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Schwartz: Iowa Sports – Success, Lawsuits, and the Future

May 8, 2016

Written by David Schwartz

Hawkeye Nation

Nine months ago – it seems like a century, doesn’t it? – the University of Iowa faced a 17 percent drop in football season-ticket sales. No one knew what to expect from the men’s basketball team. The women’s team seemed fated for failure after the loss of its three-headed dragon: Samantha Logic, Melissa Dixon and Bethany Doolittle.

Meanwhile, hopes were high that Iowa wrestling might stand up to the Penn State bully. The Big Ten Network and other broadcast rights continued to be a boon to the athletic department. And except for calls for football coach Kirk Ferentz to move aside, the UI athletic department was mostly peaceful.

Now it’s May. The 2015-16 school year is almost over. It’s time to take inventory of a university that experienced the highest of highs this year and some serious lows.

Hawkeye Nation decided now is the time to evaluate the 2015-16 Iowa Hawkeyes. This is about wins and losses, but it’s also about more – it’s about looking under the hood to get a better idea of how things are running.

We spoke last week with UI athletic director Gary Barta, whose thoughts are presented here along with our own analyses of various topics.

Proving that sport’s defining characteristic is unpredictability, Hawkeye football went undefeated in the regular season and reached the Rose Bowl. The university’s new president, a man who literally nobody wanted and who had to be talked into the job, opened a much-needed dialogue about how athletics can contribute financially to the rest of the university. The formerly harmonious athletic department is mired in legal allegations and investigations. As for wrestling … well … maybe it’s time to permanently refer to the Hawkeye dynasty in the past tense.

Football

So, pretty good, right?

As a football program goes, so goes an athletic department. There were so many positives for Hawkeye football that it’s hard to know where to begin.

12-0 regular season. Big Ten West champions. Consensus All-American Desmond King. Numerous national coach-of-the-year awards for Ferentz.

Although the Hawkeyes lost to Michigan State in the most competitive, most intense, most emotional Big Ten Championship Game to date, Iowa fans will always have this moment:

Stanford crushed – CRUSHED – Iowa in the Rose Bowl. So what. It’s over. Move on.

From a football standpoint, the Hawkeyes’ success helped them land star recruits like A.J. Epenesa and Eno Benjamin. But success like Iowa experienced this year doesn’t stay within football. It benefits the athletic department. The whole university.

“When Hawkeye football does well, it has an impact, in my opinion, on the whole state,” Barta said. “Just the mood, and the feel of the state, is different. It certainly has an impact on the whole University of Iowa, not just athletics. Clearly, all boats rise.”

Barta said season-ticket sales are up over last year, although they have not yet returned to 2014 levels. 2016 kickoff isn’t for another few months, so numbers should continue to climb. Donations are also ahead of last year’s pace, Barta said.

There also are emotional benefits.

“We care about succeeding – absolutely,” Barta said. “When columnists and fans and ticket holders are grumpy, the athletic department and the AD and coaches and players are grumpy, too, because we love to succeed, and we love to win. It feels much better to win than the alternative.”

It’s a challenge to find negatives in the football team’s season, but there are two, although only one is self-inflicted.

The negative that isn’t Iowa’s fault is the saga of Drew Ott. Ott tore the ACL in his right knee against Illinois. He applied for a medical redshirt and waited for an answer from the NCAA. And waited. And waited. And waited.

The NCAA is a Mickey Mouse organization with a billion-dollar expense account, but until Ott, Hawkeye fans could view the NCAA mostly as a joke. Now that the NCAA made Ott agonizingly wait, it’s not so funny. He was denied the redshirt, which is fine, I guess, but the unprofessional way that the NCAA handled its business hurt Ott’s professional future. It’s pathetic, but it’s not surprising.

Iowa football’s only self-inflicted wound was once again its bowl preparation. Between the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Ferentz re-dedicated himself to his job and turned around a program that had been spinning its wheels for a half-decade.

Hopefully that’s a positive indication that Ferentz can apply the same levels of analysis to bowl preparation. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 in their last four bowl appearances. They have been outscored in the first half of those four games a total of 98-7.

Something about Iowa’s bowl preparation is severely lacking. There wasn’t much hope that Ferentz and his coaching staff could turn around the program, but they did. Next, they need to solve their bowl problem.

Lawsuits and Investigations

There was a time when University of Iowa athletics stood as one of the nation’s model programs for gender equity in athletics.

That reputation took a hit in 2015-16. Former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum in March sued the UI for gender discrimination stemming from her 2014 firing. The UI cited mistreatment of players as a reason for the firing, but according to The Gazette, “student athletes could not substantiate [the accusations] to investigators,” and, “hundreds of former players and coaches” wrote letters supporting Griesbaum.

It’s an ugly scene and a disappointment that a conflict such as this is being litigated against a department once led by Christine Grant. Either UI athletics holds men’s and women’s coaches to an inexcusable double standard, or we haven’t yet heard the whole story.

But it doesn’t look good for UI athletics. It was paid a visit last month by the U.S. Department of Education. The Ed Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint filed against the UI that alleges it is violating Title IX, which calls for equal funding of opportunities – regardless of gender – at educational institutions that receive federal funding.

“Back in December [investigators] asked us for reams of information, and we spent hours answering all the questions. I think it was over 10,000 pieces of paper or documents,” Barta said. “And then in April, they came here for a week, and our attitude – to our coaches and our student-athletes – is that we’re an open book. This group is going to come in. We’re going to give them access to anything they want, answer their questions completely with no reservation.”

Federal investigators reviewed UI policies, scholarship opportunities, facilities, and other metrics. It may be some time before the UI learns about the findings.

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“I don’t really believe we’re going to learn anything extraordinary or new that we don’t already know,” Barta said. “I think I know we treat our student-athletes – men and women – in a great way, a first-class way. If there’s anything [investigators] see in their report and they think we can get better here, here, and here – great – then we’re going to get better.”

Even if the UI isn’t found to have violated Title IX, other anecdotal evidence paints UI athletics in an ugly light.

Annie Brown of the Center for Investigative Reporting reported just last week:

“Barta replaced two of the five female coaches he ousted with men – and paid those men 25 percent more than their female predecessors. For the three he replaced with other women, he paid those women 13 percent less, according to public salary data. By comparison, when Barta replaced male coaches with other men, he paid the new male coaches 10 percent more.”

(Author’s note: Brown’s story was published the day after Hawkeye Nation’s interview with Barta. We did not request a follow-up interview, but we should have.)

Separate from Griesbaum’s lawsuit and the federal investigation, the UI in January settled a gender-discrimination lawsuit filed by Mike Scott, who claimed he was passed over for an assistant track and field coaching position because he is a man.

Barta told the Center for Investigative Reporting that the UI’s reduction in the percentage of female head coaches is part of a “national phenomena, not just a problem at Iowa.”

At Iowa – Christine Grant’s house – that shouldn’t matter. The Hawkeyes need to reclaim their place as a national leader in the battle for gender equity, not cite statistics and make excuses. What was once the strength of UI athletics has become a weakness that no amount of Rose Bowls and NCAA Tournament appearances can make up for.

Academic Performance

Academically, UI athletes continue to be among the highest achieving in the nation.

This matters.

Every Big Ten school and nearly every college and university in the country offers academic support for athletes. Yet year after year Iowa’s athletes outperform their peers.

“It goes way back to before I got here. It’s a cultural thing that’s built into our history,” Barta said. “It’s part of the Big Ten culture in a lot of ways, compared to maybe some other conferences. … You can have a book that says you [care about the total package], but you ask ‘What’s the difference?’ We live it every day.

“When we make decisions, how does it impact us academically? When we make financial investments, how does it impact us academically? But we’re not going to give up winning, either, so it’s just that commitment to all three: win, graduate, do it right.”

For the sixth consecutive year, all 24 Iowa sports teams finished above the NCAA threshold that would otherwise signal academic deficiencies. That’s a clear indicator that academic success for athletes is part of a larger UI culture.

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It’s the sort of stat that should fill Hawkeye fans with pride.

The winter season brought yet another impressive academic feat. In March, women’s basketball player Ally Disterhoft and men’s basketball player Jarrod Uthoff were each named first-team NCAA Academic All-Americans. They also were each named the national Academic All-American of the Year in their respective sports by the College Sports Information Directors of America – the first time ever that two athletes from the same school won the award in the same year. Uthoff’s teammate Mike Gesell earned second-team honors.

Basketball

Both teams – women’s and men’s – exceeded preseason expectations. Both programs appear healthy and ready to continue their recent successes, although the men’s team is losing a lot to graduation.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect from the men’s team after Aaron White graduated. We held hope that they could make a run at another NCAA Tournament appearance, but not too much hope.

Instead, the Hawkeyes at one point nearly climbed to No. 1 in the nation. We’ve documented before their late-season collapse, but they took fans on a wild ride, won a tourney game for the second straight year, and didn’t let White’s departure doom their season.

The women’s team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly a decade. It did, however, nearly sneak in at the last moment while riding the firepower of a starting lineup that at times didn’t include a single senior.

Teams like Iowa women’s basketball, which have long stretches of success, are allowed to have a down season or two. It happens.

But it doesn’t look like the Hawkeyes will be down for long. Lisa Bluder continues to perform as one of the Big Ten’s best coaches.

TV deals and long-term planning

Barta is correct to point out that the Big Ten’s long-discussed broadcast-rights deal with Fox has not yet been signed.

But if (when) it is, Iowa and other Big Ten schools will reap the benefits.

Universities are in a constant race against other universities to upgrade and/or maintain facilities and provide other benefits to athletes. For example, after University of Connecticut men’s basketball player Shabazz Napier said he went to bed “starving,” the NCAA decried universities must make food and other nutritional needs available 24 hours a day. Barta said that adjustment costs schools hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars a year.

So some of the (eventual) new TV money will go to the cost of increasing overhead. But Barta and the UI athletic department have also identified other needs as part of their strategic plan.

For instance, Barta said the north end zone of Kinnick Stadium needs to be re-done. Barta called it a “huge ticket item” that the department will need to figure out how to pay for through fundraising and other means. Carver-Hawkeye Arena will have new video boards and a new sound system this coming season. Barta also said the UI needs to raise funds to build new softball and baseball stadiums.

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“The next TV deal that the Big Ten completes, by all indicators, should be very positive and be very strong. We’ll probably know this summer sometime,” Barta said. “Don’t believe everything you read because it’s not done and it’s not everything that’s being reported. However, we think it’s going to be terrific because negotiations are going well, and that announcement will come from the Big Ten, not from me.”

Relatedly, eventually, some athletic-department money could flow to the academic side of the University of Iowa. UI president Bruce Harreld spoke generally in April when he told The Daily Iowan that he floated the idea of athletic money benefiting academics. Nothing has been decided.

Barta said UI athletics currently makes its swimming and tennis complexes available to UI students, staff and the local community. Those are just two examples of UI athletics initiatives benefitting the larger university.

However, Harreld’s words sounded more closely aligned with Michael Gartner’s. Gartner, former president of the Iowa Board of Regents, once wrote that athletic revenues should also contribute to the university’s general fund.

Harreld and Barta have discussed the idea, but it is far too early to know what the bigger picture will be.

Wrestling

One of the most successful books ever written about the business world is “Good to Great.” Maybe it’s time for Iowa wrestling to write the sequel, “Great to Good.”

It’s not their fault. It really isn’t. Penn State is to college wrestling in 2016 as Iowa was to wrestling in 1986.

If you’re an Iowa fan, it’s definitely a blow to the ego, but it’s just the way it is. John Wooden isn’t coming back to coach UCLA basketball, and Dan Gable isn’t coming back to coach Iowa wrestling.

No. Instead, Gable’s essence has been reincarnated in the body and mind of Penn State coach Cael Sanderson. The Nittany Lions have won five of the last six NCAA titles.

The Hawkeyes? They finished fifth this year in the NCAA meet. Most notable, the fanbase was bummed but mostly reacted with a collective shrug.

The fans know the score. Expectations have been lowered.

Overall

In March, the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics named Barta their Athletics Director of the Year.

It was a nice honor for Barta, whose leadership has led to new facilities, renovations of old facilities, continued academic success, a fiscally responsible department, and the return to prominence of football – the most important college sport to any university.

Perhaps appropriate given Iowa’s legal dealings this season, the announcement of Barta’s award was met with skepticism:

On the field, several Iowa programs have shown improvement in recent years, including football, women’s and men’s golf, baseball, men’s basketball and track & field. Even volleyball, which has suffered for years, showed a spark this season.

Yet Big Ten championships continue to elude Iowa teams. Over the last eight years, starting with the beginning of the 2008-09 school year through the 2016 winter season, the Hawkeyes have won just eight of a possible 269 Big Ten regular-season or postseason tournament championships. That includes this year’s Big Ten West football title, which the Big Ten technically doesn’t count as a conference championship.

Eight conference championships is the second worst out of the Big Ten’s 14 teams. Only Rutgers, which joined the conference in 2014, has won less Big Ten titles than Iowa since 2008. Rutgers has won zero. Maryland, which also joined the Big Ten in 2014, has already won 12 Big Ten titles, and Nebraska, which joined in 2011, has also won 12. The Big Ten’s spring season has not concluded and was not included in the overall count.

Whether Iowa’s 2015-16 school year has been a success depends on your perspective.

If you’re in it purely for thrills, then football and both basketball teams surely gave you a school year to remember. If you’re more about the championships and don’t care to “enjoy the ride,” you might be underwhelmed.

If you’re someone who looks at the bigger picture, then you look at Iowa’s on-field success, fiscal responsibility and academic superiority. That must leave you feeling pretty good. Unless you also consider the legal issues, in which case you’re left feeling disappointed.

Like we said – it all comes down to your perspective.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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