Q: Kirk Ferentz spoke last week about a possible new position, one that would be a liaison for new student athletes to help them make the adjustment from high school to college life. He said he has spoken with you about that. Are you pleased about this step, in addition to the steps he has made with regards to eliminating off field issues as much as he can?
Gary Barta: Absolutely. And I was pleased with all of the things that we were doing proactively before this happened. I am not at all pleased with what has happened. I have been pleased with some very difficult decision making at times, frustration on behalf of the coaching staff and administration, we have not wavered in our expectations or educational process, and we have not wavered in our disciplinary actions. We have several young men that are no longer on the team. That is a loss for them and the opportunity that they had. We tell our young men and women all of the time that when you make those decisions, you hurt yourself and the team. We expected those six guys to be a part of the future and making us a better program, and unfortunately they are not with us. We are not taking it lightly, but I am pleased with the way Kirk and his staff have handled things through this difficult period.
Q: You had to be pleased and proud with the performance by the Iowa Wrestling program.
Barta: I am so excited and proud on a lot of fronts. Think about the student athletes. First of all, there is a group that had to endure a coaching change, then a group that had to endure a change in coach but in this case, the guys that came from Virginia Tech, they changed schools. So many changes, and in two years under Coach Brands to get back on top and win our 21st national championship and another Big Ten championship, it was so fun to see the smiles on their faces in St. Louis.
Q: What about the future of Iowa wrestling? I think we are looking at an Iowa and Iowa State world for the next two years. Do you have anything planned for that meet next year? (Note: Jon has heard that Iowa may try to set the NCAA dual meet attendance record on that day, a mark that is currently held by Minnesota at just over 15,600)
Barta: Our plan is to win. Beyond that, we are fortunate that it's back in Iowa City next year and two years ago, when things kind of got started again under the two new head coaches, we had 14,000+ in Carver Hawkeye and I won't be surprised and I will plan for a sold out 15,000+ Carver Hawkeye Arena which would be exciting. I think you are right. Iowa State had seven All Americans and they are doing a terrific job. After the season we had and who we have coming back…I don't want to wish away a few more moments of enjoying this year's national title, but the future under Coach Brands and his staff and the student athletes coming back looks very bright. I think its important for all of us to appreciate this. Don't stop until the last whistle blows, but when it does reflect back on the season. Yes, we expect great things and we have a great tradition, but what goes into winning it all, to be the very best in America, we can't take that for granted. There is so much work, you have to avoid injuries, so many things have to happen. We need to enjoy this but I guarantee you, the young men I was with in St. Louis and the coaches, they agreed to enjoy it that evening, but I know they are already focused on next year.
Q: Lisa Bluder brought home a Big Ten title in women's basketball, as her team overcame a few years worth of adversity and was able to win in a year where most folks didn't see it coming.
Barta: Very pleased. Going back, I always think first of the student athletes. I think about our seniors, and in particular Jo Solverson who had those knee injuries. For her to come back and have that season was great. Only one team ends on a winning note, but winning a Big Ten title, Coach Bluder winning Coach of the Year, it was a wonderful season in so many ways. I wish it wouldn't have ended against Georgia. It was a heck of a college basketball game. It went right down to the wire; they made a huge shot with 90 seconds left and then eight straight free throws. We have a real strong nucleus coming back. We lose some seniors, but we return our point guard, a center, a lot of players that can score. We are looking forward to a terrific season there. I think coming into this year, the prognosticators picked us seventh in the Big Ten. It was fun to have the season that we had, but we are not satisfied. We want to go deeper into the NCAA tournament, and Lisa would say the same. We are very happy with the direction we are headed and we look forward to building on that.
Q: I took my daughter to a women's game this year, and attendance has been a concern. Iowa set the single game attendance record for a women's college basketball game back in the 1980's (a mark that has since been eclipsed). It's a fun product to watch, and I know that your department has done a lot to try to improve attendance. Do you feel you have made progress there?
Barta: We have made progress. But there are plenty of seats left in a large arena. I think we went through two years with devastating injuries. Clearly, whether it's in Des Moines or in the state, people have a lot of choices with their discretionary time and dollars. We have to put a great product on the floor and make it fun, exciting and enjoyable. We have made progress, but we hope to build on this season, both in men's and women's. On the women's side, we bounced back a bit on attendance. On the men's, this year was the perfect storm. I have to smile a little bit; I felt like every time there was a men's basketball game this year it snowed another 10 inches. That was a part of the challenge. We have the Big Ten Network and the growing pains of that product, which will be terrific, but we have to get it in all of the homes. We had a team that just wasn't as good, we all knew it would not be as good this year. We have a great new coach and a great future, but we knew this year would be a challenge. And we had nine, eight o'clock games. That is too many. You take all of those factors and put them together and you had the perfect storm. I am excited about women's attendance growing, I am confident that it will happen in men's.
Q: Back to the Big Ten Network before we get back to Todd Lickliter and his first year; I love the programming and feel they did a great job in year one. But it's not been a smooth transition. What did you think of year one, realizing that you may have to ‘fly the flag' a bit for the network since it's owned by the Big Ten.
Barta: Some things we couldn't have anticipated. What I would tell you about carrying the Big Ten flag is that I am the type of person that if I didn't believe it, I would remain more silent on the issue. So when I tell you I think the BTN has a great future, I really believe that. We talked about this at the State Fair last year. Right now, the BTN is in 31 million households in the country. For the 31 million who can get it, I have talked to hundreds of Hawkeye fans in Iowa and across the country who say to me they love the BTN. They love the live games, the replays, the Big Ten Tonight show each night that you can go to that focuses strictly on our league. They have great recruiting coverage; classic Iowa games, baseball and softball will be on.
Everybody I have talked with that gets it, loves it. Now, 31 million homes, a far cry from where we want to be. In the state of Iowa, and this surprises people, 50 percent of the homes get the BTN. The challenge is the 50% that don't, they have always been able to get the Iowa games and for those 50%, the biggest angst I have is that we have to get that fixed. My discouragement is that we still have a significant number of people in the state that cannot get our games. If I had total control, we would have that fixed by now. I do feel good about the fact that conversations with the cable companies are ongoing. There have been some national articles recently that have said Comcast and the BTN are getting very close to a deal. What makes that significant is that Comcast in the largest cable operator in America. The minute Comcast does a deal, you go up to 50 or 60 million homes that have the BTN, and you become closer to the same penetration that an ESPN or a Fox Sports is getting. We have to get all of the cable companies. The answer isn't switch over to satellite, that is not the final answer. The answer is to get broad distribution, everyone that wants it a chance to get it.
Is it a great network? Yes. Is it great for Iowa and the Big Ten's future? Yes. Because when it's fixed, every game we have in football, men's basketball, and many more women's games than every before, wrestling, etc, we will have over 75 events on the BTN this year, they will be seen by 70 or 80 million people instead of the local Iowa coverage. That is my story, I am sticking to it. I really mean it, too. It has been very painful and for everyone out there that may be throwing something at me right now, I get it. I know that if you have been able eto get the Hawks in the past and you can't now, it;'s been a tough year. It's been a tough year for me from that perspective. I do believe it will get fixed and I think it will be great. Q: I know that you spoke with the BTN about too many 8pm starts for men's basketball games. That had to hurt attendance this past year.
Barta: We have averaged three or four a year. Sometimes folks forget that, because they might not have come to those few games. Going from two, three or four to nine was far too many. We won't eliminate them, just like we won't be able to eliminate 11am football starts, but we have to reduce them. Our fans come from all over the state, whether it's Des Moines, the Quad Cities or wherever; an 8pm start is so challenging. I won't promise that we will eliminate them, but I feel confident that we will be able to reduce the number.
Q: Todd Lickliter went through a grinder in year one. He showed his emotion at times on the sidelines, which I certainly liked to see. Did he ever come to you this year and say ‘this is harder than I thought it was going to be?' I know he is totally on board, but it was a struggle at times.
Barta: It was going to be a difficult year whether Steve Alford was still here or if we have a new coach in Todd. We knew that coming because of who was coming back. We knew that. You are only human, and if you have been in a system with the success that Todd had at Butler, and they were successful again this year which makes him proud, it clearly is a situation where we have work to do. Showing his emotion, that is who he is. He wears his heart on his sleeve; he loves the fact that he is a Hawkeye. Every time they go on the court, he believes he can win. David vs. Goliath or an even match up, he believes we can win. So when we don't, it will hurt. That is the competitor in him and that is the competitor in him. For his sanity and health, it will be fun when he wins more than he loses. It is a very emotional roller coaster. We have several new commitments, he has a great nucleus of young people coming into the program that they have recruited and he is looking forward to combining that with the guys they have coming back. The future looks bright.
Q: Fans are interested in ways to make Carver Hawkeye a more intimidating place to play. Has there been any discussions about wrapping the students around the court? To keep them low and make the environment more challenging as we have seen in some other venues in the Big Ten?
Barta: The first thing I would say is that one of the things that makes college athletics unique and better in my opinion, is that I love the environment that the students can bring, no matter what the sport. The reality is that we do put seats right down on the court, but they are on the end. I hear often that ‘all of the schools have students ringing the court'; That isn't the case. There are very few student sections around the nation that have ringed the arena. We have some challenges, because we don't have a concourse level or a break in the arena. Wherever we put the students, they stand, which is wonderful. But you have to kill the seats all of the way to the top there. There are ways to work around that. The other thing is and this is reality; when we fill that arena, one of the things that have to happen, because we are self generating in football and basketball, we have to pay all of the bills with those two sports. So it's a balancing act of having the alumni and fans getting their seats, and having a great environment with the students. Our students do have some of the best seats in the arena; we just can't put them all around the bottom run.
Q: Thanks for your time and best of luck to you this summer. I am sure we will see you on the I-Club circuit. Have a non-news making summer, too.
Barta: That would be my goal. We will be in over 30 communities this spring thanking Iowa fans. We have the greatest fans in the nation and we will talk about football as we are in spring ball right now. Kirk Ferentz is an incredible coach. We are not happy with 6-6 and the off the field issue, but the restart button has been pushed and we are ready to hit the ground running in 2008.