The situation with Iowa Athletic Department isn't as bad as it might seem

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Iowa players and fans celebrate on the court after the victory over Michigan. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The University of Iowa Athletic Department has been the source of much ridicule and scrutiny lately, and some of it is justified

The suspensions of radio play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin and men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery has left Iowa athletics open to criticism because stuff like that just doesn’t happen very often, and looks bad.

Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta has been at the center of the storm, mostly because he is in charge and because the latest controversies happened not too long after Iowa agreed to pay nearly $6 million to settle discrimination lawsuits involving former UI athletic administrator Jane Meyer and former Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum.

The results from those two lawsuits in 2017 were costly and a horrible look for Iowa athletics, and especially for Barta.

And when these latest controveries happened, it was sort of like a giant scab got ripped off, leaving some fans frustrated, upset and disillusioned.

In fact, several fans have reached out to me to say they’re finished with making annual donations to the athletic department and with purchasing season tickets for men’s basketball.

That is certainly a fan’s prerogative and how someone spends his or her money is a personal decision.

But I also will say that the negativity surrounding Iowa athletics has gone too far in my opinion. It is easy to be a prisoner of the moment, and right now, the cool and fun thing to do on social media is poke fun at Barta and McCaffery and Iowa athletics as a whole.

The men’s basketball team has lost three of its last four games and McCaffery will serve the second of his two-game suspension for berating an official in Thursday's game at Wisconsin.

So yes, the current situation is a concern, but is far from hopeless with Iowa still considered a lock at this time to make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the last six seasons.

How you view the state of the Iowa men’s basketball program depends largely on how and where you look.

Iowa has failed to make the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons, so if you look at it from that standpoint, it looks bad.

But Iowa also made the NCAA Tournament in each of the previous three seasons before the last two, and this season should make it four out of six, which looks pretty good.

And if you look closely and can move past the current controversies, you’ll see an athletic department that is functioning at a respectable level.

The Dolphin suspension is unique and difficult to sort through because it goes far beyond just sports.

Dolphin was suspended for the remainder of the basketball season for calling Maryland forward Bruno Fernando King Kong near the end of his broadcast. The comment was meant to be a compliment, but was considered insensitive and inappropriate because Fernando is black.

Dolphin has since apologized and will return to the radio booth for spring football.

Barta was criticized for not speaking with the press for five days, and I was part of that criticism.

But as it turns out, Barta was simply waiting for some resolution between multiple parties before speaking publicly about Dolphin's suspension.

The length of the suspension seems excessive, but we don’t have all of the facts that impacted the decision.

All I’m saying is that the Iowa Athletic Department isn’t the dysfunctional mess that some claim it to be because they’re either upset about how Dolphin was treated, or because they don’t like Barta for a number of reasons.

I didn’t like the way Dolphin was treated because some might now perceive him as being a racist when that couldn’t be any further from the truth.

But Dolphin’s suspension was more than just him dealing with Iowa because he actually works for Learfield Communications, which has a partnership with Iowa.

Hopefully, it’ll be a learning experience for everybody involved, and Dolphin has promised to make it that.

I disagree with those who feel that Barta should be fired over his handling of Dolphin's suspension, with that being the last straw, because if you look at the big picture, from fundraising to success on the field to graduation rates, the Iowa athletic department is on pretty solid ground.

What Barta needs more than anything is some lessons in public relations because that is where he often falls short, and sometimes, it makes Iowa seem less than transparent.  

There is certainly room for improvement as the latest Governor's Cup standings show with Iowa ranked 63rd nationally. But there is also a sturdy foundation. The Governor's Cup, which ranks the overall success of athletic departments on an annual basis, loses some significance when Iowa is having success in football, men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball and wrestling, as is the case now. 

The Iowa football team has combined to win 37 games over the past two seasons, including its last two bowl games. That averages out to more than nine wins per season over the last four seasons, which is pretty impressive.

The Iowa baseball team has won at least 30 games in each of Rick Heller’s first five seasons as head coach. It is the program’s longest such streak since posting seven consecutive 30-win seasons from 1979 to 1985.

The Iowa men’s basketball team, despite its recent struggles, still is poised to make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the last six seasons.

The Iowa women's basketball team, led by star center Megan Gustafson, finished the regular season with records of 23-6 overall and 14-4 in the Big Ten. Iowa also finished in second place behind Maryland in the Big Ten race and will almost certainly host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

The Iowa wrestling team still ranks among the best in the country and won a share of the Big Ten dual championship this season.

The Iowa softball team has won 10 of its last 12 games under first-year head coach Renee Gillispie and is 11-8 overall.

The Iowa women's track and field team climbed two spots to No. 12, its highest ranking in program history, in the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Week 7 poll. The USTFCCCA rank the men at No. 23, moving up four spots from week six.

The Iowa field hockey team, despite all of the negativity and hard feelings that still fester from Griesbaum’s discrimination lawsuit, finished 14-7 overall and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

The Iowa rowing team, ranked eighth at the time, scored a school-record 69 points to place 11th at the 2018 NCAA Rowing Championships in Sarasota, Florida.

The North End Zone renovation at Kinnick Stadium is on course to be finished before the 2019 season, and it’ll have a significant impact, both on and off the playing field, and already did this past season despite only being partially complete at the time.

Some of you might dismiss all of this as homer spin, and so be it.

But it’s easy to forget the good things, and to obsess and get carried away with the bad things during rocky times like now.

I disagree with the person who reached out to me on Twitter recently to say that this is the best time ever for Hawkeye athletics, because that person apparently forgot about the 1950 and the 1980s.

But this is a pretty good time to be a Hawkeye fan if you can just bring yourself to look past these two unfortunate suspensions.

If Gary Dolphin can forgive and forget and then move on, then maybe fans should, too, because there is a lot to be excited about right now, especially with the home baseball schedule about to get started.

The Iowa baseball team already has won a series at Oklahoma State and is picked to finish in the upper half of the Big Ten.

Spring football is also just around the corner, although, it’ll take some getting used to Reese Morgan not being on the Iowa staff anymore as he announced his retirement on Wednesday after 19 seasons with Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes.

It occurred to me on Wednesday with Morgan retiring that I’ve never heard anybody say anything slightly negative about him. Morgan is a class act, who saw talent and potential in unheralded recruits where other coaches didn’t see it.

“He was the reason why I came to Iowa,” former Iowa defensive tackle Tyler Luebke said of the 68-year old Morgan. “It was all him.”

Luebke played for Morgan at Iowa City West High School and then came to Iowa as an undersized and under-recruited walk-on defensive tackle after one semester in junior college. Luebke would go on to become a starting defensive tackle for Iowa’s 2004 Big Ten championship team.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Megan Gustafson as another positive for Iowa athletics because we’ll probably never see anything like her again.

She was named Big Ten Player of the Year on Monday and should also win National Player of the Year honors if you base it on individual statistics and team success.

And really, what more is there?

Oh, yeah, citizenship?

“We’ve had players who’ve been low maintenance. Megan has been absolutely no maintenance,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder at Senior Day this Sunday.

That pretty much covers it all.