Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series about Iowa athletics under Director Gary Barta. Wednesday: Barta and Field Hockey.
IOWA CITY — Iowa women’s basketball remains a pillar of success for its athletics department.
Coach Lisa Bluder guided the Hawkeyes to second place in the Big Ten and a Sweet Sixteen berth earlier this year. Iowa is the only Big Ten team to qualify for the NCAA tournament in each of the last eight years. Bluder is Iowa’s winningest women’s basketball coach and ranks just five wins shy of third place in Big Ten history.
But she also coaches the only women’s sport that has earned a regular-season league title in athletics director Gary Barta’s nine years.
Women’s athletics at Iowa has struggled to compete for championships or even upper-division finishes over the last decade. Iowa’s average conference finish for women’s sports this year was 8.46. Only basketball (second of 14) and soccer (fifth of 14) placed in the Big Ten’s upper half. Nine sports finished eighth or worse.
It hardly compares to the standard set by former women’s athletics director Christine Grant, who retired in 2000. Her teams won 25 Big Ten titles in her 27 years. The departments merged in 2001 under former athletics director Bob Bowlsby, and women’s sports since has struggled to live up to Grant’s standards.
Grant, regarded as a Title IX pioneer, hired a majority of women for head coaching positions. Now, six of Iowa’s 13 women’s sports are led by females. That’s troublesome for groups like the Tucker Center for Research in Girls and Women in Sport, which gave Iowa a “C” for boasting less than 54 percent of women’s coaches for women’s sports.
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“Do I think hires should be totally gender-based? No. But this story has broader implications,” said Beth Beglin, a former Olympian and field hockey coach at Iowa who now works as a prosecutor with the Johnson County attorney’s Office. “This has national implications because you look at and see what’s happening at the national level to female coaches. The numbers from 1972 when Title IX was passed and 90 percent of all women’s teams were coached by women. Fast forward to today and we’re down to 43 percent of women’s teams coached by women. And eliminate half of the coaching jobs in America because less than 4 percent of men’s teams on any level are coached by women. Honestly, female coaches in coaching, if you look at the trend, they’re an endangered species.
“So this situation at Iowa is emblematic of what is happening across the country.”
Earlier this year, Beglin put together a report about the demise of women’s sports at Iowa. She compared everything from salaries to team performances in all sports. Iowa averaged 33rd place nationally in the Learfield Cup standings — considered a broad-based measurement of an athletics program — collectively under Grant and Bowlsby. Bowlsby’s tenure averaged 46th place, while Barta’s era averaged 56th place before placing 44th this year.
LACK OF SUCCESS ... OR SUPPORT?
Under Barta, Iowa has fired three coaches and declined to renew contracts for five other coaches. Of the six women’s coaches who left under Barta, five were pushed out or fired. Of the 11 men’s coaches who left, three were either fired or had contracts not renewed.
Basketball aside, volleyball and softball are the two highest-profile women’s sports at Iowa, Neither have enjoyed success in Barta’s tenure — for different reasons.
Barta fired volleyball coach Cindy Fredrick after the 2007 season and declined to renew Sharon Dingman’s contract in 2013. Frederick’s final year salary was around $152,000 and Dingman’s was about $126,000. Dingman’s replacement, Bond Shymansky, had a first-year salary of $165,000.
Fredrick and Dingman struggled at Iowa. In 10 years of Big Ten competition, they combined for a 27-175 record. Dingman was 18-102 in six years, including 7-73 in her final four seasons.
But were their problems institutional? Iowa volleyball didn’t have its own practice facility until 2011, which it shares with basketball. Fredrick became head coach at UNLV in 2010 and led her squad to a school-record 26 wins in 2014. Fredrick also was named the Mountain West Conference’s coach of the year. Dingman guided Illinois State to the NCAA tournament in 2007, one season before taking over at Iowa. Last year she directed the University of Chicago to the Division III NCAA tournament.
Shymansky, an Iowa City native, led Georgia Tech and Marquette to the NCAA tournament a combined six times before taking over at Iowa. He lifted Iowa to a 6-14 mark in Big Ten play last year, the team’s best since 2008.
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Softball has taken a significant turn downward under Barta’s watch. Gayle Blevins retired in 2010 as perhaps the school’s greatest women’s coach. In 23 years, she posted a 945-440-3 record with 16 NCAA tournament appearances and four College World Series berths. Blevins remains a fixture in the Iowa City community.
“She retired and I pleaded with her not to, and she made that decision,” Barta said.
Blevins’ replacement was Texas assistant Marla Looper. After an 84-74 record (33-34 in Big Ten) through her first three seasons, Looper was given an extension through 2018. In the last two seasons, Iowa softball has notched a 35-70 overall record. Blevins never had a losing season.
When asked if he’s stayed with Looper because of the turmoil with other women’s coaches, Barta remained steadfast in his criteria.
“I’m going to continue to evaluate our program based on ... is this person able to get it done?” Barta said. “Are they still passionate, are their student-athletes still behind them? Have we provided them the resources and facilities and everything else? I gave the extension to Marla. I have no regrets there. We haven’t reached the point we want to reach, but I’m still 100 percent behind her.”
There remains a pattern of inconsistency. Iowa City native Steve Houghton retired last fall after 33 years as men’s tennis coach. Houghton, a former Iowa player, remains well-liked and respected among his peers and graduated students at a high rate. But over his final 20 seasons, Iowa was 41-150 in Big Ten competition. The Hawkeyes were 1-32 against Big Ten opponents his last three years.
Gymnastics coach Tom Dunn retired in 2010 after 31 years as head coach. In each of his final four seasons, Iowa finished last in the Big Ten. Baseball coach Jack Dahm had two winning seasons in 10 years before his contract was not renewed in 2013. The five women’s coaches who were fired or not retained averaged 8.4 years at Iowa.
“There were women being fired for results and then I’m looking at men’s tennis, which the last three years had finished 12th, 12th and 11th,” Beglin said. “No one was fired as a result of that. I believe it was cross-country results and indoor track results and I was looking at these going, ‘Gee if these women are losing their jobs, how come the men aren’t losing their jobs?’”
Women’s golf coach Kelly Crawford led Iowa from 2007-2011 and finished fifth among 11 schools her third season before falling to last place her final two years. Amid discussion that the men’s and women’s golf programs would merge under the men’s coach — which did not happen — Crawford’s contract was not renewed in 2011.
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Rowing coach Mandi Kowal’s contract was not renewed in 2012. Only once in her 13 seasons did her team finish as high as fourth among seven Big Ten squads. Over her final nine years — five of which were with an $8 million boat house — Iowa recorded three last-place finishes and finished second-to-last five times.
Kowal and the university were sued in 2010 after workouts permanently injured a former rower. The case was settled out of court in 2013.
Some people have suggested there’s a double standard at Iowa. Football strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle supervised a workout that hospitalized 12 players in 2011. One player, defensive back Willie Lowe, did not return to the team but played 18 months later at another school. Lowe has filed a lawsuit, and a trial is scheduled for January 2016.
“Mandi Kowal, her contract was not renewed because I felt like we had finished near the bottom of the Big Ten several years in a row, and it didn’t appear to me that we were going to get off the bottom and move to the top. Period,” Barta said. “That was the rationale. Same discussion, same thought process I had with (former men’s basketball coach) Todd Lickliter. Same process I had with Jack Dahm most recently. Great people, but that’s the determination I made. That’s how I got to that decision. It was a nonrenewal, it wasn’t a termination with Mandi. It has no association with anything you want to talk about with Chris Doyle. They’re apples and oranges because my decision on Mandi was based on performance, whether or not I thought she could bring the program back to the top.”
But Barta doesn’t make those decisions in a vacuum, either. Many administrators oversee different sports, whereas Barta directly supervises just football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. Barta makes the final judgment on a coach’s status but with input.
“Every other coach that I haven’t renewed or have terminated, I’ve done it compassionately, fairly but based on purely ‘Win, Graduate, Do It Right,’” said Barta, using the department’s mantra. “In many of those cases, it came down to win, the lack of success on the court and on the field. So I got to the end of that season, whatever season it was, and I sat down with that coach. It wasn’t a surprise to those coaches because I had the conversation the year before saying, ‘Look we’ve got to figure this out, how can I help you, what can we do?’ In all of those cases, when I said whether it was Jack Dahm or Todd Lickliter or Sharon Dingman or Mandi Kowal, they were all very similar discussions to say, ‘You know what, you’re a terrific person, I’m sorry but I’m going to make a change.’ But it was based on performance. Nothing else.”
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