Gary Barta loves him some University of Northern Iowa. WIth the Big Ten poised to institute a nine-game schedule and eliminate FCS games, the Iowa athletic director and former UNI administrator went on ESPN Thursday afternoon to profess his love for his former employer and defend its God-given right to play Iowa in football every two or three years:
"With those future schedules, taking a look the possibility of an exception [for UNI] because they are an in-state school and because they've perennially been in the top 10 in the country at that level," Barta said.
"I don't look at it as an FCS school, I look at it as what does our overall non-conference schedule look like?" Barta said. "Northern Iowa has historically - I used to work there many, many years ago - they've beaten many Big Ten programs and other programs, as has North Dakota State.
"We look at it as what's the best schedule, what's best for the fans, what's going to be best for preparing us for the Big Ten schedule?"
Let's break this down, because the claims here are comical:
As Morehouse points out, Barta's assertion that UNI has historically beaten many Big Ten teams is only correct on opposite day: The Panthers have one victory all-time over a Big Ten school (an 1898 win over Iowa) when the school was known as the Iowa State Normal School. It had zero wins over the Big Ten when it was the Iowa State Teachers' College. It had zero wins as the State College of Iowa. It has zero since it became the University of Northern Iowa in 1967. It is a historical cupcake at this level.
UNI's presence on the schedule does nothing to "prepare Iowa for the Big Ten". Iowa played UNI last season, a week after losing 9-6 to Iowa State. The Hawkeyes beat the Panthers by running the zone stretch left 55 times with three different halfbacks. The preparation was so effective that, the very next week, Iowa lost to Central Michigan, then went 2-6 in the conference. UNI is a better-than-average FCS team most years, but it is not in the same class as the MAC, let alone the Big Ten. In fact, claiming that UNI is an approximation of the Big Ten is counterproductive. Just ask the 2009 Hawkeyes, who started 9-0 but were trapped behind the other undefeateds in large part because they needed back-to-back blocked field goals to beat UNI. The mere presence of that game hurt Iowa in its first potential national championship run in 24 years.
The game does nothing for fans. Have you met UNI fans? They're all Iowa fans. This is not an in-state rivalry like Iowa State (or, for that matter, UNI-Iowa State, which has some venom due to a recent UNI win). This is not a decades-old fight over inferiority complexes built over generations. This is a scrimmage, and when it's over we all have beers. I live with a UNI grad who brought an Iowa shirt with her to this year's football game because she hadn't yet decided who to support. This is not atypical behavior.
So yes, Barta's interview was a big smelly pile of crap on its face. But it is even dumber in the context of the legitimate rivalry between Iowa and UNI: Men's basketball. When Iowa lost 80-60 at UNI in 2011 before a raucous crowd, it marked the sixth time in eleven seasons that the Hawkeyes had been defeated by the Panthers. Six of those games had been decided by 10 points or less. Northern Iowa basketball, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, had been to the NCAA Tournament five times since 2004 and famously defeated No. 1 seed Kansas en route to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010. A win over UNI in most seasons is a feather in Iowa's RPI cap on par with Iowa State or the middle tier of the Big Ten. And while fans of both teams fully expect an Iowa win in football and adjust accordingly, the Iowa-UNI basketball game brought out the best in fans; games in Cedar Falls were occasionally brutal. The arguments made by Barta Thursday in favor of the football series continuing actually apply to the basketball series.
So what did Barta do when the conference expanded its schedule from 16 to 18 games and Iowa's contract with UNI came to an end? He pulled the plug in favor of "greater schedule flexibility" that came in the form of the Big Four Classic and cupcake home games against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and South Carolina State. There were too many conference games and an Iowa State commitment, and more in-state games against challenging opponents were not required. His arguments for UNI applied, but the financial windfall of a cut of Big Four proceeds and an additional home game won out over his impeccable logic.
Barta now faces a problem: He has based his entire budget on the absolute requirement of seven home football games a season. That seventh game equals another $4 million of revenue, blood money for a program that just spent $9 million on speakers and televisions for the football stadium. The Big Ten's nine-game schedule did him no favors; not only did it build in five road games every other year, but it was built to allow the Iowa State series to continue. Barta's allotment of road trips is now locked up every season, either entirely in conference play or with a bus ride to Ames. He has two more games to schedule, and both must be at home. While the conference promotes BCS-level home-and-home series in the future, every potential variation of the home-and-home series -- those occasional trips to Pitt or Arizona, even those neutral-site games at Soldier Field -- are off the table. Any chance of getting a second MAC team in the door became more unlikely with the conference-wide elimination of FCS games, as demand for MAC games across the Big Ten increased. And his easiest route to a seven-game home schedule, paying off UNI (or Eastern Illinois, or Montana, or Maine) to be a sacrificial lamb, is now gone. Northern Iowa has the added benefit of bringing their own fans, fans who buy the tickets and concessions and hotel rooms that keep Barta's machine moving. And so the arguments that applied so well to the basketball series he canceled get trotted out for a football series worth losing.
Barta's hypocritical support of Northern Iowa football, both in existing contracts and inevitably in the future, has nothing to do with the Panthers' worthiness or ability to prepare Iowa for the Big Ten, any more than the termination of the basketball series had to do with bad officiating in the 2011 game. No, his support of the football series stems from his overwhelming desire to bleed as much money from the football turnip as possible. Without the ability to pay the Panthers thousands of dollars to be on the schedule, Barta is going to have to pay millions of dollars for erstwhile sacrificial lambs to play (and, far more often than they should, beat) the Hawkeyes at Kinnick or, heaven forbid, forego a few million dollars to play a sixth road game against a team that actually counts. Perish the thought.
Jim Delany's Big Ten expansion plan was about cold hard cash. The league's FCS prohibition, however, is a refreshing acknowledgement that scheduling and the on-field product matters, especially in a world of selection committees and football RPI rankings. Gary Barta, used car salesman that he is, doesn't see he relevance to him and isn't giving up his sweaty wad of twenties that easily. His phony love of our in-state brethren is nothing more than a shield for his true motive in everything that our athletic department does: The chase for more money.