Aaron Blau, University Communication and Marketing, 319-384-0018
Plenty to cheer about
Plenty to cheer about
Plenty to cheer about
University of Iowa director of athletics Gary Barta filed away plenty of memorable moments from the 2011-12 athletics season.
He saw impressive Kinnick card stunts and a return to the postseason for men’s basketball. There was success in the Olympic sports, and a successful run as host of the 2012 Olympic Wrestling Trials. The Carver-Hawkeye Arena renovations wrapped up, and facility upgrades for football and golf moved forward.
Barta recently took some time to talk about the year gone by and what lies ahead in 2012-13.
What will you remember most about the 2011-12 athletic season?
In football, watching our crowd participate in the card stunt at Kinnick Stadium was exciting. The red, white, and blue and America Needs Farmers graphics in the stadium—and then to cap it off by beating Northwestern—is a special memory.
Dan Gable poses with a statue of him after its official unveiling in April at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Photo by Darren Miller.
Men's basketball has been on the rise and it's been great to see what Fran McCaffery and his team have done over the past two years. The moment in time I will remember from this past year is the NIT game versus Dayton. I saw Carver-Hawkeye Arena the way it was 15 years ago. We aren't where we want to be yet, but the electricity in the arena that night was magnificent.
There was a lot of build-up coming into the Olympic Wrestling Trials. The communities and chambers of commerce got behind the event and coach (Dan) Gable was active in the bid process—he wanted to put on a show for the entire world to see. Iowa City is the epicenter of wrestling; Hawkeye fans and wrestling fans around the country stepped up to make the trials a great event. Our decision to put the Dan Gable statue up around that event was intentional. I'll always remember the families, all weekend long, stopping to take photos next to that statue.
The opening of the Dale and Marilyn Howard Pavilion and the newly renovated Carver-Hawkeye Arena was very special. All the years of planning and fund-raising helped us open a new facility—not just for men's and women's basketball, but for wrestling, volleyball, gymnastics, and all of our Olympic sports.
What is your biggest focus during the summer?
May and June is budget time. A few years ago, as a university, we made the mandate that athletics would be self-sustaining—no tax dollars, no student fees, and no general fund dollars. We accomplished that for the first time in 2007 and every year since. We're blessed to have a very large budget—this year it will be $80 million. But keeping that in perspective, $80 million will position Iowa with the eighth-largest budget in the Big Ten. We know we have to keep pushing and we have to do more with less. Fortunately, the people who work here and care about this place are willing to out-hustle and out-think people to maximize that budget.
Once the competitive seasons wrap up, we travel the state with the I-Club circuit. Our fans do a tremendous job of coming to Iowa City for our events all year long and this is our chance to go to them. I just finished my sixth year at Iowa, and the enthusiasm on the I-Club circuit was the best I've seen. There were locations where fans had to be turned away because the event was sold out; one location turned away more than 100 people. The excitement and enthusiasm around our program right now is another great example of why it's great to be a Hawkeye.
The base of my message every year on the I-Club circuit is: thank you. Our fans make their way to Iowa City and this is our chance to go to their communities and say thanks. I also talk about leadership. Kirk Ferentz is a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and he led us to the most successful decade in school history. Women's basketball head coach Lisa Bluder is a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and has been to five straight NCAA Tournaments. Wrestling head coach Tom Brands is a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and helps us draw 9,000 fans a match. Our coaches, no matter the sport, bring great leadership and integrity to our department.
The University of Iowa women's basketball team, led by three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year Lisa Bluder, notched its fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament in 2012. Photo by Bill Adams.
What are some of your main goals as director of athletics at Iowa?
I want to be in a position to win a championship in every sport. That's a tall order and I understand that. I want to be poised and positioned to have every team competing for a championship.
I also want to be competitive in every area. We always get judged on how competitive we are athletically, but I'm extremely proud of last year's 74 percent graduation rate. That's the highest our student-athlete graduation rate has ever been; it was 4 percent higher than the general student body. We don't have the final numbers yet, but I can say with great certainty that it will be higher than 74 percent this year, which means another record for us. I want to be competitive and at the top athletically and academically.
I know that we won't ever have the highest budget in the Big Ten. It isn't realistic; our population base is smaller and our university is smaller than most of the other Big Ten universities. But I want to be in a very sound financial position. I want our buildings to be built, our debt in a relatively low mode, our reserve built and our sports to have budgets that allow them to compete at a high level.
I also want to make a difference in young people's lives. I came from a family where no one had gone to college; I had that opportunity through athletics. Even though I don't get to work with young people on a day-to-day basis as often as I'd like, I know we are providing the same opportunity that I was given many years ago to our deserving student-athletes.
The look around Iowa's athletic facilities is changing, with current construction on the football and golf complexes. Talk about the commitment to improve facilities, in order to give its teams a great chance to succeed.
The first thing you have to do is hire and retain great people. You can have horrible facilities, but great people, and still have success. You can also have great facilities, but less than great people, and you are likely going to fail. Our first responsibility is to get great people on staff.
Once you have great people, you need to give them the tools to succeed. That's been part of our master plan. Bob Bowlsby started it before I arrived with the Kinnick Stadium renovation; I came in on the heels of that. Since then, we have completed the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Center, the Beckwith Boathouse, the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, and the Carver-Hawkeye Arena renovation, to name a few. Now we are working on football and golf projects. Our great people are getting the tools they need to be successful.
What has you excited about this fall’s Hawkeye football team?
We have the same great foundation and value system that Kirk Ferentz brought to Iowa City. In addition to that, we have a new energy and excitement. It's great to have someone like (offensive coordinator) Greg Davis on our staff. He has many years of experience, he's been through the wars and he fits very well with the Iowa football mentality.
To go along with that, we have two younger former players that had success under Kirk, then went on to have success in the professional ranks. LeVar Woods played in the NFL for a decade, and Brian Ferentz came to us on the heels of coaching in the Super Bowl.
That combination of youth, new energy, and the experience of Greg gets me excited. I've talked with some of the players and they seem to feel it as well.
Iowa fans energized Carver-Hawkeye Arena during the Hawkeyes' opening-round victory against Dayton in the National Invitational Tournament. It was the men's basketball team's first postseason game since 2006. Photo by Bill Adams.
The buzz around Fran McCaffery and Iowa basketball is high. What do Iowa fans have to look forward to when basketball season rolls around in November?
If you go back to Fran's introductory press conference two years ago, you are seeing some of the things he promised when he arrived coming to fruition. He's going to build a foundation and do it the right way. He's going to play fast and exciting basketball and his goal is to win a championship. We're not there yet, but anyone that has been around the program the last two years can see we are moving in that direction.
We have more depth and more experience heading into this year. The expectations are that the team should be improving. He's going to have some freshmen in key roles, so there will be bumps along the way, but everything we talked about when Fran was hired is moving at a pace that he and I, along with Hawkeye fans, are excited about.
Student-athletes and coaches in many of Iowa's Olympic sports had successful seasons. Can you talk about the level of success, across the board, at Iowa?
At my first I-Club event six years ago, I told those in attendance that our expectation is to win and compete for championships, no matter the sport. It's not easy to be competitive in every sport, but we are making improvements in our budget and with our facilities.
My goal is to make sure that every sport we have is in the top half of the Big Ten Conference on a consistent basis. From the top half, you can begin your season with the goal of winning a championship and it's realistic.
The UI swimming and diving teams hosted the 2012 Big Ten Championships in the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center natatorium. It was Iowa's first time as host in 30 years. Photo by Tim Schoon.
We have many successful teams and these are just some highlights. Head coach Tracey Griesbaum has our field hockey team in the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis. Our track and field and swimming programs are sending numerous student-athletes to the NCAA Championships, and two years ago, our men's track team won the Big Ten Outdoor championship. What Mark Hankins has done with our men's golf team is nothing short of extraordinary. To think a school in the Midwest that deals with the weather elements can be in the NCAA Championships three of the last four years is magnificent.
Some of our sports aren't there yet, but my job is to make sure those sports have the tools they need, then get out of their way and let them do their thing. Once we get all those teams in the top half, we will start winning a lot more championships.
You completed your sixth year at Iowa. What do you enjoy most about being a Hawkeye and what do you enjoy most about working at a place at Iowa?
It really is a dream come true. That's an overused statement, but let me give you some more background. I lived in Iowa 20 years ago working at Northern Iowa. It was a great experience. I met my wife there, and was able to get a feel for what the state was, in terms of people and environment. I knew then that Iowa was the Hawkeye state and at that time we were just trying to carve out a little piece of that for the Panthers.
I left the state for other career opportunities and now I'm back. If you were to ask me in what conference I would like to work, and at which school inside that conference I would most want to be, I would have Iowa circled as my No. 1 choice. I get to do what I love to do, in the place that I would most like to do it. My wife and kids love it here, it's a great place to raise a family, and I couldn't be happier being a Hawkeye.