Iowa football: Can success be bought?


Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

IOWA CITY — A lot of people agree that the Iowa football program needs an overhaul.

A lot of people don’t agree, however, on how that should happen.

The average fan might feel that Athletic Director Gary Barta can just wave a magic wand and get better recruits and new coaches, but the reality is that overhauling an athletic program takes a strategy much like rebuilding a professional baseball or basketball team. You can’t just blow the whole thing up and hope the pieces fall back in place. By doing that, you risk multiple years of losing games, revenue, booster support and reputation as a solid program. Sure, coaches are hired and fired all the time, but every move comes with a cost or risk, either financially or to the program’s image (see former basketball coach Todd Lickliter).

As the guardian of Iowa athletics, part of Barta’s job involves risk management and keeping the program profitable year after year. Any change, whether to coaches, staff or any other part of the program has a cost associated with it. It’s Barta’s job to decide whether that cost is justified or not.

So what is the best way to build the program, compete at the highest level and ensure continued success? Well, in Barta’s mind, and the minds of a lot of other A.D.s, it’s easy to see that the answer lies in one direction:

New facilities.

The Iowa football program is not far removed from the completion of a state of the art indoor practice facility. And as we speak, construction is under way on the second phase of the estimated $55 million football complex of new offices, training facilities and other amenities.  Those facilities will help the Hawkeyes compete with teams such as Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska. But are new facilities the answer to the Hawkeyes winning games and returning to prominence as a perennial top-20 program?

In other words, is Barta’s strategy sound?

Yes and no.

At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, consider two questions. The first: Could a coach such as Nick Saban or Urban Meyer come to Iowa and build a winner under the existing circumstances? Most fans would probably say yes, if not right away then certainly within 3-4 years. Coaches like Saban and Meyer have a reputation for attracting talent and winning games (although some would say not entirely above board).  A lot of fans would probably trade new offices, practice fields and even their houses for a coach like that who could come in and get the best players and win games on reputation alone. But investing in big-name coaches isn’t cheap, and even once you pay big money for a coach, it’s not totally a guarantee that the program will be a top-10 or even top-20 team year after year (See Kirk Ferentz). When that coach leaves, the money you shelled out goes with him.

Secondly, is spending millions and millions on new facilities better than giving it to a good coach? Do recruits decide where to play based on the size of the football complex, the weight room or the coach? The list of teams with worse facilities than Iowa but with better coaches and more wins is a pretty long one. But you can also find programs with as good or better facilities than Iowa’s that also have a problem winning 9 games a year. So having the best facilities isn’t a guarantee of success all by itself either.

So what’s the best choice?

In this case, Barta appears to have gotten it right this time based on one simple reason: Spending millions on new facilities is like adding a bonus room to your house. It will improve the existing structure and be there in perpetuity. There’s no guarantee Iowa will be better on the field because of a new football complex, but while coaches come and go, the facilities will remain. It’s better to pour money into an asset that will continue to provide residual benefits.

It’s safe to assume that Ferentz will remain at Iowa into the next decade, but whoever follows him will have the benefit of state-of-the-art facilities.  The key is getting a coach who can use them to attract the best players and then get those players to perform on the field. But Barta should keep one thing in mind over the next decade:

Paying the most for something or someone is always a guarantee for success.