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Amid criticism he’s received for the recent contract extension of Fran McCaffery, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta on Monday responded with a strong endorsement of his eighth-year men’s basketball coach, calling McCaffery the right man to lead the Hawkeyes “for the long haul.”
“I trust him implicitly to run this program at a time when trusting someone to do things the right way is probably more important than ever before,” Barta said in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “I want to win every single time we step out there. But I want to do it the right way. And Fran has proven he can do that.”
Taking questions for the first time since McCaffery’s new contract came to light last week, Barta addressed several angles on the deal, which runs through the 2023-24 season, in a 25-minute interview.
Topic 1: Why Fran?
Before getting to some of the parts of the contract that created a stir — the buyout and how it was (not) announced — it’s important to understand why Barta believes in McCaffery and what the parties agreed to.
Barta operates under the "Win, Graduate, Do It Right" mantra. He and McCaffery align in that area.
The pair came to an agreement in the summer, months before it was signed Nov. 29 and revealed last week via a public-records request.
In terms of guaranteed compensation before bonuses, McCaffery's pay rose 6 percent, from $2.1 million to $2.225 million for this season. The next time one of his Iowa teams makes the NCAA Tournament, McCaffery would be in line for a significant raise. For example, if Iowa makes the 2019 tournament, his 2019-20 pay would go from $2.35 million to $2.7 million.
Barta said the current rough season, an 11-12 record including 2-8 in Big Ten Conference play, didn’t factor into his thinking.
Barta: “The simple answer is I believe fully in Fran’s ability to win, graduate and do it right. He had a long history as a head coach before he got here. He’s been a head coach for 30 years. Even his time at Iowa, I have eight years of data. And this summer, when I made the decision to extend his contract, in the five years prior, he’s averaged 22 wins — that’s extraordinary by anybody’s measures.
“When I hired him, he re-energized a broken program. He’s a tireless recruiter. He’s done a great job in recruiting.
“When I find somebody who matches our culture and is a proven winner and proven that they care about our student-athletes graduating, et cetera, I want to lock them in for a long time, because I want them to stay."
Topic 2: The big buyout
If Barta were to fire McCaffery, 58, without cause after this season, Iowa would be on the hook for a $10.2 million buyout of his contract — up from $4.6 million under the previous terms of his 2016 amended deal.
That buyout goes to $9 million after the 2018-19 season, then $7.6 million, then $6.2 million, then $4.7 million.
Barta: “He’ll still be something like fifth or sixth (in salary) — somewhere like that in the Big Ten — even with this increase. But the longevity is something I can do. I believe in Fran.
“When you extend the length of the contract, you increase the buyout. Now, the buyout — it’s significant, without question. But it still isn’t out of tune with a lot of the contracts that are being written today.”
Topic 3: Why not announce it?
While Barta is obviously discussing the contract extension, it still hasn’t been officially released by the university. That led to some very legitimate questions about transparency at a state institution.
By comparison, McCaffery’s previous contract extension (awarded in November 2014) was announced the same day as it was signed by then-president Sally Mason. Football coach Kirk Ferentz’s contract extension included a Ferentz/Barta press conference the day after it was signed in September 2016. Baseball coach Rick Heller’s recent contract extension was announced in December, two days after president Bruce Harreld signed it.
So why the silence on this one? This has probably been the most heated debate on the contract issue — even more so than the big buyout. WHO-TV’s Keith Murphy spent more than 2 minutes on Sunday night’s SoundOFF show railing on Barta (and Iowa) for keeping this under wraps.
Barta’s explanation delves into his health and his not wanting to release a contract extension during the sport's season — although his previous major extension, with Ferentz, was announced in Week 2 of the 2016 football season.
Barta: “I don’t think I’ve ever announced extending a coach’s contract in the middle of the season. The reason I don’t like to do that: It distracts from playing the games, playing the season.
“We had a handshake deal in the summer. Fran wasn’t worried about it because he already has a contract and he trusts me. And so, when I had to leave for health reasons and just really focus on that, he didn’t worry about it — I, obviously, was focused on other things. So then, when I came back and we finalized it and signed it, I made the decision (to wait). It wasn’t Fran asking for it.
“Many times, when we announce coaches’ contracts, it’s for recruiting. In this case, we didn’t need an advantage in recruiting. Recruiting’s been going fine. So I made the decision to wait until the end of the season, knowing full well … it could get out during the season. I hoped that it would be after the season — not because I’m worried about how we’re playing. But I just did not want to have this conversation in the middle of the season. But it is what it is. And there was no conspiracy.
“I could’ve announced it. I chose not to. There’s really nothing in it to hide. It’s fair for people to criticize.”
Topic 4: Other opportunities
Before McCaffery’s teleconference last Friday, an administration statement was read that the head coach has “had multiple opportunities to leave” Iowa but chose to stay.
Barta confirmed Monday, without revealing the school or number, that there was “more than one” such opportunity. When asked if there were at least two Power Five opportunities, he gave a one-word answer: “Yes.”
That was enlightening, and it was something that hadn’t previously been publicly acknowledged.
Barta: “Any of our really good or great coaches are going to have other opportunities. Lisa (Bluder) has had other opportunities. Kirk has had other opportunities, historically. But what I want to do is get somebody in such a strong partnership that eventually they don’t even listen to those other opportunities.
“(McCaffery’s) were very legitimate, specific opportunities … that, frankly, may have paid him more. But he likes it here. His family likes it here — they’re very entrenched in the community.”
Topic 5: This season
Barta isn’t diminishing what’s happened with this season’s surprising struggles, but he isn’t losing hope.
Almost every key current contributor is a freshman or sophomore, and the two best recruits in the McCaffery era are on their way — Muscatine guard Joe Wieskamp (Class of 2018) and Iowa City West forward Patrick McCaffery (Class of 2019, Fran’s son).
Barta: “If you’re a Hawkeye basketball fan right now, you’re not happy. That’s fair. And who can you point to when you’re not happy? You point to the head coach.
“I’m not happy with how we’re playing right now. But even today, I firmly believe Fran is the person who can lead us in winning, graduating and doing it the right way. That’s my job — to make those decisions.”
Topic 6: If the buyout is needed ...
If it doesn't go well again next year, would Barta be willing to pull the trigger on a $9 million buyout — when it would've been $3.5 million had the parties not agreed to this two-year extension?
Barta: "I’m in this for the long haul with Fran. I believe he’s the right leader. If that ever changes, then I’ll have a decision to make.
"I understand, nationally, there’s become an impatience of immediate or instant gratification. ... Remember, we’ve only been to (one Sweet 16, in 1999) since the '80s.
“It’s not like he’s come here and broke something. He’s come here and re-energized things and, in my opinion, gives us the best chance to have success, moving forward.
“If he’s here for that entire contract length, my guess is we’re going to have some terrific years and my guess is we’re going to have some years where it’s not so good. Those ups and downs, if you have the right person leading, you can get through them.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.