Leistikow: Gary Barta shows he's a survivor

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Wearing a neatly pressed, white-collared shirt, Gary Barta stood before reporters Tuesday as Iowa’s athletics director, the role he was hired for 11 years ago.

That alone said as much as anything that came out of his mouth in more than 25 minutes of questioning.

University of Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta speaks to media on Tuesday, July 11, 2017.

Like most politicians anymore, Barta has become a polarizing figure.

But whether you like him or loathe him, give Barta this: He’s a survivor.

He just endured a $6.5 million punch to his own athletics department, and he not only got back up, he’s charging ahead with widespread internal support.

“In the years I’ve been here since 2006,” Barta said Tuesday, “the mood and the culture of our student-athletes, our coaches and our staff has never been better.”

That's quite a statement. And that message isn't just coming from Barta.

It’s the university’s decision to keep him in power that says it, too; not to mention the countless people who I've talked to behind the scenes who feel completely comfortable with Barta at the helm of Hawkeye athletics.

In making his first media appearance since late-April testimony as the key defendant in the Jane Meyer v. University of Iowa discrimination lawsuit at the Polk County Courthouse, Barta steadfastly stayed the course.

When I asked about mistakes he thought he made in the decisions that led to the terminations of Meyer and her partner, Tracey Griesbaum, he only veered toward unspecified tactical errors.

“We did what we thought was right at the time,” he said. “We still believe that, principally, we were in the right.”

That’s another way of saying that he stands by telling then-No. 2 Meyer in July 2013 that she wouldn’t be considered for a newly created deputy athletics director position.

He stands by the August 2014 firing of Griesbaum, the field hockey coach who remains responsible for delivering Iowa's last Big Ten title in any women's sport (2008).

He certainly stands by the December 2014 decision to reassign Meyer to a position outside athletics.

It was the circumstances that led to those decisions that caused Barta to cough up about two-thirds of the athletics department reserves to settle with Meyer, Griesbaum and their talented Des Moines attorneys.

With its silence, the university is clearly standing behind Barta.

About that external review of the university’s employment practices — the one UI President Bruce Harreld said the day after the Meyer verdict would be ordered?

It has yet to begin.

“President Harreld has been behind me 100 percent since he arrived,” Barta said. “He knew when he took the job (in fall 2015) about this situation. He talked to a lot of people about it, to find out what happened, how it happened. And he’s been supportive from Day 1.”

Barta wasn’t apologetic Tuesday, nor does it sound like he plans on changing his practices.

One of the things that, in my view from the courtroom, burned him in the Meyer trial was a lack of a paper trail in complaints he said he had received about her performance.

On Tuesday, Barta said he wouldn't start upping his e-mail count to protect himself from getting sued — because those emails are public record and available for anyone, including media, to access under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“I’d rather sit down, one-on-one, with you and talk and … look you in the eye, so you can look me in the eye,” Barta said. “That’s not going to change. I’ll always try to communicate more, but not by email.”

Barta, 53, said hasn’t had contact with Meyer or Griesbaum since the trial, and cracked that he didn't expect the parties would be trading Christmas cards in the future.

On May 4, when an eight-person jury unanimously awarded Meyer $1.43 million in damages in her civil suit, I wondered if Barta would have a hard time keeping his job. On top of the stain of being found guilty of violating Iowa law, Barta's sports teams weren't exactly lighting the Big Ten on fire with championships.

Until Rick Heller's baseball team won the Big Ten Tournament in late May, Iowa's only other recognized league crown in the previous five years was a shared wrestling tournament title in 2015.

Yet, 68 days after the Meyer verdict, Barta was in the foyer of the Iowa Football Performance Center, before microphones and cameras.

Some would say there are 6.5 million reasons why he shouldn’t have been there.

Yet, something he referenced Tuesday, provided 48 million reasons why he was.

Barta revealed that this has been a record year for fundraising in Iowa athletics: $48 million strong — more than seven times what the department forked over in the settlement.

And it underscores the idea that Barta is closer to a savvy politician than athletics mastermind. He’s an elite fundraiser, never says anything overly controversial and earns critical support from other powerful people.

In politics and college athletics, the most public figures generate allies and enemies.

Over 11 years, Barta has shown an impressive ability to align with strong allies ... and survive.

"I’m angry at what happened. But I’m moving forward," Barta said. "Literally, I still have people who see me on the street and say, ‘How are you doing? Are you OK?’ And the answer is, 'Absolutely.' 

"With the record fundraising year, with coaches that are doing incredible things … you can just feel the momentum. That’s what I’m focused on.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.