IOWA CITY, Ia. — If Iowa athletic director Gary Barta had his way, every team in a major college football conference would play 10 league foes annually.
The Big Ten Conference, of which Iowa is a member, moved to a nine-game league schedule three years ago, the same as Big 12 and Pac-12 schools. But the SEC and ACC, the remaining two Power Five leagues, continue to play eight-game schedules and there is some thought that that gives them a competitive advantage in securing entries into the four-team College Football Playoff.
Barta, speaking after Thursday’s meeting of the Presidential Committee on Athletics, dismissed that notion. Instead of seeing the Big Ten reduce its conference slate, as some advocate, he’d rather see another league game added. But only if all other conferences agreed to follow suit.
“It’s a little clunky when you have to go five (conference home games) one year, four the next year. I’d prefer all conferences went to 10 conference games instead. I think it’d be exciting,” Barta said. “I think it’s good for the fans to have more conference games.”
Barta pointed to Iowa’s experience in 2015 as proof that the Hawkeyes have a chance to reach the College Football Playoff. Iowa went 12-0 in the regular season and fell, 16-13, to Michigan State in the closing seconds of the Big Ten championship game. The Spartans did make the CFP field that year.
“I think we’ve shown that when we win and the schedules that we have, we’d be in that final four,” Barta said. “We came one ball-slap, helmet-hit away at the goal line. There’s no doubt in my mind had we beaten Michigan State in that Big Ten championship, we would have been in the playoff.”
Of course, the Big Ten had only eight league games that year. Barta said his essential point remains the same. The Big Ten didn't have a team in last year's CFP. The SEC has sent five teams in the four years the playoffs have been held, two of them last year.
SPEAKING OF SCHEDULING: BARTA’S PHILOSOPHY REMAINS UNCHANGED
Iowa recently announced future home football matchups against Kent State, South Dakota State, Illinois State and Northern Illinois. That latter opponent is for the 2025 season, a sign of how far ahead major colleges schedule these games.
None of those opponents are particularly challenging for a Big Ten school, but Barta said his main goals in nonconference football scheduling are to keep the rivalry game with Iowa State an annual event and supplement that with smaller regional opponents.
“One of the things that (football coach) Kirk (Ferentz) and I have committed to while we’re here is, we’re going to continue to play Iowa State. I know there’s a lot of debate by some fans whether we should or whether we shouldn’t,” Barta said. “We think it’s great for college football. It’s great for the state of Iowa. That means we’re playing a Power Five school every year.”
Iowa and Iowa State take turns hosting that matchup each year (this season’s game is at 4 p.m. Saturday in Kinnick Stadium), so Barta looks for two other schools from outside the Power Five to ensure that Iowa has seven home games each season.
How does he decide which teams will be worthy opponents?
“We’re working out a long ways. It’s always been that way. There’s so many moving parts in football and there’s so few games. And I’m OK with that,” Barta said. “Most of the time, you can guess right. Sometimes, you might sign a team at the time that’s in the top 30 and then when you get to them, they’re on a down cycle. But most of the time programs are pretty predictable.
“We know that Northern Iowa is probably always going to be very competitive. We know that our game against Iowa State is always going to be very competitive. Historically, that’s been the case.”
STRONG RUN OF FOOTBALL TICKET SALES FOR SEPTEMBER
Iowa has sold out its next three home football games — vs. Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Wisconsin. That hadn’t happened in six seasons. Capacity at Kinnick Stadium has dropped about 1,300 seats, to 69,250, as a result of the renovated north end zone seats. But Barta said he feels some momentum from the Hawkeye fan base.
“We’d like to think that the combination of some excitement about the team and a good fan experience is paying some dividends,” he said. “Feedback has been over-the-top positive on the new north end zone, about the way it feels, the way it adds to the environment in Kinnick Stadium. It does help to win. It does help to have a 20-year coach in Kirk Ferentz that fans believe in.”
Barta said that about 1,500 of the 1,600 club seats in the north end zone have been reserved by fans for the 2019 season. There was a waiting list for club seats on the west side of the stadium, so athletic department officials were hopeful the demand was there. They’re finding out that it is.
Still, home games against Maryland, Northwestern and Nebraska are not sold out this fall. Hawkeye fans are no doubt waiting to see what the team’s record is before committing to games when the weather could be much cooler.
BARTA DECLINES RAISE AS PART OF DEPARTMENT BELT-TIGHTENING
Barta and his senior athletic department staffers have decided to slow the growth in their budget this year. One step was to put a hold on salary increases that weren’t already mandated in a contract.
Barta was due a $50,000 raise, to a $600,000 salary in 2018-19, but said he asked university president Bruce Harreld to withhold that this year.
“I was asking the rest of our department to freeze salaries, so in good faith, I didn’t feel comfortable” accepting a pay bump, Barta said.
Iowa’s athletic department spent $129 million in fiscal year 2017, according to a USA Today database. That was up from $116 million the year before and was the culmination of a five-year pattern of growth that Barta felt was not sustainable. The department did show a surplus in 2017.
“We’re on good ground. We just want to make sure in five years we’re still on good ground,” Barta said.
The salary freeze was one reduction in expenses. Others mirrored what any family might do. The Hawkeyes will look to curb spending on food, travel and facilities as well, Barta said.
“We just have to make sure that we don’t get ahead of ourselves so that financially we don’t wake up two or three years from now and realize we overspent,” he said.
One project that will proceed is a renovated Finkbine Golf Course clubhouse. That construction was at a standstill during a university-wide moratorium. But the moratorium ends Wednesday, and the Finkbine project will move forward at that time.
The project is expected to cost $10.8 million. Barta said it is being paid for by a single donor that he was not yet ready to name.