By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Gary Barta isn’t going anywhere unless he chooses to leave his job as the University of Iowa Athletic Director.
That was my take after listening to Iowa’s embattled athletic director rave about the current state of his department.
Barta started his 25-minute question-and-answer session with reporters on Tuesday by mentioning all the good things about Iowa athletics. He praised the fundraising efforts and the facility upgrades and the overall mood and culture within of the athletic department, saying it’s never been better since he arrived at Iowa in 2006.
Barta also brought up the not-so-good stuff, namely the Jane Meyer verdict and settlement that cost the UI athletic department approximately $6.5 million after a jury of five women and three men ruled in Meyer's favor on all five of her claims — gender and sexual orientation discrimination, retaliation and whistle-blower violations, and unequal pay.
“Obviously, when we made our decisions we felt like we were in the right,” Barta said. “The jury decision was not what we expected and certainly not what we wanted. But we’re moving forward.”
That was Barta’s main message on Tuesday; that he and the Iowa athletic department are moving forward. He hardly sounded like an athletic director whose job was in jeopardy.
It marked the first time that Barta has spoken to the media as a group since a settlement was reached with Meyer and with former Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum in May.
Barta told reporters that he doesn’t think he did anything wrong in his handling of the Jane Meyer situation from a principle standpoint.
He also said the settlement with Meyer and with Griesbaum was paid entirely with money from the athletic department’s reserve fund, and as a result of that, it would not affect the day-to-day operations of the UI sports teams.
“I won’t talk about anything specific,” Barta said. “But obviously, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it over the last couple of years. In principle, I’m very confident in the decisions that we made and that I made.
“Tactically, I suppose you can always think of things that you can improve upon from a tactical standpoint. But from a principle standpoint, we felt like we made the right decision, which is why it went to court.”
Barta said the UI chose to settle with Meyer and with Griesbaum in order to help the mood and the culture within the athletic department.
Barta fired Griesbaum as the field hockey coach in 2014 for what was described as abusive behavior towards some of her players. Meyer, who was second in charge in the UI Athletic Department at the time, strongly opposed the firing both from a professional and from a personal standpoint.
Griesbaum’s trial for wrongful termination and gender bias was scheduled to start in June until the settlement was reached.
“We just decided for the mood, the culture and the benefit of the department and the university it was time to move forward,” Barta said.
The fact that Meyer won her case by a landslide and was paid such a high figure in damages also had to influence the decision to settle with her and with Griesbaum, probably more than anything else.
Barta never would acknowledge that, but it seemed pretty apparent that Iowa’s lawyers would have been taken to the woodshed again if the Griesbaum trial had taken place.
So if you can’t beat them in court, you settle with them out of court and then try to move forward.
Barta's decision to address the media on Tuesday was part of the process of moving forward.
If Barta hadn’t met with reporters on Tuesday, he almost certainly would have been mobbed at the Big Ten football media day event in Chicago later this month, making it a distraction.
Tuesday’s press conference wasn’t a case of Barta doing damage control because the damage already had been done. It was more a case of Barta using the media to make a public relations statement and to show that the UI athletic department still is rock solid from a financial and from a culture standpoint.
Barta’s statement about the mood and the culture within the athletic department having never been better since he arrived, to me, was a veiled shot at Meyer and Griesbaum, and a message to fans.
Iowa wants you to think that the situations involving Meyer and Griesbaum were isolated incidents in which UI officials did what they felt was right and justified under highly unusual and delicate circumstances with Meyer and Griesbaum having been in a long-term relationship.
Some fans will choose to agree with that assessment, while others won’t.
Barta also addressed the external review of university employment practices that will be conducted by an independent firm. UI President Bruce Harreld announced the decision to hire an independent firm the day after a Polk County jury awarded Meyer $1.4 million in damages.
“We welcome it,” Barta said. “We don’t have any concerns specifically. We look at it as an opportunity to see where can we get better, not just athletics but throughout the university.”
There is a concern that the fallout from the Meyer and Griesbaum cases will hurt Iowa’s ability to hire head coaches in the future, but Barta doesn’t share that concern.
Or if he does, he isn’t willing to say it publicly.
“It’s all transparent,” Barta said. “We’ve hired a few people and assistant coaches since then. And when I met with those coaches, I’ve offered to talk about it and there have been zero concerns to this point.”
Barta also was optimistic when asked about his job security, which has been a hot topic since the settlement was reached. It would seem that Barta has reason to be optimistic because it wouldn't make sense to have him address the media if he were on the verge of being relieved of his duties.
“I always look at job security as a day-to-day situation in my job, and I sort of jokingly say that,” Barta said. “But president Harreld has been behind me one-hundred percent since he arrived. He knew when he took the job about this situation. He talked to a lot of people about it to find out what happened and how it happened, and he’s been supportive since day one.”
The best way for Barta, and for the athletic department, to move forward would be for the Iowa football team to win at least nine or 10 games this fall, for the Iowa men’s basketball team to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and for Iowa wrestling team to challenge Penn State’s dominance.
That would help to restock the reserve fund, which Barta said Tuesday has been reduced from about $10 million to $3 million, largely because of the Meyer/Griesbaum settlement. The reserve fund is used to pay for unexpected expenses such as the settlement.
“It depletes our reserve fund quite about,” Barta said. “But it didn’t impact our operation budget as we move forward.”
Barta also benefits significantly from the substantial amount of money that Iowa receives from the Big Ten Conference on an annual basis, mostly from television revenue. That money helps to soften any blow caused by unforeseen expenses.
Barta was accused of being a bigot and a homophobe during the Meyer trial. He addressed those accusations on Tuesday.
“I think you all watch and see through social media just about every decision we make and every decision I make is criticized at some level,” Barta said. “So over the years I have to develop a thick skin. I always go back to the principles of our decisions. If we make decisions based on what we think are strong principles and done for the right reasons, and do it with integrity, then I expect criticism, not just in this, but in everything that we do, and I sleep well at night knowing I did the best I could with the information I have.
“I’m not going to lie and say the last several months were easy. They weren’t. They were difficult. But I kept going back to I still stand by the decision that we made. Tactically, could we have done some things different in hindsight? Possibly. But in terms of value and integrity, I feel very comfortable with the decision that we made. And from now on, we’re just moving forward."
Barta feels comfortable with the decisions that were made, and he now hopes that Iowa fans feel the same about his decisions.
That was the whole purpose of Tuesday's press conference.