Leistikow: What is Gary Barta risking with the Fran McCaffery extension? His own job — and much more

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

What was Gary Barta thinking?

That’s the crux of the question I heard most from Hawkeye fans Thursday — many of them outraged that the Iowa athletics director had 2 months ago quietly, without public announcement, signed a deal that more than doubled the buyout for men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery.

The new contract says that McCaffery would be owed $10.2 million if he’s fired without cause before July 1 — up from $4.6 million under the previously amended deal in 2016.

McCaffery’s seat, as it turns out, is not as hot as some people may wish it was.

Fran McCaffery has a 148-112 career record at Iowa, including 66-69 in Big Ten play.

So far, McCaffery’s eighth season has been worse than any except his first — when it was a total rebuild from the three colossal years of failure under Todd Lickliter.

The 2017-18 Hawkeyes are 11-11 overall and, at the halfway mark of Big Ten play, 13th out of 14 teams with a 2-7 conference record.

So, back to the original question. What was Barta thinking?

And, further, what does Thursday’s news mean?

Unquestioned loyalty

The date of the secret signing irked some perceptive fans — Nov. 29, 2017. That was one day after Iowa was routed by Virginia Tech in one of this season’s many basketball embarrassments.

But Barta on Thursday said via a statement that the deal was verbally agreed upon over the summer — but delayed because of Barta’s leave of absence for prostate-cancer surgery and treatment.

Still, it doesn't make sense that Iowa wouldn’t announce a contract amendment to a major coach. It seems like they tried to sneak this through. It's a bad look.

It does, however, underscore Barta’s loyalty to his core coaches.

Wrestling coach Tom Brands is in his 12th year and was extended through the 2022-23 season last September.

Football coach Kirk Ferentz, 62, is entering his 20th year. The longest-tenured coach at one school in college football is signed through the 2025 season and has his own massive buyout of more than $25 million.

And now McCaffery has an eight-figure buyout, too. And even if next year’s team underachieves like this one has and Iowa wants to get rid of him, he’ll be owed a $9 million buyout.

The question: Why?

McCaffery will turn 59 in May. No doubt, he is a respected coach who has reached 399 career wins for a reason. His base pay this season is $2.225 million, roughly middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

But his two NCAA Tournament wins (both against Atlantic-10 programs) in seven years are about to become two in eight. Who is a threat to knock down the door of a guy who is under .500 in Big Ten play (66-69) to lead their major program? Of a guy who has never even reached a Saturday at the Big Ten Conference Tournament?

The Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowds are the worst since Year 1 under McCaffery (an 11-20 season) and are becoming increasingly indifferent. Students don’t bother to show up. It's obvious that the 35-year-old barn has almost zero basketball atmosphere.

To break the buyout bank in McCaffery’s situation seems unnecessary.

Keeping coaches happy is one thing. Leaving yourself with no leverage is another.

Public enemy No. 1

The new deal tells us that Barta has no plans to buy out McCaffery. He said the same thing when he extended Ferentz with what was essentially a coach-for-life deal.

The Nov. 29 contract was a major vote of confidence for McCaffery, as was the statement Barta released Thursday.

“I’m enthused with the leadership Fran has provided our men’s basketball program,” Barta said, “and excited for the immediate and long-term future of the program.”

In making this bold move, Barta has gone ahead and tied his own hands.

By insulating Ferentz and now McCaffery from any credible hot-seat talk, Barta is betting big on his top coaches. And in the process, he’s made himself public enemy No. 1 if things go badly with either sport.

If Iowa basketball continues to win at a .222 Big Ten clip the rest of this season and can’t get back to the NCAA Tournament next season?

Then public angst will swell against McCaffery and, by extension, Barta — the man who signed off on a $9 million buyout and is already held primarily responsible for forking out a $6.5 million discrimination lawsuit settlement in the Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum cases.

Barta clearly is confident it won’t come to that. Give him some credit for being bold.

Because by giving McCaffery what he (and President Bruce Harreld) did, Barta has put himself more at risk than his coaches. Among a legion of fans showing signs of being ready to pounce, Barta now has virtually no margin for error.

The numbers game

One of the reasons I think some fans are upset is because they feel this is another example of Iowa having an athletics director averse to major change. There’s some truth to that.

But when it comes to fellow Big Ten coaches’ buyouts, McCaffery’s isn’t totally out of whack.

According to USA TODAY Sports’ Steve Berkowitz, Maryland’s Mark Turgeon would be owed $15.8 million if he’s fired April 1. Indiana’s Archie Miller would be owed $20.25 million. Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann would get $21.5 million.

Even Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell would be owed $14.35 million.

On the flip side, Nebraska’s Tim Miles has a buyout of $2.52 million. And in-state, Iowa State’s Steve Prohm’s buyout would be $4.5 million.

Should Fran be feeling heat, anyway?

I haven’t said much about McCaffery’s status during this disappointing basketball season, because I never thought his job was — or should be — in jeopardy.

The on-court results and performance have been rough this winter. But Iowa is hardly the first proud program to have a step-back season under an established coach.

In fact, it happened twice here under Tom Davis. His 1990 team went 12-16, 4-14 in the Big Ten. Then came three straight NCAA Tournaments.

His 1994 team went 11-16. Then came five straight 20-win seasons.

The most encouraging, recent apples-to-apples example I can find: Purdue.

The Boilermakers suffered back-to-back losing seasons in Years 8 and 9 under Matt Painter. Yet Purdue stuck with Painter, who had strong recruiting classes coming in. Painter is about to reach his fourth straight NCAA Tournament. His third-ranked Boilermakers entered Thursday with an 8-0 Big Ten record.

Maybe McCaffery can follow a similar path with top-50 national recruits Joe Wieskamp and Patrick McCaffery, his son, coming aboard in the next two seasons.

That’s the hope and plan, anyway. Barta has made that abundantly clear.

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.