IOWA CITY, Ia. – The outcry was more intense than Gary Barta had ever seen. His email inbox was filled with furious Hawkeye fans who wanted a change of the top of the Iowa football program.
But the athletics director took a stand after Iowa’s disappointing 2014 season and threw his full support behind Kirk Ferentz.
“It’s risky. You put all your chips on the table and you say, ‘Let’s go’ with the people around you,” Barta said last week in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “It’s fun to see from last January, when Kirk and the coaches and the student-athletes sort of committed themselves to the year ahead, all the hard work that they’ve put into it. It’s fun to see them get to this point.”
This point would be something few could imagine on Jan. 2. Iowa is 9-0, at No. 8 in the national polls and in the driver’s seat to make the Big Ten Conference championship game -- and maybe more.
Many would probably relish the idea of hitting “reply” to the Fire Ferentz crowd.
Barta understands that temptation, but said he’s choosing the high road.
“Believe me,” he said, “it’s not an ‘I told you so.’ … Especially in today’s world with social media, there can be so much external noise.”
Barta has repeatedly stated that Ferentz’s well-publicized buyout (roughly $13 million back then, about 14 percent of the annual athletic department budget; it'll be closer to $10.6 million after the 2015 season) was never a factor in maintaining the status quo entering what would become what popular Iowa-focused podcasts refer to as the longest offseason in Hawkeye football history. The negativity even surpassed the angst fueled by a home loss to Western Michigan in the 2007 season finale.
Ferentz had supporters in January, too, but the general consensus was that Iowa would finish somewhere between 5-7 and 8-4 this season. The Hawkeyes were picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten West, despite what so many pundits are calling a generous schedule.
Good luck finding anyone -- anywhere -- who predicted Iowa would be undefeated in mid-November.
“It’s just I knew in my heart -- and still know in my heart -- that Kirk’s a great leader,” Barta said. “This is a solid program on a solid foundation.”
The Iowa athletics director now is targeting a Purdue sellout crowd for Senior Day.
So, rather than hide from the fans or give tepid media support to a 17th Ferentz season at the helm, Barta went all-in on his read of the program. He’d be the first to admit it wasn’t the most popular decision of his 10 years at Iowa.
But even after the embarrassing 45-28 loss to Tennessee in the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl – a one-sided blowout that was 42-7 in the third quarter – Barta stood in front of audio recorders and cameras in the bowels of EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., to say the season did not meet expectations but added this:
“What I do see is student-athletes who are still 100 percent behind their coach. I see a group of coaches who are still 100 percent behind each other. That's important, because I've been around programs where a coach loses a team, and that's not the case at Iowa.”
Reminded of that moment, Barta nodded and smiled. Certainly, he’s been validated in his football decision even as he remains under legal heat with how he handled the 2014 firing of field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum.
The Iowa athletic director revisits his decision to retain Kirk Ferentz after going 7-5 last regular season. Chad Leistikow | Hawkcentral.com
“One of the things in leadership I learned from others a long time ago, you’re either in or you’re out. You can’t be lukewarm on supporting somebody,” Barta said. “In any sport, if we ever decide it’s time for a change, it’s better to make that change, bite the bullet. Or if you’re not going to do that, then be 100 percent behind the people that you’re with, that you’re working with.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the country – on the field, off the field. And fortunately, so far so good this year.”