IOWA CITY, Iowa — Gary Barta’s first day as Iowa’s athletics director was my first day covering Iowa athletics on a daily basis.
It was Aug. 1, 2006, and Barta had replaced longtime athletics director Bob Bowlsby, who left for Stanford and now is the Big 12 commissioner. Barta stepped into the perfect and imperfect situation rolled into one. He inherited a veteran staff of administrators, which means he absorbed both a wealth of experience and people set in their ways. Barta’s predecessor changed wrestling coaches about four months before leaving, and high-profile coaches Kirk Ferentz, Lisa Bluder and Steve Alford were entrenched.
There were no major messes to clean up. In fact during Barta’s first month, an $89 million renovation to Kinnick Stadium’s south end zone and luxury seating was unveiled. That was back when $90 million was difficult to raise.
That doesn’t mean Barta hasn’t had to manage challenges at Iowa. Any operation with more than $100 million in annual expenses has them, and that certainly includes one as far-reaching as a major-conference athletics department. But Barta will face his greatest challenge in the coming weeks, and this one is personal.
The 54-year-old Barta is taking extended medical leave starting today to undergo surgery and treatment for prostate cancer. Deputy athletics director Barbara Burke, who was installed in that position just five months ago, is acting athletics director. Barta will return to work as soon as his health and recovery allow.
“Probably like everybody, you’re always surprised,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “Awhile back Gary seemed confident about the prognosis and very optimistic going into this thing. Like everybody, we just wish him all the best and in anything we can do to be of support, we’re all here to help out in his brief absence.
“I’m just looking forward to getting him back here.”
It’s not clear when Barta will return. Cancer can be unpredictable. But over the years my interviews with Barta professionally and conversations personally indicate he’ll fight it. That’s what he’s done his whole life.
Barta grew up in a large Czech family in Minneapolis. He became the first member of his family to attend college when he accepted a football scholarship at North Dakota State. In 1986, Barta scored a touchdown as a running quarterback to help the Bison win the NCAA Division II championship game.
Afterward, Barta stayed at NDSU and worked in the athletics department. He called Bison football games alongside Ed Schultz and even dodged a whiskey bottle thrown at the media booth that was aimed for the controversial political commentator. Barta’s next stop was Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he worked as an athletics administrator at Northern Iowa. It was there he met his wife, Connie, and he stayed at UNI for six years.
Barta moved to Seattle in 1996 as a senior-level official at Washington, then became athletics director at Wyoming in 2003. Three years later Barta was hired at Iowa. He said at the time — and consistently has repeated in subsequent years — that he would have left Wyoming for only two jobs: Washington and Iowa. Family was a primary reason why he was interested in Iowa, and his family remains a main factor why he’s stayed for more than 11 years.
His son, Luke, is a sophomore at Iowa. His daughter, Madison, is a senior at Liberty High School. Barta’s children are active and visible at sporting events and other community activities. I coached my son’s flag football team in 2008 and Barta’s son was on the opposing side. After the game, Barta walked up to me and said, “Hey, how about a quote for my blog, coach?” We laughed about that one and still do.
Barta is conservative by nature and nowhere is that more visible than in how he’s treated Ferentz. After Barta was hired, the Hawkeyes went 12-13 the next two seasons. Many athletics directors would start looking at bringing in their coach. Barta stuck with Ferentz, and the coach rewarded the athletics director with an 11-win season in 2009.
When Iowa football limped through a five-year run of 34-30 from 2010-14, Barta remained in Ferentz’s corner. In 2015, the football program won 12 games for the first time in school history.
Ferentz and Barta form the nation’s second-longest tenured football coach/athletics director tandem, trailing only Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and Chris Hill.
“It’s hard to believe he’s been here as long as he has, but it’s probably a good thing to me,” Ferentz said. “He transitioned here very seamlessly to the entire program, and our relationship has been outstanding. He’s been great from Day 1 and always has been very communicative and very supportive, and I don’t know what else you can ask for.
“He doesn’t say yes to everything I ask, and that’s not how it’s supposed to work, but he’s been tremendously supportive, very engaged. I’m very appreciative of that.”
Barta has had plenty of pluses during his tenure, from hiring coaches to building facilities. He’s had his share of negatives, too. But now is not the time to reflect. It’s time to wish Barta well in his fight against an evil opponent. And if I know Barta, he’ll give it everything he’s got.
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