A look at University of Iowa athletics heading into a new decade

Gary Barta (left) and Fran McCaffery

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - One common way to mark the start of a new decade for University of Iowa athletics is to look back at the previous 10 years and reflect on what occurred.

From picking all-decade teams to ranking the greatest moments, it’s all part of recognizing and paying tribute to those student-athletes and teams that made the previous decade worth remembering.

But I wanted to try something different by looking forward rather than backwards, and by shifting focus to the next 10 years.

So I reached out to fans on Twitter and asked what their two or three biggest concerns were about Iowa athletics heading into a new decade.

The responses came swiftly and covered a wide range of topics, although, it was clear right away that picking Kirk Ferentz’s successor is what fans are mostly concerned about.

That partly is due to it being a huge decision under any circumstance because football is so influential at the power five level, but also because some fans don’t believe that Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta will handle it properly.

It is no secret that Barta has alienated some of the fans with his handling of such controversies as the Jane Meyer/Tracey Griesbaum legal settlements and the Gary Dolphin suspensions from last basketball season.

Fair or not, some fans believe that Barta made both of those situations worse due to a lack of leadership, and they also still blame Barta for hiring Todd Lickliter as men’s basketball coach in 2007.

Me personally, I think Barta gets too much blame for the Meyer and Griesbaum debacles, and I think the Dolphin situation put Barta in an awkward position in which his options were limited due to trying to appease both sides.

As for hiring Lickliter, yes, that was a colossal failure by Barta.

It’s easy to say that with hindsight, but athletic directors ultimately are judged almost exclusively with hindsight.

Lickliter was the national coach of the year when Barta convinced him to leave Butler, so on the surface, it looked to be a solid hire.

But after three consecutive losing seasons, and with a disturbing amount of player defections, Barta had no choice but to fire Lickliter.

Fran McCaffery was picked by Barta to succeed Lickliter, and it’s looking more and more like Barta got it right this time with McCaffery.

Since McCaffery was hired in 2010, Iowa has had five 20-win seasons, four NCAA Tournament appearances, three NITs and Big Ten first-division finishes in five of the last six seasons.

There still is room for improvement under McCaffery, but the men’s basketball program is in much better shape compared to when he took over nearly a decade ago.

So Barta is batting .500 when it comes to making the key hires in men’s basketball.

Football, of course, is the other key hire and the decade that just started almost certainly will include the hiring of new head football coach at Iowa.

Kirk Ferentz seems to be getting better with age, and has given no indication that he is even thinking about retiring at the age of 64. Iowa just finished a five-year stretch where it set a school record with 47 victories.

But the odds of Kirk Ferentz coaching for another decade, and into his mid-70s are slim to none. It just doesn’t seem practical that he would coach for that long.

Some assume that Brian Ferentz will be picked to succeed his father as head coach, or already has been picked.

It certainly looks as if Brian Ferentz is being groomed to replace his father as the next head coach, with Brian having just finished his third season as the Iowa offensive coordinator.

But a lot still has to happen on the field for that kind of family succession plan to happen.

It’s hard to believe that Barta already has promised Brian Ferentz that he would replace his father as head coach.

There is this perception that Kirk Ferentz actually has the most power within the athletic program, and that Barta will do whatever Kirk Ferentz tells him to do. That perception, which seems a little misguided, is caused mostly by Iowa’s willingness to give Kirk Ferentz decade-long contracts with enormous buyouts.

Barta is perceived by some as being weak when it comes to negotiating with Ferentz.

You would like to think that any succession plan would involve more decision makers than just Barta and Kirk Ferentz.

The only way I could see Brian Ferentz being handed the job is if Iowa performs at a very good to an elite level for at least three consecutive seasons.

But that’s a big if, as it should be.

And what if Phil Parker wanted to be Iowa’s next head coach?

He could certainly make a strong case for himself.

Other concerns

As for the other things that fans are concerned about, declining attendance, rising ticket prices, the layout and the atmosphere at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and whether student-athletes should be paid for their likeness were all mentioned multiple times.

The Iowa football team only drew 58,331 on Senior Day against Illinois, and that seemed alarmingly low under the circumstances.

Iowa was favored to win its eighth game of the season, while Illinois was bowl eligible and finally showing life under head coach Lovie Smith.

The weather was also tolerable for late November with the temperature in the mid-30s that day.

And yet, fewer than 60,000 fans showed up for a team that would go on to finish 10-3 overall, and that had plenty of individual star power with players such as Epenesa, Wirfs and receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

To be concerned about having that many empty seats on Senior Day hardly seems like an overreaction.

The annual revenue that the Big Ten Conference pays to each of the 14 schools has changed the playing field to where empty seats aren't as costly as they used to be.

But empty seats also add up when you consider it means fewer people staying in hotels and eating at local restaurants during a football weekend.

Empty seats also looks bad for recruiting.   

Carver's long-standing woes

And speaking of empty seats, the problems with Carver-Hawkeye Arena continue to fester as shown from the responses.

Fans will pack the arena under the right circumstances, which usually means Iowa and its opponent both being ranked and relevant.

Iowa wrestling also draws good crowds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on a regular basis.

But there are lots of men’s basketball games that don’t have the right circumstances, and that’s when Carver-Hawkeye Arena becomes a liability due to its less-than-ideal setup.

The student section rarely is more than half full, it’s too far from courtside and the seating goes vertical rather than horizontal.

Ii would make more sense to have the student section near courtside, and for the seats to be arranged horizontally more than vertically.

It also makes no sense why the only points of purchase for concessions are on the upper concourse of the arena. The view from courtside loses some of its appeal when you realize how many stairs have to be climbed just to get some popcorn.

Ticket prices for football is another concern for some fans, because if the prices continue to rise, some fans will be priced out of the market.

The cost for single-game tickets for the 2020 season ranges from $50 to $95, while the cost for season tickets for seven home games is $415, which averages out to almost $60 per game.

That’s a lot of money, especially for a family.

It was suggested as part of the feedback on Twitter that Iowa should slash the price for tickets in half for some of the lesser-profile games, with the difference being made up for with concession revenue and with television revenue from the Big Ten Conference.

That's really not a bad idea.

Growing trend

This new decade barely is a week old, but we’ve already seen another Iowa football player declare for the NFL Draft despite having eligibility remaining.

Defensive back Geno Stone is the seventh Iowa player with eligibility remaining to declare for the NFL Draft since 2018.

The number should jump to nine with junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa and junior left tackle Tristan Wirfs both also expected to declare for the draft.

Expect this trend to continue because the money is just too good to pass up in a sport where professional careers barely last for three years.

What could change in this next decade is some of the restrictions on student-athletes being paid for their likeness. The push for change in this regard continues to gain momentum, but how to make it work fairly still has yet to be explained in any detail.