(This is the first story in a four-part series about Iowa athletics under Director Gary Barta. Coming Monday: Barta and Football)
IOWA CITY — Gary Barta’s office still looks new at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It’s filled with artifacts and mementos accumulated over his nine years as Iowa’s athletics director.
His office is symbolic of perhaps his proudest moment as the department’s lead officer. On June 12, 2008, with the Cedar and Iowa rivers overflowing throughout the Corridor, Barta persuaded UI President Sally Mason and convinced the Board of Regents to approve a $47 million renovation and construction project to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The project was vital toward keeping a self-sustaining athletics department on par with its peers. But it was problematic with the backdrop of a historic flood and a national economic disaster.
“Trying in the midst of those two things to not lose focus, still move forward ... there were days when I sat at my desk and wondered, ‘Just how in the world are we going to do this,’” Barta said. “But Hawkeye fans are great.”
By fall 2011, the basketball and volleyball programs had a much-needed practice facility, coupled with new offices and a face-lift to the arena bowl. That project was one of many completed on Barta’s watch, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Others include $55 million for a new football practice and operations center, $9 million for a Kinnick Stadium sound and display system and an $8 million boathouse for the rowing program, among others.
By all accounts, this year should rank at the top of Barta’s era as Iowa’s athletics director. Along with the facility boom, his department set records for donations and graduation rates. The women’s basketball team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and the men won their first NCAA tournament game since 2001. The wrestling squad finished second nationally, men’s gymnastics was sixth, baseball boasted its first NCAA wins since 1972 and the department earned its best Learfield rankings score under Barta.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Yet three areas continuously loom over Barta — football’s stagnation, a Title IX lawsuit filed by four field hockey players and public relations gaffes by his department.
That’s left plenty of speculation about Barta’s future at Iowa. His contract expires June 30, 2016, and his salary was $384,939 in fiscal year 2015. He restructured a deferred compensation account and received a one-time lump sum payment of $417,820 last summer. Barta received strong backing from UI President Sally Mason, whose tenure ends July 31. Opinions about Barta are mixed, both privately and publicly. Through representatives, Mason declined an interview request for this story.
UI alum Bruce Rastetter, a confidant of Gov. Terry Branstad, donated $5 million toward the new football performance center. Rastetter, CEO of The Summit Group and other business ventures, also serves as chairman of the state Board of Regents. Rastetter participates on the UI presidential search committee and ultimately will help select UI’s next president.
When it comes to Barta’s future, Rastetter deferred.
“In regard to Gary, I would let the new president make that decision, the Board of Regents doesn’t,” Rastetter said. “I would assume that the president will sit down with all of those key reports and go through that.
“I think there’s been some positive things with the program. Gary’s been there a long time, he’s a good guy, and we should leave that to the next president.”
Booster Dick Benne, who started the Des Moines I-Club and enters his 49th year as a football season ticket-holder, is impressed with Barta.
“My relationship with him has been very good,” said Benne, who lives in Burlington. “I email him back and forth on a friendship basis once a week, I get an answer back in an hour or two. I think that he listens to what’s going to on in the area.
“He’s a fan’s AD. He’s an excellent speaker and he listens and he gets things done.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Barta grew up in Minneapolis and played quarterback at North Dakota State, where he scored a touchdown for the Bison in a Division II title game. Barta broadcast football games alongside Ed Schulz at his alma mater and spent six years at Northern Iowa. He then worked seven years at the University of Washington as a senior associate athletics director before leaving for Wyoming as athletics director in 2003.
On Aug. 1, 2006, Barta replaced Bob Bowlsby, who now serves as Big 12 commissioner. At the surface, Barta walked into a near-perfect situation at Iowa. The football program competed in four consecutive January bowl games with three No. 8 rankings. An $89 million renovation to Kinnick Stadium nearly was complete. The men’s basketball program won the Big Ten Tournament title and claimed a No. 3 seed in the previous NCAA tournament. Bowlsby even made the difficult decision of parting ways with wrestling coach Jim Zalesky in favor of Tom Brands.
“I knew that there were a lot of terrific things that had happened historically at Iowa,” Barta said. “I also knew that anytime you take on a Big Ten job, it’s going to be a whirlwind. There’s going to be a lot of challenges. I think it was how I expected.”
Over Barta’s tenure, Iowa has experienced competitive highs, including an Orange Bowl win for the football program and three NCAA wrestling titles. And there have been lows off the field, from firing men’s basketball coach Todd Lickliter for performance in 2010 to a 2007-08 rape investigation involving two football players and a female swimmer.
“By and large, I have felt that (Barta) has performed in a positive manner,” said Iowa City attorney and UI alum Bob Downer, who left the state Board of Regents in April after 12 years. “I think most of the programs have taken steps forward. There have been a few misfires, certainly the Todd Lickliter hire didn’t turn out to be a good one in retrospect, but also it does seem to me that a lot of the difficulties that floundered during that time weren’t readily foreseeable.”
Last school year, Iowa boasted its best collective competitive performance under Barta. The baseball program, long a Big Ten cellar-dweller, earned 41 wins, just three shy of its school record. Two years ago Barta hired Rick Heller, who reinvigorated the program and attendance doubled in just two years.
Eight months into his tenure, Barta replaced departing men’s basketball coach Steve Alford with Lickliter, the 2007 NABC Coach of the Year. But after three seasons, Lickliter compiled a 38-58 record and attendance plummeted to historic lows. Despite four years remaining on his contract and a $2.4 million severance, Barta fired Lickliter in 2010. Barta hired Fran McCaffery, who has taken Iowa twice to the NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes finished 12-6 in Big Ten play, their best finish since 1997.
Football’s performance remains polarizing, but the Hawkeyes did qualify for Kirk Ferentz’s 12th bowl game in 14 years. Volleyball won six Big Ten matches, its high since 2008. Women’s basketball won two NCAA games for the first time since 1996.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“I think the direction in the athletics department in certain areas is much better than it has been,” Rastetter said. “Obviously the men’s basketball program is on the rise and football has a new facility that will dramatically help it in a greater way. The men’s baseball team, we all recognize what’s happened there for the first time in a long time, in terms of having a terrific season.”
Downer was excited about Iowa’s nonrevenue sports, specifically in baseball, golf and tennis.
“I have been thrilled with what Rick Heller and baseball did this season,” Downer said. “I made it to quite a few of those games. I think there’s certainly a place for a strong baseball program in Iowa with no other Division I program in the state.
“I think it’s very important if we’re going to have a well-rounded program that we have credible programs in those areas. I thought they have brought some distinction to the University of Iowa.”
Iowa finished 44th overall in the annual Learfield Director’s Cup standings, its best finish under Barta but still 10th among Big Ten schools. Only three other times did Iowa better than 50th under Barta. In 2013-14, Iowa placed 78th, the worst showing in school history.
“There’s been a fair amount of people who feel that he’s not done what he said he was going to do, which I think initially the comments were competing for championships in every sport,” said Cedar Rapids anesthesiologist Brent Feller, one of the department’s top donors.
Points are awarded based on a school’s finish in up to 10 men’s and 10 women’s sports. With 24 sports and none considered niche, Iowa’s score rarely will match competitors like Ohio State, which has 36 sports from which to choose. Among Big Ten schools, national champions Nebraska (women’s bowling), Minnesota (women’s hockey) and Maryland (women’s lacrosse) all earned 100 points. Penn State and Ohio State picked up 90 and 75 points, respectively, for fencing. Nebraska earned 80 points for its rifle team, and Penn State scored 55 for men’s volleyball. Iowa has none of those sports.
Barta has been reluctant to either add more sports for the sake of the Learfield Cup or subtract them for the bottom line, either.
FINANCIAL AND ACADEMIC SUCCESS
Iowa’s revenues have grown from nearly $81 million in the 2007 fiscal year to about $106 million (31 percent) in fiscal 2014. Donations have soared by nearly 40 percent. Big Ten revenues have jumped 54 percent. In both the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years, donations exceeded $30 million.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Iowa has been self-sustaining since 2008 and expenses have increased by nearly $32 million (45.1 percent). Debt service and maintenance costs grew from $15.1 million in 2007 to $37.4 million in 2013. Nearly all of Iowa’s sports facilities needed improvements under Barta’s watch.
“We put all those in the strategic plan, we started creating a vision and then I told my staff a vision without resources is irrelevant,” he said. “So I said the next step is to go out and share what we’re trying to do with great Hawkeye fans and raise a lot of money. Fortunately, a lot of people bought into the vision.”
“He’s clearly taken us to the next level in terms of facilities,” said Feller, who has a club room at Carver named for him. “As everybody knows, we were way behind in our facilities. He’s done a fabulous job, both with Carver and with the Hansen Performance Center. That’s definitely been his strength.”
Operational expenses for Iowa’s Olympic sports grew at a comparable rate. Women’s gymnastics (72 percent), volleyball (70 percent) and baseball (69 percent) showed the most growth. The only Olympic sport without at least 40 percent growth was rowing (32 percent), but that didn’t include the new boathouse.
Academically, Iowa athletics earned a federal graduation rate of 78 percent, 12 points higher than national peers, and the best in the state. Its graduation success rate — which takes transfers into account — was 89 percent.
“One thing I’m very pleased about, it seems to me the coaches that have been hired have had a strong orientation toward academic performance of their athletes,” Downer said. “It seems to me that Gary has the proportions in that regard right.”
Barta touts his coaches’ commitment to education as the foundation of their success.
“It comes down to the people,” he said. “I’ve believed in it throughout my entire career. When I was a student-athlete, I was a good student because it was important to me. Throughout my entire career, it’s almost 30 years, and it’s important to me.”
l Comments: (319) 339-3169; email@example.com