IOWA CITY — University of Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta will take a leave of absence to undergo treatment for prostate cancer, the UI confirmed Tuesday morning.
“Gary Barta will take an extended medical leave to undergo surgery and treatment for prostate cancer,” according to Steve Roe, Associate Athletics Director for Communications. “He will return to work as soon as his health and recovery allow.
“Deputy Director of Athletics Barbara Burke will assume leadership of the department in Barta’s absence.”
Barta, 54, has led UI Athletics since 2006 and was recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) as a 2015-16 Under Armour Athletics Director of the Year. In 2016, Barta received a contract extension keeping him in Iowa City through 2021.
Former Iowa Deputy Athletics Director Gene Taylor, now athletics director at Kansas State, told The Gazette in a phone interview Tuesday that Barta wanted to minimize any distractions from the athletic department during one of the busiest times of the year in making the news of his diagnosis public. He added he knows, “the Hawkeye athletic department is going to step up and fill his role and hold things down until he gets back.”
Taylor said he’s regularly in touch with Barta, as the two became close while working with each other, and said he was “obviously shocked” to hear the news.
“I know he’s in great hands at the University of Iowa and the doctors there (and) Gary’s pretty resilient,” Taylor said. “He knows it’s going to be a challenge and I think that’s why he kind of waited for this time to be right. With the off week, I think that’s kind of why he timed it (this way) and the doctors obviously felt OK letting him choose the date.
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“He’s got a great staff there. Barbara’s going to do a great job in the interim and there’s a lot of other senior administrators and staff that like Gary so much, they’re going to step up and nothing will slow down. When he gets back, everything will be fine.”
Purdue athletics director Mike Bobinski echoed Taylor’s thoughts on Iowa’s department in Barta’s absence in a phone interview with The Gazette on Tuesday.
“If you’ve got a strong organization, and they do there at Iowa, folks know their jobs and know their roles,” Bobinski said. “I think they’ll be able to adequately keep the department headed in a good direction in the meantime. They’ve got some veteran folks that are very capable.”
Barta’s role as an athletics director in the Big Ten has landed him on several committees within the conference and nationally over the years. Before his leave of absence, Barta was active as a member of the Rose Bowl Management Committee and was involved in the NCAA Transfer Working Group. He also is involved in NACDA and LEAD 1, formerly known as the Division 1A Athletic Directors Association.
Barta’s work led several fellow athletic directors to respond to the news of his diagnosis and leave of absence wishing him well and lauding the work he’s done.
Bobinski heard the news Tuesday while waiting for a flight to attend the funeral of former Boilermakers football coach Joe Tiller, and told The Gazette, “I wish the absolute best for Gary in this recovery.” Bobinski had effusive praise for Barta and noted the gap he’ll leave in the Transfer Working Group meetings, among others.
“He’s one of the true gentlemen and professionals in our entire business,” Bobinski said. “We’ll miss him in our meetings and otherwise because he’s a very important part of our conference. He’s got great input, he’s very respected and is an influential person.
“Gary is such a balanced person. He’s very levelheaded, he’s got great perspective; he doesn’t speak to be heard. He speaks only when he’s got something of substance to say, so you know when he does speak, it’s worth listening to.”
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Other Big Ten ADs also passed along messages of support for Barta throughout Tuesday, each adding to Bobinski’s sentiments of what Barta brings to the conference, as well as their thoughts personally.
Minnesota athletics director Mark Coyle, via email to The Gazette: “Ever since I arrived at Minnesota, Gary has welcomed me to the conference and been an awesome colleague to me as I transitioned into my role as a Big Ten athletics director. He’s been so supportive of me, and I’m here to support him during this difficult time. We wish he and his family nothing but the best as they go through this together. Our thoughts will always be with him.”
Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith, in a statement: “I wish Gary all the best. He is a tremendous colleague who cares deeply about student athletes. He is in my prayers as he fights this fight.”
Maryland athletics director Kevin Anderson in a statement: “I have known Gary since our days in the Pac-10 conference. He is a great man and a wonderful friend and colleague. My prayers will continue to be with Gary and his family.”
Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel, in a statement: ”I am saddened to hear the news regarding Gary’s battle. Gary has been a great friend of mine and a great colleague for more than two decades. He’s been a great leader both in the Big Ten and nationally. The one thing I know is that Gary is a fighter and, with the support of his family and medical team, that he will get through this. I look forward to his return to office.”
Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis, in a statement: “My thoughts are with Gary, his family and the Hawkeye community during his fight against cancer. Gary is someone that I have and will continue to turn toward for counsel and guidance. The entire Spartan family wishes him well during his recovery. We look forward to his continued leadership both in the Big Ten Conference and nationally.”
Indiana athletics director Fred Glass, via email to The Gazette: “Gary is a friend and a tremendous colleague. I sent him a message of support as soon as I heard the news. Gary is truly one of the good guys. Whenever we are in deliberations or discussions, he is always one of the first to speak up and say, ‘How does this affect the student-athlete?’ He has always made the students his primary focus and concern. Our thoughts are with him and his family as he battles this wretched disease. I cannot wait to see him and support him on the sidelines or at conference meetings.”
Nebraska interim athletics director Dave Rimington, in a statement: “Our thoughts are with Gary Barta and the Hawkeye family as he deals with his medical issue. Everyone in the Nebraska Athletic Department wishes Gary nothing but the best for a full and quick recovery.”
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Northwestern athletics director Jim Phillips, in a statement: “Along with so many others, I was dismayed to hear the news regarding Gary Barta’s health. Gary is a very close friend and tremendous colleague. Our entire Northwestern family is united with Connie, Luke, Madison and Hawkeyes everywhere in pulling for him during this fight. We are optimistic about the initial prognosis, will be praying for him and look forward to good news on the horizon.”
Prostate cancer is the most common non-skid cancer in America, with one-in-eight men suffering from the disease, according to the Prostate Cancer Foundation. In Iowa, prostate cancer accounts for the largest share of new cancers identified in men in 2017, with an estimate of 1,500 new cancers accounting for 26.7 percent of all new cancers in males, according to the UI’s Cancer in Iowa report.
For low-risk types of prostate cancer, there is a high cure rate with standard treatment, including surgery or radiation therapy, the Prostate Cancer Foundation reported.
In their interviews with The Gazette both Taylor and Bobinski said when they “reach a certain age,” things like this become a part of yearly physicals and checkups.
“To this point I’ve been very fortunate, but it does remind me I’m probably due to get back and do it again,” Bobinski said. “It’s very much a wake-up call and I think everyone would be wise to get that checked.”
In August, Barta announced his department was committing an additional $4 million in athletics revenue toward the UI general fund to be split between the 2017 and 2018 budget years. The department is self-sustaining and doesn’t rely on appropriations.
UI President Bruce Harreld issued a statement Tuesday in support of Barta.
“Director Barta is a longtime member of the University of Iowa family and our thoughts are with him and his family at this time,” Harreld said in the statement. “We wish Gary a speedy recovery and quick return to the university he loves.”
Iowa Board of Regents President Mike Richards also issued a brief statement on Barta, saying, “the Board of Regents wishes Gary Barta well and is hopeful that he will make a full recovery.”
This story was first reported by the Des Moines Register.
The Gazette’s Erin Jordan contributed to this story.
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