Leistikow: Emotional Gary Barta moves past Chris Doyle as Brian Ferentz decision looms
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In a Monday news conference centered around the removal of Chris Doyle from the Iowa football program and whether the current crop of coaches is fit to lead it moving forward, Gary Barta was twice moved to tears.
Both times, the topic that got him was racism.
The 15th-year Iowa athletics director’s emotions were there for everyone to see as he shared about his realizations that the acronym “DWB” — used to describe getting pulled over by police for “driving while Black” — was a staggering reality for many of his colleagues of a different skin color. He shared interactions with Black former student-athletes who didn’t feel like they fit the culture in Iowa City.
“I’ve had conversations about race before. It’s easy to say racism is horrible,” Barta said while getting choked up in the most powerful moments of a 50-minute appearance in front of live TV cameras. “But the subtleties of learning about colleagues of mine and student-athletes, what it’s like to go through that … is very impactful.”
Barta's emotions and words Monday revealed a passion for solving the racial inequities that many former Iowa football players have charged in the last 1½ weeks. In a long opening statement, he apologized publicly to former players — something head football coach Kirk Ferentz three days earlier said he hadn’t done privately with former players, rather offering this uninspiring comment: “I think they know how I feel.”
Yes, Barta should have spoken publicly before this. But let’s be honest, Barta has never been known for his expertise in crisis management. But give him some credit Monday: This was the best press conference we’ve seen since this Iowa football powder keg erupted.
He was apologetic. He acknowledged that small steps taken after 2018 discussions of poor graduation rates among Black athletes weren’t enough. He offered genuine emotion plus concrete details about how things can change.
“I thought we were on the path of making things better and doing the right things,” Barta said. “The things I’ve heard in the last week-and-a-half especially, clearly, they weren’t enough. And they weren’t happening fast enough. So where do we go from here? We need to create a path forward.”
And while it may not have been Step 1 in the process, the No. 1 biggest step was announced Monday: A separation agreement between Iowa and Doyle.
Doyle’s 21 years of service as strength and conditioning coach officially came to an end when he signed an agreement Sunday to collect $1,112,499 — equivalent to 15 months of pay — plus benefits in exchange for essentially both parties moving forward in relative silence.
Sure, that's a hefty price to pay for an athletics department that could be cash-strapped with probable eight-figure drops in revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it keeps the conversation moving forward.
A costly court battle with Doyle — who seemed willing to fight back about his 21-year record at Iowa in a defensive statement one week ago — would have moved the conversation backward, perhaps into ugly territories.
“In my opinion,” Barta said, “this was a thoughtful and sensible way to move forward.”
On that note, let’s focus on Barta’s words and the stated next steps.
With Doyle out of the picture, Raimond Braithwaite (who is Black) assumes the reins as interim strength and conditioning coach. Current player Matt Hankins tweeted the other day how much of a relief it was for Doyle to be gone, that “anxiety has been lifted off the shoulders of many of us. People aren’t afraid to speak up and folks are starting to have fun again.” Let's call that progress.
Barta announced Monday that Broderick Binns, Iowa football's director of player development, will lead a diversity task force that will report to associate athletics director Liz Tovar (who is Black and was singled out by former player James Daniels as someone who does a great job helping minorities “but can only do so much.”) The task force concept is to create a safe space for athlete complaints. By all accounts, Binns has been a significant positive force in Iowa football, and his voice being amplified is a good thing.
Barta reminded us what we knew, that Kirk Ferentz is finalizing an 11-person committee, chaired by former player Mike Daniels, aimed at suggesting changes to help the program be more inclusive.
Oh, and as for Ferentz? He got a full vote of confidence from Barta on Monday for Year 22 atop Iowa football.
“I know how this is impacting him. I know what he’s trying to do to move forward,” Barta said. “And I know the difficult conversations he’s having, and that [there is] willingness to change.”
That all sounds fine, but what Barta does (or not) about position coaches who were named in the social-media complaints will be telling.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who reports to Barta because of nepotism policies, has been cited by multiple former players (including James Daniels of the Chicago Bears and Jaleel Johnson of the Minnesota Vikings) as a culture problem. Linebackers coach Seth Wallace has been cited for demeaning a former player about his intelligence.
The University of Iowa has enlisted Kansas City law firm Husch Blackwell to independently review “issues and allegations relating to racial disparities within the football program.” Barta expected feedback within weeks, not months, so we shouldn't have to wait until fall camp for findings.
In 2014, Barta fired Tracey Griesbaum as field hockey coach after 22 years with the university and a sterling 169-107 record as head coach. Barta said during a subsequent lawsuit that he acted after a pattern of complaints of abusive behavior by Griesbaum.
If the independent review or Kirk Ferentz’s former-player committee finds claims of bullying behavior credible from Brian Ferentz and/or Wallace, will Barta hold those coaches to the same standard?
“It’s a fair question, but I’m also very understanding that every situation is unique,” Barta said. “I’m going to judge this situation on what comes forward in its unique sense. What is in common, and this sounds simple, is (the wish for) student-athletes having an opportunity to have a great experience.
“And that’s the case, whether it’s field hockey or football."
Monday's removal of Doyle was an obvious decision. More difficult decisions and conversations await.
We don't know yet what'll be in that independent review. But if it's consistent with the theme that Brian Ferentz is detracting from the student-athlete experience, how Barta proceeds with the head coach's son will reveal just how serious he is about fostering real change.
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.