Iowa Hawkeyes

Save Iowa Sports group struggles to be heard at University of Iowa

Group says it has plan to save sports the UI ended forever

University of Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta holds a new conference July 30 in the Feller Club Room at Carver-Hawkeye
University of Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta holds a new conference July 30 in the Feller Club Room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A growing group of University of Iowa alumni, parents and athletes has developed a plan and raised about $3 million to try to save the four sports administrators discontinued after the Big Ten announced that fall football wouldn’t happen — a decision since reversed.

But the group has struggled to get a meeting with the university or Board of Regents for presentation of its proposal to save the Olympic sports: men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics.

The group’s thinking — behind its plan not only to keep the sports but develop a sustainable future for them — is that UI football objectives and budgets differ from those of the Olympic sports.

“We realized that the old model of housing all sports in a singular athletic department simply doesn’t work,” according to the Save Iowa Sports group. “Co-mingling of large revenue and nonrevenue sports has created a gross de-prioritization of Olympic sports.”

If the UI allowed the smaller programs freedom to establish separate budgets and support in crafting different operating models, they would do that, according to those leading the Save Iowa Sports initiative.

“The burden of a bloated athletic department’s extensive financial risk-taking has been pushed to smaller programs that, otherwise, operate within their means,” the group said.

But advocates clamoring for an administrative ear say they’ve been repeatedly shut down — both publicly before the regents and privately — even after raising millions from hundreds of donors and garnering signatures of support from tens of thousands.

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“We are in the midst of a financial crisis in Hawkeye Athletics that requires closure of these sports to cover the interest and principal on significant loans,” UI President Bruce Harreld wrote in a two-sentence email to Hawkeye alum Matt Purdy, who played guard from 1992 to 1995, was the football team’s captain and had the privilege of carrying Coach Hayden Fry off the field after his 200th career win.

Purdy had written to Harreld to advocate not for his sport but for his son’s — swimming.

“My hope is that you would consider meeting with me individually sometime very soon,” Purdy wrote Sept. 15. “All I ask from you is your time and an open mind for change for doing what is best for these athletes.”

Harreld’s dismissal was swift and resolved.

“In reading between the lines, should I take your response as that you are not willing to at least engage me in a conversation on this topic?” Purdy wrote back, adding, “I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts on the lack of information that has been given to parents by the athletic department.

“It’s been 25 days and we have yet to be formally notified about the cuts and the options we have as parents in helping our son make a very difficult decision.”

Harreld cited other institutions in his response — pointing to Stanford University, which plans to cut 11 sports at the end of this year; and University of Minnesota, also planning to cut several, including men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics.

Noting “many other announcements will soon follow,” Harreld told Purdy, “We chose to go early to give our student athletes the most amount of time possible to transfer, if they so choose. As far as transparency, I trust you’ve seen the Frequent Q&A document released by Hawkeye Athletics that lays out all the specifics.”

UI response

Responding to The Gazette’s questions about the group’s request for a meeting on its proposal, UI Athletics officials said both Harreld and UI Athletics Director Gary Barta “have had meetings” with two members of the alumni group: Ron Kaminski, past president of HBK Engineering and Hawkeye swim team alumnus; and Mark Kaufman, UI alum and president and chief executive officer of Athletico, a major athletics donor.

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“No one else has reached out to any members of the Athletics Department administration to secure an additional meeting, nor has UI Athletics received any plan from the group,” according to the UI response.

Kaminski said the only meeting he had with Harreld, Barta and Kaufman was Sept. 3 — just days after learning of the cuts and before they developed a plan.

On Sept. 25 — two days after Harreld shot down any hope of reviving the sports during a regents meeting and three days after Harreld told regents of his plans to retire — Kaminski emailed him asking to discuss a “new model.”

Kaminski requested a “short telephone call” to discuss a “business model that I believe will meet the goals of everyone.”

“The plan is solid, but I need your guidance to establish a proof of concept strategy,” Kaminski told the UI president, who has a background as a business executive. “It feels like, and might be called a (public-private partnership), but is different in that the private contribution is not generating profit for themselves, but instead returning them back to the university.”

Harreld never responded. And both Harreld and Barta rejected Purdy’s ask for a meeting the week before.

“While the decision to discontinue sports was necessary and won’t be reversed,” Barta told Purdy, “I understand it has created great angst and emotion for everyone involved.”

When asked by The Gazette, however, whether administrators would consider the group’s plan to move Olympic sports out from under the Athletics Department umbrella and create a separate funding structure, athletics officials said they’d “welcome an opportunity to review this written proposal.”

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The plan

Here’s what Save Iowa Sports shared with The Gazette about the group’s plans for maintaining and supporting UI’s Olympic sports:

Kaminski said the group proposes partnering with the university’s own John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and moving Olympic sports out of the UI Athletics Department and into a different department — say Reactional Services, housed in the Division of Student Life.

Then for each sport, the group proposes creating advisory councils of experts, advocates and alumni who would volunteer their time to fundraise, mentor student athletes, support the coaching staff and “help them be their own CEOs of their businesses.”

Barta and Harreld initially argued their decision to eliminate the sports — and take other measures like cutting positions, imposing salary cuts and mandating furloughs — was brought on by a projected deficit between $60 million and $75 million this budget year, largely due to lost football revenue, conference contributions and media rights income.

When the Big Ten voted to resurrect some semblance of a shortened fall football season, Barta downgraded the expected deficit to $40 million to $60 million — but said that wouldn’t be enough to save the four sports, which by cutting the university expected to save about $5 million a year.

In response to a request at a Board of Regents meeting that the UI try to find the money elsewhere, Harreld said, “I’m sorry” and “These sports are closed.”

But Kaminski said the group raised nearly $3 million “in a snap.”

“And those individuals are still sitting there going, ‘We don’t even know what we’re giving the pledge for,’” Kaminski said. “When we release to them a plan … those pocketbooks and that intellectual support will open up like we won’t believe. I know it. I believe it. I know it’s going to happen.”

The plan, he said, will create new revenue streams, afford fiscal and physical independence, ensure NCAA Division I eligibility and make Iowa a national model.

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But should UI refuse to even try, Kaminski said, they’ll lose hundreds of givers — many of whom aren’t necessarily interested in the football program or getting good seats at a game.

“By dropping programs, you might think you save a million dollars a year,” he said. “But you have now taken 500 potential Iowa alumni and turned them away from the state of Iowa.”

The students

Among the main reasons the UI should fight to keep these sports, according to the group, is the students.

Amy Hoherz was in Houston Aug. 21 when she received a phone call from her son, UI senior diver Anton Hoherz — who has qualified for the Olympic trials and was eager after a long COVID-19-compelled hiatus to get back in the water.

“He was just beside himself, he was just sobbing,” Hoherz said. “I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know.’”

Barta had delivered the message in brief fashion to the affected students, many of whom said they felt dismissed.

“And then he bolted. He left,” Amy Hoherz said. “And the coaches. The poor coaches had literally just been told 45 minutes before that, and so they’re reeling from the news and not sure what’s happening and the coaches collectively have hundreds of kids that are crying.

“My son’s angry,” she said. “I’m angry.”

Purdy also remembers when his son, sophomore swimmer Ryan Purdy, called with the news. He was sitting in his office in the Chicago area and remembers the despair on the other end of the line.

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“He’s crying hysterically,” Purdy said. “He goes, ‘Dad they just cut us.’”

He asked whether his son meant just for this year? “No dad. Forever,” his son replied.

Purdy felt the university didn’t consider the impact on the students’ mental health. “I was on the phone that day with him probably about every hour,” he said.

In response to questions from The Gazette about how the news was delivered and what support was offered the affected students, UI Athletics officials said, “We apologize if our student-athletes felt the delivery of this news was insincere as that was not the intent.”

They said “experts” met with each team after Barta delivered the news, as did coaches, advisers and psychologists.

When asked why the university made the announcement only three days before school started, Barta said, “We made the announcement as soon as possible following the Big Ten’s August 11th decision, to give student-athletes the greatest flexibility in their decision going forward.”

Many students who have dreams of competing in collegiate or even Olympic-level athletics will have to transfer to remain in the sport.

Purdy asked whether the university thought about all the ramifications of cutting the sports and leaving the athletes in limbo — like apartment leases and the ability to prioritize studies in a year already confused by a pandemic.

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“The athletic department is not in a position to provide assistance or insert itself into contractual matters related to off-campus leases,” Barta told Purdy.

Hoherz slammed the regents for not requiring the UI submit more detailed plans of its cuts and its justifications.

And UI alumna Vicki Nauman, among the Save Iowa Sports collaborators, criticized the Athletics Department for financial risk-taking — justifying pulling apart the Olympic sports.

“There’s been an incredible amount of financial risk taking … and no reserves,” Nauman said. “And so we feel like, why would these small Olympic sports bear the burden of this financial risk taking?”

When asked, UI Athletics officials said the department does have a reserve fund and transferred $3.6 million in the 2020 budget year — leaving a balance of more than $4 million.

“But it had not prepared for the unprecedented financial impact caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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