Iowa athletics director Gary Barta retires after 17 years


Gary Barta, the University of Iowa’s durable and at-times troubled athletics director for the past 17 years, will retire effective August 1.

The details came in a bombshell announcement Friday morning, one that will shake up the top of an Iowa athletics department that has had its most prominent figures in the same seats for well over a decade.

According to a news release, this was Barta’s decision and not made suddenly. His contract was set to expire on June 30, 2024, but he opted to step aside from a high-paying, high-pressure job 11 months early. Under the terms of Barta’s deal, he was being paid more than $1 million per year − $650,000 in base salary and $400,000 annually in deferred compensation.

There is no so-called “golden parachute” included in the separation agreement, which was made public Friday by the state’s Board of Regents. Barta will be paid out for remaining sick days and vacation and he and his wife will receive health-care benefits from the university until Barta’s 65th birthday (Sept. 4, 2028) unless he takes another job before then.

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Here is the majority of what Barta said in a statement about his departure:

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years. I’m humbled to have worked beside, and on behalf of, so many student-athletes, coaches, staff, donors, fans, and community leaders over the past two decades. The success enjoyed by our student-athletes and coaches during my entire tenure, and especially the past several years, has been impressive and record breaking on so many levels.

“My wife, Connie, and I were blessed to be able to raise our two kids (Luke and Madi) in this wonderful community. The four of us will be Hawkeyes for life.

“I’ve made incredible friendships within the athletic department, across campus, throughout the greater Iowa City community and across the state.

“This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion and prayer. As I’ve reflected, I came to the conclusion there’s never a good time to step away, because there’s always more to be done. That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Barta, who will turn 60 in September, will leave behind a mixed legacy at Iowa.

He has retained successful head coaches atop the university’s four most visible sports: football’s Kirk Ferentz (since 1999), women’s basketball’s Lisa Bluder (since 2000), wrestling’s Tom Brands (since 2006) and men’s basketball’s Fran McCaffery (since 2010).

He has been a titan of a fund-raiser, generating more than $650 million in private support for scholarships, operations, facilities and endowments. He has been at the forefront of major facility upgrades totaling $380 million, with football’s $55 million performance center opening in 2014 and Kinnick Stadium’s $90 million north end zone renovations being completed in 2019.

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After the COVID-19 pandemic, Iowa’s athletics revenue boomed to nearly $152 million in fiscal year 2022 and reported a small surplus.

He’s made several wonderful hires, including baseball’s Rick Heller and track and field’s Joey Woody – both of whom have turned previously dormant programs into regular Big Ten Conference contenders (and sometimes champions). Heller’s Hawkeyes are 2-0 in this week’s Big Ten Tournament in Omaha and are poised for their first NCAA regional appearance (no small achievement for a northern school) since 2017.

Yet this spring was a reminder of the controversial and costly nature of Barta’s Iowa tenure. The university in March agreed to pay $4.2 million to settle a racial-discrimination lawsuit from 12 Black former football players. At that time, $2 million of the settlement was set to come from state taxpayers and State Auditor Rob Sand stated he would vote against the settlement unless Barta was fired. That was because Iowa athletics has now paid out roughly $11.2 million in four discrimination lawsuits under Barta’s watch since 2016 – including a $6.5 million payout in a gender-discrimination suit that went to trial in Polk County surrounding his abrupt 2014 firing of field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum. Those whopping dollar figures don’t count all the legal fees accrued by state and university attorneys in defending Barta’s athletics department and/or his coaches.

Barta also clumsily tried to cut four sports in 2020, but ultimately had to restore women’s swimming and add women’s wrestling as the result of another lawsuit. Three men’s sports – gymnastics, swimming and tennis – were eliminated, moves that created animosity among many alumni.

Iowa won four NCAA championships under Barta’s watch (all in men’s wrestling: 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2021), and the women’s basketball team reached the NCAA title game this past March. The Hawkeyes have had 27 Big Ten team championships under Barta, most of them in recent years (including a sweep of basketball tournament titles in 2022).

Hired on August 1, 2006, to succeed Bob Bowlsby, Barta is the second-longest-tenured AD in the Big Ten by a wide margin, trailing only Ohio State AD Gene Smith (who was hired in March 2005). Of the other 12 Big Ten ADs, Rutgers’ Patrick Hobbs (hired in November 2015) is third in seniority. There has been a high rate of turnover in the league in recent years, with Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin changing their directors of athletics since June 2021.

And now there is a change coming at Iowa.

“Gary’s achievements at the University of Iowa are significant, and our coaches and student-athletes have enjoyed tremendous success on and off the field during his tenure,” UI President Barbara Wilson said in a statement, after she declined to comment on Barta following the racial-discrimination settlement in March. “I’m grateful for his leadership as a Hawkeye, and I wish him well in his retirement.”

The university said it would name an interim athletics director next week.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

2023-05-26 15:21:54