Get to know Barbara Burke, University of Iowa's deputy director of athletics and one of the Register's People to Watch. David Scrivner/Press-Citizen
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Barbara Burke was promoted to the No. 2 position in the University of Iowa athletic department the same week the department went on trial for discriminating against a female ex-employee.
Burke politely termed that moment a “challenge.”
“No matter what the outcome of the lawsuit, I would have an opportunity to help us work through that,” Burke said in a recent interview in her office on the fourth floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “I wasn’t involved with (the litigation). I wasn’t attached to it. So I could come in kind of with fresh eyes and make a difference.”
If 2017 was the year that Iowa’s athletic department suffered embarrassing public wounds — paying out $6.5 million to settle discrimination lawsuits brought by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and Jane Meyer, who for years had been the highest-ranking woman in the department — Burke is hopeful that 2018 can be the year of healing.
In helping facilitate that process, Burke — one of the Des Moines Register's People to Watch in 2018 — may finally get the opportunity she’s long coveted: to run her own major-college sports department.
Related Coverage: Learn more about current and previous People To Watch
She previously worked for Iowa athletic director Gary Barta at Wyoming. Despite the accusations brought by Griesbaum and Meyer, Burke said she never hesitated to leave Tulane in the summer of 2016 to be a senior associate athletic director in Barta’s department again.
“I find that brave and mature,” said Marilyn McNeil, the athletic director at Monmouth University and a longtime confidant of Burke’s. “I don’t think Barbara ever burned a bridge, and we can all learn from that.”
Burke, 59, said she hasn’t given up on her aspirations to lead an athletic department at a major university. Her new role puts her one step closer to getting one of those 65 jobs.
Working in Burke’s favor is that more women are getting Division I athletic director jobs, though it's far from common. For the first time this year, four women are leading athletic departments in Power Five conferences. In all, there are 35 female athletic directors at the 351 Division I institutions, the Sports Business Journal reported last spring.
But Burke is excited about the task at hand at Iowa.
“I would never say no to that (an AD position)," she said, "but I also know where I am in my career.”
'Over-qualified' but overlooked
Burke has been involved in high-level college athletics ever since women were allowed to play. The youngest of Thomas and Barbara Burke’s four children was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., but moved frequently as her father, a Baptist minister, changed jobs.
Barbara (she’s named after her mother) was a gifted high school athlete in Michigan and stayed close to home to play college basketball and softball at Western Michigan. She was so talented that she is in Western Michigan’s hall of fame for both of her sports.
After graduating in 1980, Burke entered the coaching field, in basketball and softball. Those duties soon expanded to administrative roles at places like Tennessee Temple University, Indiana University Southeast and West Virginia College.
It was at that last coaching stop that Burke felt the urge to move into athletic administration as a career.
“I just felt that my personality was more suited for the administrative side, the organizational piece. I was learning more about leadership,” Burke said. “There were not many mentors at that time, especially as a woman, so I was just figuring it out as I went along.”
Marshall University was looking for its first Senior Woman Administrator. Burke was the first to interview for the job, with associate athletic director Keener Fry. Fry was so impressed that he told his boss, Lee Moon, there was no need to talk to any other candidates.
“She just was genuine, authentic, she was committed to being in athletic administration,” Fry said.
“It’s a male-dominated culture. She had a desire to make sure she was an advocate for women to succeed in college athletics.”
Burke convinced Moon to hire her by telling him: “In six months, if I’m not doing what you want me to do, I’ll walk away, no strings attached.”
Then she made sure that she was always in the office before he arrived and after he left. That meant clocking in as early as 6 a.m.
“After about three months he said, ‘OK, OK you can ease up. The job is yours,’” Burke said.
Moon later moved to Wyoming and wanted to take Fry and Burke with him. He was told he could only bring along one. He chose Fry, but helped Burke get a job at Texas-El Paso.
When Burke’s boss at UTEP resigned, she was named interim athletic director. She wanted the permanent job. She didn’t get it. That has been a pattern in Burke’s career.
Meanwhile, Moon had an opening at Wyoming and seized the chance to reunite with Burke.
“She should have been the AD (at UTEP). She was ready to be one then. But the politics get around it,” recalled Moon, now the athletic director at North Florida.
“It’s a crazy business. She’s well-qualified, overqualified.”
In 2003, the “crazy business” caught up with Moon. He was fired. Barta replaced him and found in Burke an assistant he could trust. He promoted her to deputy athletic director in 2006, one month before taking the Iowa job.
Again, Burke served as interim athletic director. Again, she didn’t get the permanent job.
Eastern Illinois hired Burke as athletic director in 2008. Burke made her mark, proving to be a strong fundraiser. The Panthers were recognized as the best athletic department in the Ohio Valley Conference in three of Burke’s six years there. She hired Dino Babers as football coach, watched him win two conference titles and then depart for Syracuse.
Burke left for Tulane in 2014 to get her first taste of life at a private university. She was the deputy athletic director at the New Orleans school, but hopeful that she could climb to the top spot. Instead, when Rick Dickson stepped down, the university went outside for its hire, picking former Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen.
“You can either get discouraged or you can say, ‘I’m not giving up. I’m moving on,’” Burke said.
Barta had a position open in Iowa City. Burke had a longtime desire to work at the top level of college sports, in one of the so-called Power Five conferences. Iowa is a member of the prestigious Big Ten.
The timing was right for both parties.
“I would say as an outsider looking in that it’s worked out the right way,” said Moon, who knows both Barta and Burke. “She understood what had happened, so she went in eyes wide open because she worked for him.
“She is a true pillar of strength for an athletic director. In this business, you have to have somebody there that you can count on every day that’s going to know the pulse of the department. And she can do that. She’s always done that for me.”
Burke said she spent her first 10 months at Iowa laying low, observing, trying to get a feel for the culture. In her new role, which includes day-to-day oversight of football and men’s basketball, she’s enjoying working with coaches. She tries to get to as many Hawkeye sporting events as possible, sometimes bringing along her 86-year-old mother, who lives with her.
“Many of my philosophies I’ve learned by how I wouldn’t want other people to be treated,” said Burke, who found herself as an interim athletic director again for two months this fall while Barta successfully battled prostate cancer. “Having sat in an athletic director’s chair, the only difference between there and here is the decimal point is moved a little bit. But the challenges are very similar. You’re dealing with student-athletes. You’re dealing with coaches. They all have goals and objectives and they want the things that they want and our job is to help them get those things done.
“I tell coaches I want to find a way to help them get to ‘yes.’”
Burke was rewarded with a promotion to deputy athletic director — at a salary of $267,800 — in April. Is this the role that eventually delivers her long-held dream?
After all, the person she replaced left to take a Power-5 AD job at Kansas State.
LIVES: Iowa City
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree, Western Michigan,1982; masters in education, Tennessee-Chattanooga, 1984.
CAREER: Deputy athletic director, University of Iowa since April 2017; senior associate athletic director at Iowa, 2016-17; deputy athletic director at Tulane, 2014-16; athletic director at Eastern Illinois, 2008-14; in athletic administration in variety of roles at Wyoming, 1998-2008; also has worked in athletic administration at Texas-El Paso (1997-98), Marshall (1994-97) and West Virginia State (1992-94).
FAMILY: Lives with her mother, Barbara; has three older siblings.
15 People to Watch in 2018: About the Series
These are central Iowans in business, arts, nonprofits, civic activism and unelected government positions who are expected to make a difference in their fields of endeavor in 2018. Readers were invited to submit nominations. Selections were made by Des Moines Register editors and reporters. Look for profiles through early January.