Tracey Griesbaum said Monday she didn’t need a seven-figure payout from the University of Iowa to prove that she was a good field hockey coach. She never doubted that in the 33 months since she was shocked to hear she had been fired.
So Griesbaum doesn’t view Friday’s $1.5 million settlement of her wrongful-termination lawsuit as the end of a journey, but rather as a sign that a life she had placed on hold for nearly three years is ready to resume. On her terms.
“I’m not relieved (by the settlement). I was ready to go to trial,” Griesbaum told the Register on Monday.
“I never felt from Day One that me as a person, as a human being, as a coach, needed any vindication. I have always had a lot of pride in what I did and how I did it. And I didn’t need a lawsuit. I didn’t need a trial. I didn’t need any of that to validate who I was as a coach.”
Friday’s settlement averted a civil trial that was scheduled to begin June 5. It came two weeks after Griesbaum’s partner, former Iowa senior associate athletic director Jane Meyer, won her civil lawsuit against the school for gender and sexual orientation discrimination, retaliation and unequal pay. Meyer will get $2.3 million in damages from the university that employed her from 2001-16. Attorneys’ fees will consume another $2.7 million, putting Iowa’s athletic department on the hook for $6.5 million.
Both cases stemmed from Iowa athletic director Gary Barta’s decision to fire Griesbaum in 2014, despite a 169-107 career record and 22 years of service to the university. Barta acted after what he said was a pattern of complaints of abusive behavior by Griesbaum toward her players. An internal university review had found no policy violations by Griesbaum.
Barta testified in Meyer's lawsuit that Griesbaum refused to change her coaching methods, and he was concerned that more complaints from athletes were inevitable if he retained her. Griesbaum denied that claim.
During a 35-minute interview Monday in the Des Moines offices of her attorneys, Thomas Newkirk and Jill Zwagerman, Griesbaum addressed a variety of topics, including the lingering sting of losing a job she loved, her plans for the future and under what circumstances she would consider having a conversation with Barta.
Griesbaum, 51, said she was blindsided when Barta informed her at 3 p.m. on Aug. 4, 2014, that she was no longer Iowa’s field hockey coach. She described the immediate aftermath as one of raw anguish.
“There was like that initial three or four months where it was completely gut-wrenching. I never had thoughts, feelings, emotions like that before,” Griesbaum said.
“I was 48 years old, and I think that’s really young. And I felt like we had really, really positive things on the horizon, not just in wins and losses, but the culture that we had. I felt really proud of what we were doing.”
Barta replaced Griesbaum with her assistant, Lisa Cellucci. Griesbaum said she learned to channel her feelings of betrayal over time, but that the disappointment will always be with her.
“I think I just want to be able to use it. I want to wrap it up a little differently and push it on to the next person and try to support them,” she said. “I would be a magician if I could pretend it never happened.”
Griesbaum said she “felt things shifting” in Iowa’s athletic department beginning in 2010 when she noticed that female head coaches were being replaced. Softball coach Gayle Blevins retired; volleyball coach Cindy Fredrick, women’s golf coach Kelly Crawford and rowing coach Mandi Kowal resigned; volleyball coach Sharon Dingman didn’t have her contract renewed.
Barta pointed to poor win-loss records for most of those decisions and noted that he also has replaced 11 male coaches in his 11 years at Iowa.
Griesbaum sensed a double standard.
“I felt like I knew them well enough to know that this is not appropriate, that they shouldn’t be losing their jobs in this manner,” Griesbaum said. “I don’t know what I would have done if I was the first person, the first female coach at Iowa, to lose their job.”
Instead, Griesbaum felt emboldened by what she saw as an unfair pattern of dismissals to fight against it when she was fired. She said she considers her victory to be shared among all her former colleagues, and that all have reached out to congratulate her.
Griesbaum remains in contact with Cellucci — her “best friend” — but has not attended an Iowa field hockey game or practice since she was removed from her job. She doesn’t anticipate that she ever will, although the desire to coach again remains strong.
“I wanted to make sure that my presence wasn’t a distraction,” Griesbaum said, choosing her words carefully. “I still have a deep respect and care for the Iowa field hockey program.”
So where will Griesbaum coach again? She said she’s not sure, noting that openings for head coaches at the 79 NCAA Division I field hockey programs are rare. The knowledge that her career might be over weighs on her sometimes, Griesbaum acknowledged.
“I had this thought the other night and then I was just torturing myself, so I stopped,” she said. “Think about the most successful coaches, if you would have stopped their accolades at the age of 48.
“I was in my prime, and three years later I don’t think I’m out of my prime. … I feel like my energy and my passion and my skills and what I bring to the table is not going to go away when I’m 62 or 65 or 68.”
For now, Griesbaum and Meyer plan to devote their energy to helping eliminate gender bias in college athletic departments. They’re not sure whether they will remain in Iowa, Meyer’s native state, or move.
Griesbaum hopes that her lawsuit will inspire change and open more opportunities for female athletes and coaches.
“It wasn’t easy and there’s a lot of people that it happened to before, and I want to not have it happen to people in the future,” Griesbaum said of losing her job. “I tried to represent female coaches and just coaches, the profession. That’s a lot of responsibility. I started to light a torch, and I’ll carry it a little bit and pass it on to whoever is going to have the most impact and just keep it going until leaders and directors and presidents and all the top stake-holders understand it. This is real. This could be your daughter. This could be your wife.”
Meyer, who was reassigned out of sports in December 2014 after raising questions about unequal treatment of women in the Iowa athletic department, said she too sees Griesbaum as a standard-bearer.
“There weren’t always cheery days in our home, and that’s OK because we each were working through things,” Meyer said of the past three years. “But Tracey’s resilience and her ability to step forward and represent a lot of people, that’s important. She’s done a great job of carrying the message.”
Griesbaum’s last conversation with Barta occurred on the afternoon of her firing. It will likely be the last time they ever speak, she acknowledged. But she praised Iowa president Bruce Harreld for his plan to review employment practices at the university.
And she said she’d be willing to sit down with Barta on one condition.
“If it’s really about making the University of Iowa and the athletic department better,” Griesbaum said. “That’s always been what I’ve wanted to do.”