either, and it's not a lack of effort and want and will and attitude.'
There likely won't be changes at Iowa, despite the lack of success. When asked if Looper will return next year, Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said, 'I anticipate she will.' Looper has two years remaining on her contract, and Iowa would owe her $200,000 if she's fired. Next year that number falls to $105,000.
'She's also had some good years so there's been some ups and downs,' Barta said. 'Everyone ... coaches, student-athletes, fans, etc., were disappointed in the overall outcome this season.
'We'll now turn the page and begin doing what's necessary to improve and compete better in 2016-17.'
Also, an ongoing U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigation into how Iowa's athletics department has an impact on Looper's status, which some UI officials acknowledge privately. A complaint filed by four field hockey players in 2015 accuse Iowa athletics of gender bias in how it deals with female coaches, highlighted by the dismissal of former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum. Of the six women's coaches who left under Barta's 10-year watch, five were either fired or their contracts weren't renewed. Griesbaum and her partner, former Iowa senior associate athletics director Jane Meyer, have sued Barta and the athletics department.
The other departing women's coach was former softball coach Gayle Blevins, who retired after a stress-filled 2010 season. Blevins remains the standard for all women's coaches at Iowa.
In Blevins' 23 years, only once did the Hawkeyes finish below .500 in Big Ten play, and that was in her first season. Blevins took Iowa to 16 NCAA tournaments and four Women's College World Series berths. She won 903 games at Iowa and her Big Ten mark was 349-154-1. Blevins ranks fifth all-time in Division I wins, and her shadow looms large over Iowa's program.
'You never replace a legend,' Looper said. 'You've got to come in and make your own tracks and put your own feet where they are. Use the history to help you, but you didn't build it. You didn't make it. You've got to start from scratch, essentially.
'It's a completely different day and age now. That's the challenge. There's parity across the country, there's more opportunities for young student-athletes to play softball than there was back when I played. So it becomes a little bit more challenging for every coach to come out and change the culture and change into a new era.'
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