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Overreaction Monday: Defining Success for Iowa Athletics

Success seems like an obvious thing, but defining it can be a bit nebulous. Is the Iowa Athletic Department successful?

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa
Gary Barta has done a hell of a job generating money for the athletic department. Is that enough to call the department a success on his watch?
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

As Iowa fans (I assume if you’re reading an Iowa fan site on your Monday morning, it’s because you’re an Iowa fan or you have some strange obsession with Iowa) the one thing we all share in common, despite our many differences, is that we hope our Hawkeyes are successful. That seems really obvious. But what, exactly, does successful mean for these programs?

It’s an interesting question and one I think each fan has a unique answer to. The easy answer, of course, is that wins and losses define success. If the Hawkeyes are losing games, they aren’t being successful. Case closed, end of column.

But how many games do they need to win to be successful? Does it matter which ones? What about recent season results? For me, that’s a resounding yes and yes to the second pair of questions. The first one is harder to answer and it depends on the sport.

For the football team, I think we’ve seen that under Kirk Ferentz, anything less than 9 wins feels less like a success and more like an expectation. Even at 9 wins, we can come away disappointed. A season with 9 wins, but losses to Iowa State, Minnesota and Wisconsin doesn’t exactly feel great. It’s even worse if those losses were to be against a team like Illinois, a mid-major or - gasp - an FCS opponent.

The expectations for the season obviously play a major role as well. Nine wins would feel a heck of a lot better if the team returned basically nobody from the prior year and we all expected them to go 6-6. If it’s a senior-laden team with a schedule like the one in front of the Hawkeyes next year, that’s a totally different story.

Circumstances matter.

Ditto for the basketball team. A season with 20 wins feels a lot better if the schedule is riddled with high quality opponents and Big Ten wins than if those wins are racked up against teams with an RPI over 250 and the team can’t finish in the top half of the conference.

And we all saw a year ago how expectations ahead of the season can dictate fan angst during it. 4-14 is never OK, but it’s much more tolerable when the team has been abysmal for a few seasons and are fresh off a coaching change than when the team is in year 7 with its coach and in a season when we all expect the team to be in contention for a return to the NCAA Tournament.

Post season participation plays a significant role in how we define success for both football and basketball. Making a bowl game isn’t success and finishing the year with a loss in a bowl tends to leave us feeling like things weren’t as successful as they should have been. Even in a year where the Hawkeyes went 12-0, we look back and play the what-if game with the Big Ten Championship and the bloodbath that was the Rose Bowl.

For hoops, we are finally back to a point where we feel the Hawkeyes should be in the tournament every season. Frankly, it was beginning to feel like just making the tournament wasn’t a success. Yet few Iowa fans would feel that way heading into the upcoming season. Quite the contrary. Getting back to the tournament would be judged as a successful year by nearly any sane fan.

But how do we define success for the athletic department more broadly?

If you thought defining it for either of the aforementioned programs was difficult, doing so for the athletic department as a whole may be near impossible. Wins and losses are surely important again. Same for who those wins and losses come against. Post-season victories still matter. But all this is on a broader scale now.

Not everyone may agree with this part, but which teams are doing the winning and losing matters as much, if not more, than how much they’re winning and against whom. Having a first-rate wrestling and field hockey and a half dozen other programs doesn’t really mean a whole lot if football and basketball are in the gutter. Those programs are the face of the department and they bring in the revenue. Without them, everything else dies a slow death.

So success starts there. Win games in basketball and football and you’re on your way to a successful athletic department. But is that it? If those two programs were consistently in the top 25 of their respective sports and playing the postseason with a chance at championships, would anything else matter?

I say yes. Iowa’s “Win. Graduate. Do it Right.” slogan is pretty cheesy, but it gets at the point that there is more to a successful athletic department than just winning. A championship is a championship, even if it’s later removed from the record books. People will see it with their own eyes and the status of the program will rise. But if it comes at the price of major scandals involving paying players or academic fraud or worse, is that worth it? Is that truly success?

I say no. I expect the athletic department to actually win, graduate and do it right. It’s why I don’t view the current state of Iowa’s athletic department as successful. Wins in the major sports have been there. They could be better - they could always be better - but for the most part I view the football and basketball programs as successful.

With the major legal battles of the athletic department involving wrongful termination, gender and sexuality biases and Title IX issues, it’s hard to view it as a success. It’s cost the department around $8M in total already, but that’s a relative drop in the bucket.

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As we learned last week, Iowa’s AD brought in almost $131M in 2016-2017. That was good enough for 18th in the country. If we were measuring success purely in monetary terms it would be hard to say Iowa wasn’t successful. In a state with only 3M people and another division 1 school within the borders, coming in top 20 in revenues is a resounding success (albeit, a good 20% of that came simply from being in the Big Ten, but the Hawkeyes were 5th within the conference despite some major demographic headwinds). And sure, profitability of the department, it’s revenues and whether it relies on or is able to give back to the school’s general fund or taxpayers should play some role in how we measure its success.

But with the major black eyes from the Griesbaum/Meyer settlement, the Title IX investigation, deterioration of the softball program and other questions abound, the revenue alone isn’t enough. I define success of the department and its leader as having programs across the board which compete for championships consistently and win games against their rivals. That comes first and foremost for the revenue generators that are football and basketball. It also is especially true in programs where the school has a rich and storied past, like wrestling and field hockey.

Lots of wins brings lots of money, so the the revenue side of things should take care of itself. From there, I expect any successful department to uphold the values of its fanbase. In Iowa, that means staying out of the headlines for the wrong reasons (see above) and not sacrificing morals for those wins and revenue.

Is Iowa’s athletic department successful?

To some degree. By my definitions, there’s room for improvement. But it all comes back to expectations. What do you expect for the football team in a given year? What do you expect from the basketball team? What do you expect from your athletic department?

Happy Monday. Raise your expectations this week. It’s a holiday week and we have a lot to celebrate. Go Hawks.

Footnote: Thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of Larry Cotlar, radio personality and voice of the Drake Bulldogs who tragically passed away in the flooding in Des Moines last week. There’s a memorial GoFundMe page started here.