By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - There is a lot to like about University of Iowa athletics right now.
The Iowa football team just capped a 10-win season in spectacular fashion by dismantling USC 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl.
The Iowa men’s basketball team whipped No. 12 Maryland 67-49 on Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena despite being without three starters.
The Iowa women’s basketball team defeated No. 17 Maryland 66-61 this past Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena despite allowing 38 offensive rebounds.
The top-ranked Iowa wrestling team blanked Indiana 41-0 on Friday in Bloomington, Ind.
The Iowa field hockey team won the Big Ten Tournament championship in November, its sixth overall and first since 2008.
The Iowa soccer team made to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in program history this past November.
The Iowa men’s track and field team won the 2019 Big Ten outdoor championship this past May in Iowa City.
And the Iowa rowing team has made three consecutive appearances in the NCAA Championships.
That’s an impressive list of accomplishments in a variety of sports for an athletic program that has struggled over the years to sustain success in a wide range of sports.
The goal is always to have a broad-based athletic program, with an emphasis, of course, on football and men’s basketball, and right now, Iowa is meeting that goal about as well as it has for years.
Iowa finished 35th nationally in the 2018-19 Learfield IMG College Director’s Cup standings, which is respectable, considering where Iowa has traditionally finished.
The success of the Iowa baseball program under Rick Heller is yet another example of how the circumstances have improved.
Under Heller's watch, Iowa has advanced to the postseason in six consecutive years for the first time in program history. He also has coached six All-Americans and at least one first-team All-Big Ten selection in five of his six seasons.
Iowa has had 21 Major League Baseball Draft picks in six seasons -- the most in a six-year stretch all-time.
As for the present, both the Iowa men’s and women’s basketball teams are defying the odds, but under different circumstances.
Injuries have decimated the men’s team, and yet Fran McCaffery’s crew is 11-5 overall and has victories over Texas Tech, Syracuse, Iowa State, Cincinnati and Maryland that really stand out.
"I just feel like there's a lot of chemistry going on in the locker room and a lot of cohesion with the guys," junior forward Cordell Pemsl said after the victory over Maryland. "Even with the injuries that we've had, it's always the next-guy-up mentality."
Lisa Bluder, on the other hand, had to replace three senior starters from last season’s team that advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight, including consensus All-America center Megan Gustafson.
And so far, so good as the Iowa women are showing signs of being a Big Ten contender, even without Gustafson.
Senior guards Kathleen Doyle and Makenzie Meyer have talent, experience and the kind of leadership that is crucial during the course of a season.
Sophomore center Monika Czinano also has embraced the massive challenge of succeeding Gustafson at center, and while Czinano, obviously, isn’t at Gustafson’s elite level, Czinano is a force inside.
A lot can happen between now and the end of the regular season, but there is no denying that the men and women have both exceeded expectations on the basketball court.
The Iowa men suffered a bad loss at Nebraska on Tuesday, but made up for it with a huge win at home against Maryland on Friday.
Junior center Luka Garza leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 22.4 per-game average and has a Big Ten leading 10 double-doubles in 16 games.
Garza is making a strong case for All-America honors, and is producing at a level not seen at Iowa since maybe Kevin Kunnert in the early 1970s.
Garza had a tooth knocked loose in a game this season and took four stitches without pain medication just so he could stay in the game.
His toughness and his refuse-to-back-down mentality seems to have rubbed off on his teammates.
Speaking of toughness, the Iowa wrestling team appears to have a legitimate shot of dethroning Penn State, and with wrestling, anything less than a national title is considered disappointing.
Iowa hasn’t won a national title in wrestling since 2010, which is an eternity by Iowa’s lofty standards.
When I used to work at the Iowa City Press-Citizen, we would grade each of the Iowa men's and women's sports teams on an annual basis, and the results were usually sobering.
Iowa would almost always finish near the bottom of the Big Ten in the Governor’s Cup standings, and way below 50th in the national rankings.
So while there still is plenty of room for improvement, especially in sports such as volleyball and softball, the Iowa Athletic Department is performing at a respectable level overall.
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta has become a polarizing figure due mostly to his handling of the Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum legal settlements, and his handling of Gary Dolphin’s two suspensions from last basketball season.
But you also have to give Barta some credit for this current stretch of success in multiple sports because he has played a role in it just from being the leader.
It's easy to poke fun and to point out that Iowa hasn't won a Big Ten regular-season title in men's basketball since 1979, and hasn't won a national title in a sport besides wrestling since 1986 when field hockey earned that rare milestone.
Iowa's performance level as an overall athletic program still leaves much to be desired. But there is also reason to be encouraged because the numbers show that Iowa is now finally moving in the right direction.