Leistikow: Gary Barta shares confidence that Iowa can manage sports during pandemic

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Gary Barta is sure that a day will come when one of his University of Iowa student-athletes tests positive for COVID-19. And the Iowa athletics director said Thursday that when that day comes, sports won’t suddenly be shut down.

In a wide-ranging Zoom conference with Iowa (and some national) media Thursday afternoon, Barta expressed confidence in the university — and its renowned hospitals — to be well-prepared and well-equipped to manage the uncertainty ahead.

“If one person were to get sick and we were to shut down, we might as well not open up,” Barta said in perhaps his most pointed comments of the day. “Let me just explain myself. We expect there will be students on this campus, staff on this campus, who will get the virus.

“We won’t shut down the minute someone gets sick. Because we anticipate someone will get sick. And then it’s just a matter of managing."

To that end, bringing football student-athletes back to Iowa’s campus for voluntary workouts beginning June 8 will be an orderly, meticulous process.

Iowa athletics director Gary Barta, left, and football coach Kirk Ferentz embrace after the last football game played by the school, the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl.

Not every detail is finalized, but here is what Barta shared Thursday.

There will be only one entrance and one exit to the Hansen Football Performance Center. Temperature testing will occur for everyone who comes through the door. Carry-out meals replace the usual team buffet. An expectation exists for masks to be worn in offices and hallways, but not during workouts.

Strength coaches and trainers, by rule, can be present during voluntary workouts. Barta was not ready to give a number of how many could be training at one time — Ohio State has said 10 at a time, for reference — but he said attendance would be limited. During a normal cycle, strength coach Chris Doyle would welcome roughly 30 athletes at a time in two-hour cycles.

And those protocols reflect Barta’s approach — and personal views shaped by medical advice and decades as a high-level administrator tasked to make high-impact decisions — to how Iowa athletics will handle the coronavirus crisis.

“I don’t believe we can stay in our homes until a vaccine is (created),” Barta said. “My approach is, let’s listen to the medicine. Then let’s match that with risk analysis … and then let’s go out of our homes.

“I will be ready to go on a plane. I will wear a mask. I’ll wash my hands. I understand, I could contract the virus during that time. We’re going to approach it the same way with our staff, our coaches and our student-athletes.”

BASEBALL: A convincing case for major changes to NCAA process

Barta said that neither he nor football coach Kirk Ferentz has received direct concerns from athletes or their families. That is consistent with what I’ve heard from out-of-state parents, too, a confidence that Ferentz — the dean of active college football coaches, entering his 22nd year at Iowa — would not allow their sons into the building without following proper guidance and making the environment as safe as possible.

On that same note, Barta’s message is consistent to fans curious about attending games at Kinnick Stadium this fall. Unlike Iowa State (which Wednesday announced a plan to max out at 30,000 fans at Jack Trice Stadium, slightly less than 50% capacity), Iowa is still following what Barta calls "Plan A" — no fan restrictions — but is realistic that might have to change.

“We’re also having to plan for something less than that," Barta said. "Whether it’s 75% or 50% or something less than that. But we haven’t at all let go of 100%."

A couple follow-up comments on that note ...

  • It’s very unlikely there will be a demand for 69,250 tickets (capacity) in the current climate.
  • And if there is reduced capacity, access would first go to those with season tickets. As of Thursday, Barta estimated that about 36,000 seats (including students) had been renewed or purchased. 

Things are still up in the air about tailgating and concessions. But on Thursday, Barta delivered a similar message to fans that he has to football student-athletes.

Until things change, they are welcome to come through Iowa's doors, with proper safety precautions in mind.

“We’re going to prepare the stadium with whatever those (medical) directives are,” Barta said. “We’re going to tell our fans what we’ve done — whether it’s entryways, concessions — and then we’ll let fans make that personal choice of if they want to come.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.