By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - On April 10th, the Iowa softball team extended its winning streak to four games by defeating Nebraska 2-1 in the first game of a doubleheader in Lincoln, Neb.
The victory came on the heels of a three-game series sweep against Wisconsin in Iowa City, so the momentum finally was building under eighth-year head coach Marla Looper.
Or so it seemed.
Iowa was shutout 3-0 in the second game of the doubleheader and has now lost 11 of its last 12 games.
The Hawkeyes are 20-28 overall and 6-13 in the Big Ten heading into this weekend’s three-game series and regular-season finale against Purdue at Pearl Field.
Looper entered the 2018 season with a 151-251-1 overall record at Iowa, including 62-98 in the Big Ten.
Needless to say, that isn’t very good and pales in comparison to her predecessor, Gayle Blevins.
The Iowa softball program hasn’t been the same since Blevins resigned after the 2010 season, or was forced to resign, depending on who you believe.
Iowa has gone from being a Big Ten power under Blevins to a Big Ten also-ran under Looper.
Nothing personal against Looper because I’ve been told numerous times that she is a terrific person, but she has failed to achieve an acceptable standard at Iowa.
She took a good thing and has made it bad.
And she has done it while mostly ignoring the top players from in state.
Minnesota has emerged as a Big Ten power thanks largely to the contributions of pitcher Amber Fiser and catcher Kendyl Lindaman, both of whom are Iowa natives.
Fiser attended Benton Community High School, which is about an hour from the University of Iowa campus, while Lindaman graduated in 2016 from Ankeny Centennial High School where she set the Iowa High School record with 71 home runs.
Fiser now ranks among the top pitchers in the Big Ten and recently threw a shutout against Iowa.
Lindaman became just the fourth player in Big Ten history to be named the conference player of the year and freshman of the year in the same season. She accomplished that a year ago and is having another all-star season as a sophomore with 18 home runs and a .362 batting average.
It is clear that Fiser and Lindaman both could’ve helped Iowa, but for some reason, or reasons, neither was a recruiting priority.
Fiser recently told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that she never heard from Iowa during the recruiting process, while Lindaman said she barely heard from Iowa.
That just doesn’t make sense in hindsight, but also from any view.
Former Solon standpout Emily Ira, who now pitches for Western Illinois, held Iowa hitless for 6 2/3 innings during a 2-1 victory earlier this season. I'm told that Ira also wasn't recruited by Iowa despite living about 15 minutes from campus.
Landing the best recruits from in state should be the first priority for every Hawkeye coach. It not only builds state pride and unity, it saves money from a scholarship and travel standpoint.
Some of Looper’s teams at Iowa have flirted with having a breakthrough season, including the 2013 squad that finished 30-24.
But the level of success is nothing compared to Blevins, who led Iowa to 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, to four Women’s College World Series appearances and to at least 40 wins in 13 of her 23 seasons as head coach.
It now seems obvious that Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta made a mistake by allowing Blevins to resign, or by forcing her to resign as some say, because she deserved better.
Looper was a former star pitcher for Florida State in the early 1990s and had been an assistant coach at traditional power Texas for 11 seasons when Barta hired her to replace Blevins.
Though she came from an elite program, to run her own program for the first time was a big step up for Looper.
Barring a strong finish to the season, which would have to include a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, Looper’s job would seem to be in jeopardy with her contract expiring in June and with this being her eighth season as head coach.
Nobody could rightfully accuse Barta for discriminating against women coaches or for having a double standard if he terminated Looper after the season.
She has been given plenty of time, some will say too much time, to restore the softball program to Big Ten prominence.
It just hasn’t happened and shows no signs of improving.
Blevins already has proven that Iowa can sustain success in softball.
And Rick Heller is now doing the same thing for the Iowa baseball program, which hired and fired two head coaches before finally getting it right with him.
Looper tried to downplay the pressure to win at Iowa’s media day event in February.
“Our challenge is every day to be the best team that we can and the outcome is the outcome,” Looper said at media day. “We talk process, so a sense of urgency, I think every day when someone steps on the field there is a sense of urgency to be the best they can that day.”
It would’ve been hard for Barta to make a coaching change after last season because it probably would’ve happened at about the same time as when the UI reached a $6.5 million settlement in late May for lawsuits asserting it discriminated against former Field Hockey Coach Tracey Griesbaum and former Associate Athletics Director Jane Meyer.
Looper also had one year left on her contract a year ago.
Iowa has since honored her contract, but the results haven’t improved.
At some point, no matter how nice a coach might be, he or she has to produce or face the consequences.
Barta has a mess to clean up with softball. And it seems obvious where to start.