Hickey: Believe it or not, the Gary Barta era is finally ending at Iowa
The day many Iowans never thought they’d live to see is nearly here.
No, it’s not the end of caucuses. It’s the end of Gary Barta’s 17-year tenure as Iowa’s athletic director, which officially ends on August 1.
They’re calling it a retirement, because this is Iowa and there are criminal statutes against being impolite. But it seems pretty clear Barta’s retirement was not his choice.
For years, Barta has dodged, ducked and dived his way through a variety of controversies in Iowa City. But even though many of those controversies cost Iowa serious money, none of them was able to sink Barta’s ship.
Was the recent sports betting scandal currently engulfing Iowa’s athletic department the blow that finally sent the SS Barta underwater? Time will tell, but it appears so.
There are 26 Iowa athletes across 5 sports who are being investigated by the state gaming commission. That includes 4 players from a baseball team poised to reach NCAA regionals for the first time since 2017 — most notably top hitter Keaton Anthony, who is among the Big Ten’s best players.
None of these athletes are suspected of point-shaving or anything nefarious. The most serious potential infraction could be whether anybody placed bets without meeting Iowa’s minimum age of 21. But that would hardly be the only illegal underage activity on campus.
What they did potentially constitutes an NCAA violation, though. And depending on who is involved and how serious the penalty, that could have a damaging effect on Iowa’s football, men’s basketball and wrestling teams next season.
Such a widespread issue suggests Iowa did a lousy job educating student-athletes about the risk of sports betting.
Whether that’s actually the case, they clearly could have done better. And when you pile it on top of the various other dramas of Barta’s tenure, the buck must stop at the top.
So how will Barta’s tenure be remembered?
Barta’s legacy: Lawsuits aplenty
Barta seemingly spent almost as much of his tenure in courtrooms as he did courtside. Or his lawyers did, anyway.
All told, Iowa reached settlements totaling $11 million due to lawsuits involving gender discrimination, racial discrimination and Title IX violations during Barta’s tenure.
In 2017, the university shelled out $6.5 million to former associate AD Jane Meyer and former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum. Griesbaum was fired in 2014 after allegations of player mistreatment arose.
But Meyer, her domestic partner, was reassigned and then had her position eliminated after Griesbaum filed a lawsuit against Iowa.
A federal jury agreed that Meyer’s job loss was a case of gender discrimination and retaliation. But because Barta was following the advice of the state attorney general’s office, blame for that mess wasn’t laid directly at his feet.
That settlement, combined with financial losses from the COVID pandemic, prompted Barta to cut men’s tennis, men’s gymnastics, men’s swimming and women’s swimming in 2020.
But a federal judge ruled the decision a Title IX violation. Not only was Iowa unable to cut women’s swimming, but the settlement required the addition of women’s wrestling.
The most recent courtroom episode was settled in March.
The university settled with 12 former football players suing on charges of racial discrimination for a total of $4.175 million, about half of which went to attorneys.
That case, which factored in the firing of former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle in 2020, has lingered over the program since.
And it was that settlement that prompted Iowa state auditor Rob Sand to tell Barta to, well, pound sand. Iowa’s Board of Regents was on the hook for $2 million of the bill. Sand didn’t think taxpayers should be footing the bill for Barta’s ineptitude.
“Enough is enough. Clear personal accountability is necessary,” Sand told the Des Moines Register. “I will not support taxpayers funding this settlement unless Gary Barta is no longer employed at the university and forfeits any severance or similar pay.”
The threat didn’t work. Iowa chose to reimburse the Board of Regents using money from athletics rather than get rid of Barta.
And now just a couple months later, he’s “retiring.”
The sports betting scandal seems to be the clear point of no return. And Iowa fans have good reason to be nervous about the potential outcome.
How bad does something have to be in order to finally shove Barta out the door?
Barta’s potential parting gift
Iowa has navigated many a mess in Barta’s tenure. But one doesn’t just Inspector Clouseau their way to 17 years as an athletic director. Something had to go right.
And in many cases, things did go right for Iowa athletics.
No Big Ten program has more cultural stability. Barta never had to make a coaching change in football, wrestling or women’s basketball. And his whiff on Todd Lickliter in basketball is pretty much forgotten now that he’s gotten 13 years and counting out of Fran McCaffery.
It’s impressive that the Hawkeyes have maintained competitive consistency across the board while in the third-smallest state with more than 1 Power 5 program. (Only Mississippi and Kansas have a pair of Power 5 schools representing a smaller population.)
And the upcoming football season could produce Barta’s final parting gift to Iowa.
Thanks to the contract Barta renegotiated with offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, Ferentz is gone if the Hawkeyes don’t average at least 25 points per game.
Though most Iowa fans would have preferred to see Ferentz fired, that was never going to happen. Kirk would have pulled the behind-the-scenes levers to make sure Barta was the one who lost his job, not Brian.
Barta shrewdly guaranteed that Iowa’s offense will be better in 2023 — or have a new coordinator in 2024.
That’s a win-win. And already having that decision in writing will make his successor’s job a lot easier. And it’s a good thing — because that person will also be dealing with their share of Barta-induced headaches.