Iowa athletic director Gary Barta abruptly fired field hockey coach Tracey Greisbaum Monday afternoon, less than three weeks before the field hockey season is scheduled to begin. Barta issued a short, somewhat-cryptic statement referring to a "comprehensive review of the program" as the reason for the firing.
The termination was under the no-fault provision of Griesbaum's contract, which gives the athletic director the right to fire the coach and pay the buyout without giving any particular rationale, so there was no legal concern so long as Iowa actually paid Griesbaum's $200,000 buyout. Nevertheless, the timing of the termination and Griesbaum's long track record of success raised eyebrows. Griesbaum has been Iowa's field hockey coach since 2000 and posted 12 winning seasons in 14 years. Her teams won three consecutive Big Ten tournament titles from 2006 through 2008 and one regular season championship. The Hawkeyes made six NCAA Tournament appearances during her tenure and advanced to the field hockey final four in 2008. That 2008 team also posted a perfect Academic Progress Rate score, and Griesbaum's teams have never fallen below 949 (and have been above 975 since 2007). Last season, Iowa went 13-8 and advanced to the Big Ten championship game, a successful season by any standard and one of the best results of any Iowa program. Griesbaum won games and titles and graduated her players in a sport with no in-state high school presence or recruiting base. In other words, there was no objective reason for Griesbaum's firing, and another shoe was sure to drop.
It took all of 24 hours for the real story behind Griesbaum's firing to come to light. From Scott Dochterman's report Tuesday:
According to both supporters and those with knowledge of the situation, university officials investigated the field hockey program this summer and met with more than five former players who recently left the program with eligibility remaining. Among the allegations lobbied against Griesbaum include mental and verbal abuse and favoritism. Griesbaum also was accused of calling at least one player "fat," a charge many of her supporters vehemently deny.
So five players who left Iowa early forced the ouster of the most successful current women's coach in Iowa athletics -- a coach respected enough to assist the USA field hockey team occasionally -- because she said a player was fat. That apparently just happened.
The Big Ten field hockey community rallied to Griesbaum's support is a stunningly public way. It started with Northwestern field hockey's official Twitter account:
We support the reinstatement of Iowa coach Tracey Griesbaum and our hearts go out to her players/alumni@ReinstateTG #greatcoachbetterperson— Northwestern FH (@NUFHCats) August 6, 2014
Minutes later, Michigan field hockey joined in:
We support the reinstatement of Tracey Griesbaum as Iowa coach. She is a consummate professional, longtime B1G peer & friend @ReinstateTG !!— Michigan FieldHockey (@umichfldhockey) August 6, 2014
Audra Heilman, a senior field hockey player at Indiana, also showed her support on Twitter:
Claire Laubach, a former US Olympian, hopped onboard the next day:
I'd like to talk to the little girls complained about Tracey Griesbaum. Reality check. #reinstateTG— Claire Laubach (@chewbach) August 7, 2014
Yale Field Hockey also tweeted its support:
Yale FH supports the reinstatement of Tracey Griesbaum as head coach of Iowa Field Hockey. Our hearts go out to all. @reinstateTG— YFH (@YaleFieldHockey) August 7, 2014
By the end of the day on Wednesday, a "Reinstate Tracey Griesbaum" Facebook page had sprung up and a "ReinstateTG" Twitter account was collecting support. The coach Griesbaum had replaced in 2000, Beth Beglin, was hammering Barta in the Gazette:
Beglin called it an "incredibly unjustified" decision by the university, and added this on that Facebook page:
"For those of us who know Tracey, those allegations are so out of character for her as to be laughable. If Tracey, a person of the highest moral, ethical and professional standards, can be fired, there is not one person who should feel secure in their coaching positions."
Judith Davidson, who built the program in the 1980s, was equally critical:
"This is an incomprehensible situation. The University is fortunate to have a coach of Tracey's caliber leading its most successful women's team. Yes, being a student-athlete is tough, being a coach is tougher. Tracey handles it with purpose and class. She deserves better than to be treated in this manner."
Those supporting the decision? Crickets.
In recent times, Iowa has not had a particularly strong women's athletic department; Gary Barta has done little more than driven those programs into the ground. Iowa has won one regular season women's championship since Barta came to town -- basketball in his first year -- and two tournaments -- both field hockey, both coached by Griesbaum. The only other non-field hockey Big Ten title for Iowa women's sports since the turn of the century came from the once-proud softball program, but that has slowly collapsed since Gayle Blevins retired in 2010; the 2014 Hawkeyes -- with just two Iowans on the roster -- went 16-30-1. Field hockey and basketball have become the most successful womens' sports programs at Iowa by a significant margin and standard-bearers for Iowa womens' athletics within the conference and across the nation. Our athletic director's response was to fire the field hockey coach in a way that draws universal criticism from those within that community and virtually assures that nobody of consequence will take the job.
There are inherent difficulties in building a successful program at Iowa in any sport. The state has one of the smallest population bases of any in its conference, it shares top billing with another 'power 5' conference university (and two other Division I universities in basketball), and it's not located in a major metropolis that can draw recruits by reputation. Iowa doesn't recruit like other programs in football or basketball because it can't; it would lose those battles. Those programs focus within the state where they can and largely look for developmental projects outside the state. But imagine how difficult football or basketball would be if Iowa high schools didn't even play the sport, and if the locals didn't even understand your game. Imagine not being able to rely on in-state recruiting at all, and having to go to the east coast exclusively for recruits because there aren't many high school programs within the Big Ten footprint. Imagine having to pitch Iowa City to prospective players from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York who have ample opportunities much closer to home, in a sport where there is no chance of going pro. Now build a juggernaut that perennially posts winning seasons and top-half Big Ten finishes. The mere fact that Iowa field hockey exists, let alone is one of the most successful field hockey programs in the country over the last 30 years, is the result of the hard work and cult of personality created by its coaches. Davidson built it, and Beglin and Griesbaum sustained it. And now Griesbaum is gone, with Beglin and Davidson voicing their displeasure in public. Iowa has no right to be good at this sport, the one women's sport it has managed to be competitive in over the last decade, but that tradition was just thrown out over someone's hurt feelings. And as we saw with softball, there's absolutely no guarantee that the program's tradition can be sustained without the coaches who built it to begin with.
Beglin commented on Facebook that Griesbaum's firing meant that "there is not one person who should feel secure in their coaching positions." That's not entirely true, though; there are some coaches who are fully secure with that reality. If calling a player 'fat' is grounds for dismissal and the old rumors are true, Rick Kaczenski could have been fired one billion times at Iowa, yet there was not a 'comprehensive review' or an investigation of the football team when every defensive linemen either transferred out or looked like he'd been through a death march by November. A football workout actually put nine players in the hospital not long ago, yet not one person was fired or even reprimanded; the strength coach responsible for the workout got a 'Coach of the Year' award from the program two months later. And if yelling at players is grounds for dismissal, then Gary Barta has obviously not watched the basketball coach he hired four years ago.
I write that not because I think football assistants or Fran should be fired for their behavior. I write it because firing a women's coach for 'verbal abuse' that amounted to calling a player fat and praising (and paying for) that behavior from men's coaches is an obvious, incoherent, and stupid double standard unnecessarily protective of the tough, smart, and competitive female athletes at this school and elsewhere. Female athletes deserve better than that, particularly from a school and an athletic department that pride themselves on their progressive record. What they've gotten from Barta is coaches who cannot use all the motivational tools at their disposal for fear of upsetting the delicate sensibilities of some on their teams. If a male athlete transfers because his feelings are hurt by the coach, it's his fault. If a woman doesn't like the motivational tactics of her coach, it's the coach's problem. And that's wrong for both.
Iowa screwed up Monday, and that screwup might well have cost it the last successful women's program it has, a screwup on par with the myriad other screwups from this administration. It's simply time we demanded better. Geiesbaum should be reinstated, and Iowa should conduct a top-down review of its athletic department before doing something this dumb ever again.