Gary Barta has come under much fire over his tenure as athletics director at the University of Iowa. By and large, that scrutiny has been entirely warranted. This is, after all, the man who hired Todd Lickliter.
If the slip ups began and ended with a single brutally bad hire, perhaps a mulligan would be granted. Unfortunately for both Barta and the Iowa Hawkeyes, the issues run far deeper than that. Our very own Jordan Hansen has done a tremendous job of holding Barta’s feet to the fire from the Title IX issues a year ago to his most recent issue - the handling of the Gary Dolphin incident(s). It truly has been remarkable the number of do-overs Barta has received.
And yet, he still has a job. He is still raising those funds, schmoozing donors and kissing babies. He’s also now on the College Football Playoff Committee, a cancer survivor, and the athletic director of a school where nearly every program seems to be heading in the right direction.
Iowa will likely never be the shiniest object in the drawer. They aren’t making splashy hires like a certain school a few hours west of Iowa City. But here we are on the first day of April and things are looking pretty damn good for Iowa athletics.
We’re fresh off another national championship for wrestling phenom Spencer Lee. While the team only managed to finish fourth this year, as Trez points out, the Hawkeyes are returning six - SIX! - All-Americans next year. I’m not going to sit here and try to act like I know what I’m talking about when it comes to wrestling (other than my four-year-old looks like a star when he’s doing it with his two-year-old brother), but things certainly look bright as we turn to the future.
Spencer Lee shuts Jack Mueller out 5-0 to win back to back NCAA titles. pic.twitter.com/1qtxtJdFB4— FloWrestling (@FloWrestling) March 23, 2019
The same can be said for Iowa baseball. Last season didn’t end with as much positive momentum as the year before, but the Hawkeyes are fresh off a weekend sweep of 23rd-ranked Illinois. It’s going to take some time, but the right man is leading the ship in Iowa City with Rick Heller. There’s been more excitement and more wins under Heller than you can shake a stick at. It was a bit late, but Barta got a winner and locked him up.
He’s had the head football coach locked up for as long as anyone can remember. While those contract extensions have been more than a little head scratching at times, it’s difficult to make the case things aren’t looking up at the moment. Spring football practice has officially kicked off and while it’s not likely this is a year that ends in a Rose Bowl, it’s also unlikely this season ends in the gutter.
If there are any common threads among the best seasons under Ferentz, they’re downplayed expectations and a highly talented defense. The Hawkeyes are likely to have both this year.
The schedule stiffens some this year with cross-division games against Michigan and Penn State. With the departure of four underclassmen, including a pair of likely first round tight ends as well as a number of seniors, from a team that went 9-4 a season ago, you aren’t likely to find many people expecting great things out of the 2019 version of the Hawkeyes. They didn’t expect much in 2002, 2009 or 2015 either.
Who know’s if this season will end with a fraction of the success of those seasons, but it will come with a defense that could likely compete with those years’. This group will include one of the best duos at defensive end the Hawkeyes have ever had, headlined by a guy who will likely be an All-American in A.J. Epenesa. Behind Maui and Chauncey Golston, there’s the next round of potential stars with John Waggoner and another Nelson with Nathan waiting in the wings.
The question on the front is at tackle, but there is some incredible talent on the depth chart. Well, technically it’s not all on the depth chart as of yet. With the official spring depth chart released last week, Daviyon Nixon was not included. But Captain Kirk indicated in his press conference Nixon is officially back with the team.
That’s a major development. Nothing against Brady Reiff and Cedric Lattimore - both are certainly talented in their own right. But Nixon brings something to this team that could take the defense from good to great. He’s a massive human being, but he’s also extremely athletic - hence the offer from Alabama while he was at Iowa Western. Throw in another big body with Noah Shannon and you’ve got another 8-man rotation on the defensive front that will be mayhem for opposing offensive lines.
The secondary is overflowing with talent. Geno Stone is a star in the making. Kaevon Merriweather is poised to be the next Geno Stone. Early reports are Michael Ojemudia is making strides at corner and could be this year’s breakout. If not, there’s a youth movement at corner with as much talent as Phil Parker has ever had at the position.
The linebackers should have added experience with the return of Djimon Colbert, Kristian Welch and Nick Niemann. This is the final go around for Amani Jones (though there are also early reports he’s getting some run at defensive end, which could be... whoa) and there are some talented youngsters waiting in the wings.
On the offensive side of things, replacing T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant will be impossible. But Shaun Beyer is reportedly a transformed player poised for a breakout. Beyond the tight end situation, things look pretty similar to a season ago. Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are another year older. They have the talent, if they can take the next step forward, the offense would look much better in the vertical passing game.
The three-headed monster at running back is all back. They also return Henry Geil, who reminds me a lot of Toren Young. The young guys, Shadrick Byrd and Tyler Goodson aren’t likely to get much run, but they bring some explosion and dynamic ability that’s been missing since the departure of Akrum Wadley.
The offensive line returns a pair of future NFL tackles. There are questions in the middle, but if Hawkeye fans have learned anything in 21 years of Kirk Ferentz, it’s to trust him on the offensive line.
This team has the tools to put together a classic Ferentz season. Low expectations, very good defense, enough offense to knock off someone they shouldn’t. And the groundwork is laid for the future. Like wrestling and baseball, football is well-positioned.
On the hardwood, the Hawkeyes are fresh off one of the most incredible comebacks in NCAA Tournament history. They were incredibly close to a Sweet 16 run. There’s no such thing as a moral victory, but after a season where it didn’t feel like Iowa had won 23 games for only the 4th time in more than 20 years, not ending with a collapse was pretty close.
We still don’t know what Tyler Cook is going to do this offseason, and it’s possible Maishe Dailey won’t be the only player to transfer, but there’s a whole lot of this season’s roster returning next year. Add in the return of Jack Nunge and Cordell Pemsl in the front court, as well as redshirt C.J. Fredrick in the backcourt to go with incoming freshmen Pat McCaffery and Joe Toussaint and there’s likely more talent than minutes for next season.
As with football, the schedule will be tough next year. Iowa gets a neutral site game with Cincinnati, who they knocked off in the first round of the tournament this year, to go with quality matchups against an ACC opponent in the Big Ten ACC Challenge and a Big East Opponent int he Gavitt Games, as well as the annual matchup against Iowa State. Then there’s the Las Vegas Invitational Tournament, where the Hawkeyes will take on two of Texas Tech (the same one that’s in the Final Four), Creighton and San Diego State. The schedule will be as tough as we’ve seen under Fran, which means plenty of opportunities for Quad 1 wins. That sets up for another trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Hawkeye hoops is trending in the right direction.
And then there’s women’s hoops. In case you somehow missed it, the Iowa women’s basketball team took North Carolina State to the cleaners on Saturday. In Greensboro. To make the Elite Eight.
It was yet another incredible performance by Lisa Bluder’s bunch. Perhaps the most impressive part was how complete the team effort was. For much of the game, NC State worked their collective tails off to ensure superstar Megan Gustafson couldn’t get the ball in her hands and when she could, she was immediately doubled.
While that sounds like a recipe for success, the rest of the Hawkeyes stepped up in a big way and made the Wolfpack pay. Iowa had a trio end the game in double figures, but had two more finish with 9 points. Oh, and Gustafson had a casual 27 points and 13 boards.
The performance she and the entire team has put on all year has ben incredible. Gustafson is a finalist for player of the year and the Hawkeyes are headed to the Elite Eight for the first time in 26 years. Beyond that, Gustafson is proving an incredible role model for girls across the country.
With the loss of a transformative player like Gustafson next season, Bluder’s Bunch is likely to take a step back, but the program is in good hands and headed in the right direction.
Looking around the athletic department, it’s hard to find a program that isn’t trending right. As much we love to hate Gary Barta, might he actually be doing an OK job?
The Title IX issues, the handling of the Dolphin situation and a number of other issues are unforgivable. They cast the department in the wrong light and they cost the school millions of dollars. But everyone seems to be winning. Perhaps not to the degree we would all like, but winning nonetheless.
At the end of the day, that’s what fans care about. It may not be all of what Barta is tasked with doing, but it’s certainly a start.
Happy Monday. Be sure to catch Gustafson and the rest of the Hawkeyes tonight as they take on Baylor.