IOWA CITY, Iowa — As the sword of Damocles dangled by a horse’s hair over Gary Barta’s head Tuesday, you could just about make out the teensy inscription on the side of the blade. N-E-R-F.
“I’ve moved forward,” the embattled Iowa athletic director said in his first media appearance since the Jane Meyer ruling two months ago. “I’m not going to hold a grudge. I don’t see that we’ll exchange Christmas cards anytime soon.”
Barta grinned at that last bit. A little.
Athletic directors on the hot seat don’t make cracks about Christmas cards when the cameras are rolling. And men in fear of their jobs don’t help dig their department a $6.5-million hole, then stand in front of literal iPhones and metaphorical daggers and double down on the principles behind it.
“I sleep well at night knowing I did the best I could with the information I have,” Barta said when asked about the reported $6.5 million in settlements reached in May with former Hawkeyes administrator Meyer and ex-Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum.
“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 [the fact that] I still stand by the decisions we made.
“Tactically, could we have done some things, in hindsight, differently? Possibly. But in terms of value and integrity, I feel very comfortable in the decisions we made. And from now, we’re just — we’re moving forward.”
Translation: We handed off clean to the lawyers, who hit the wall at the line of scrimmage and fumbled the damn thing away.
On May 4, a jury ruled unanimously in favor of former Barta aide Meyer, who took the university to court on the grounds that she was removed from her position because of gender and sexual orientation bias, an award of $1.4 million. A few weeks later, the university chose to settle a lawsuit filed by Griesbaum, Meyer’s partner, rather than go to trial.
It was a poor public relations look for a university with deep roots in the history of Title IX and equal opportunities in athletics. And an especially bitter pill given the legacy of Christine Grant, the Hawkeyes’ women’s athletic director from 1973 to 2000, a pioneer named 10 years ago as one of the most 100 influential sports educators in America by the Institute of International Sport.
And cue the knives:
he should think again
— Dominic Amoroso (@domamoroso) July 11, 2017
Nothing boosts morale like losing a mulit-million dollar lawsuit. https://t.co/6nXme9vOCc
— Mr. Jackpots (@RealDaveSprau) July 11, 2017
He deserved to lose his job. I certainly hope he’s aware of that and will change by showing proof in actions. No excuses in 2017.
— Seriously. (@Made_Dad) July 11, 2017
“Nothing I can say [Tuesday] can probably change people’s minds,” said Barta, who was hired in 2006 and in 2016 agreed to a five-year extension through June 30, 2021.
“But if you look at my time — let’s talk about me specifically for a moment — my time over the last 11 years, I think I’ve proven, over a long period of time, for those who are around me and watched the leadership, they know who I am and how I do things.”
When a university audit in May revealed shenanigans in the IT side of the athletic department, coupled with Barta’s testimony during the trial that he doesn’t, because of public records law, use email to communicate with his coaches, the plot thickened.
Which begged a reporter to ask, justifiably: Did the settlement change your mind on the digital front?
“Are you kidding me?” the athletic director replied, grinning again. “You guys would have access to all my conversations.
“I don’t have a Twitter account. I’m never on Facebook. I don’t even know most of what my kids do. I’d rather sit down 1-on-1 with you and talk and say, have this conversation, so I can look you in the eye and you can look me in the eye. That’s not going to change. I’ll always try to communicate more, but not by email.”
And so it goes. Barta on Tuesday was Barta circa 2016, or Barta circa 2011, or Barta circa 2007 — cool, calm, professional, unflappable, and utterly unrepentant. The man at the Hansen Football Performance Center wasn’t walking on thin ice.
He was practically dancing on it.
“I suppose you can always think of things that you could’ve improved upon from a tactical standpoint,” Barta said. “But from a principle standpoint, we felt like we made the right decisions. Which is why it went to court. Obviously, we ended up with a result that we didn’t expect or want.”
If Iowa president Bruce Harreld wanted Barta gone, you get the sense it would’ve happened months ago, when the wounds from the settlement were still fresh. The athletic director didn’t make many new friends during the Meyer/Griesbaum saga — but the ones he has swing very, very large sticks.
And, more to the point, they still write very, very large checks. Before he addressed the Meyer ruling, Barta noted $48 million in fund-raising for Iowa athletics over the past year. He mentioned multiple times about the culture and vibes being the best he’d seen in the department since taking the reins from Bob Bowlsby. Baseball is back in a big way under Rick Heller. Men’s and women’s basketball remain steady ships. Kirk Ferentz has the sort of wide berth that every Power 5 football coach craves.
“I’m not walking around angry at them,” Barta said of Meyer and Griesbaum. “I’m angry at what happened.
“But I’m moving forward. Literally, I still have people who see me in the street who say, ‘How are you doing? Are you OK?’ And the answer is, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Barta and his department currently are under a university review. Does this sound to you like a man freaked out in the slightest about the verdict?