By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - My first reaction upon hearing that Gary Barta has prostate cancer was to think how horrible this year has been for Iowa’s 54-year old athletic director, from a personal and from a professional standpoint.
The Des Moines Register broke the sobering news on Tuesday, saying Barta would take an extended medical leave to undergo surgery and treatment, and that he would return to work as soon as his recovery allows.
Deputy Director of Athletics Barbara Burke will assume leadership of the department in Barta's absence.
This news comes on the heels of the much-publicized gender discrimination lawsuits in which the University of Iowa agreed in May to pay $6.5 million to settle with former Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, and with her partner, former UI athletic administrator, Jane Meyer.
A jury awarded Meyer $1.43 million after determining that Iowa had discriminated against her based on her gender and sexual orientation.
Meyer’s trial turned Barta into a polarizing figure, with some saying he should be fired for being anti-gay and for allowing the situation to escalate.
The university then hired an outside firm to review the hiring practices within the athletic department, with that process still ongoing.
Barta welcomed the review and told reporters in July that he never feared for his job and that he was very confident in the decisions that were made in the Meyer and Griesbaum cases.
In other words, Barta stayed sure and strong, and that’s what he has to do now as he faces a much scarier battle from a personal standpoint.
The lawsuits were serious stuff with serious consequences, but nothing is more serious than a person’s health.
I couldn’t begin to know how Barta feels because nobody knows how they’ll react to such devastating news until it happens.
One thing Barta won’t feel, though, is loneliness or hopelessness.
He will have the support of his family and from a university that cares about him a great deal.
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday on the Big Ten teleconferene that Barta told him about his medical situation a while back.
"Gary seemed very confident about the process and very optimistic," Ferentz said. "We’re all here to help during his brief absence."
Barta also will have outstanding medical treatment and a reason to feel confident because there are multiple examples of people who have beaten prostate cancer.
From Iowa play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin to KCJJ station owner Steve Bridges to my brother-in-law, Tom Kozlik, all three are prostate cancer survivors.
“He couldn’t pick a better place to be,” Bridges said in reference to the medical facilities and the level of treatment that is available in Iowa City. “It’s entirely beatable with proper treatment, as I found out.”
Prostate cancer is the second-most common cancer in American men, behind skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, which estimates that there are 161,360 new cases diagnosed in U.S. men annually. About one in seven men will be diagnosed with the disease.
However, survival rates are relatively high, with only one in 39 U.S. men dying from the disease. More than 2.9 million American men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer are still living today, according to the American Cancer Society.
The 67-year old Bridges was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2015. He underwent radiation and hormone therapy treatment for six months and is now free of the disease and working full time again on his station's morning radio show.
My 67-year old brother-in-law also is back to working full time again after having his prostate removed, while Dolphin never missed a game on the radio.
The news about Barta was especially disturbing to me because we’re about the same age. It’s easy to take things for granted until a life-changing event happens.
Iowa fans might disagree with some of Barta’s decisions as athletic director, but that goes with the territory.
Barta has been the Iowa athletic director since 2006 when he replaced Bob Bowlsby.
Barta has been criticized for giving Ferentz too much leverage in his buyout, and for his decision to hire Todd Lickliter as the Iowa men’s basketball coach in 2007. Lickliter only lasted three seasons before being fired.
But in fairness, the Iowa football team has won 24 games since the start of the 2015 season, while Fran McCaffery has led the Iowa men’s basketball team to six consecutive postseason tournament appearances, including the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons.
Barta learned from the Lickliter hire and then made the right choice the second time with McCaffery.
Barta has shown over the years, especially in the past year, that he is a fighter and a survivor when it comes to his job.
He now faces a much tougher fight that takes a different kind of courage and survival tactics to persevere and to prevail.
My thoughts and prayers to Gary Barta as he deals with this difficult, but winnable fight.