By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – If Iowa Athletic Director Beth Goetz were to follow the example of her three predecessors, and she seems determined to do so, head coaching hires will be a significant part of her legacy.
Probably the biggest part.
Goetz was introduced as Iowa’s permanent athletic director on Tuesday, and she gave every indication that she has found her destination job.
“I don’t know what else you would look for that’s beyond these walls,” Goetz said before a packed room in Carver-Hawkeye Arena that included multiple UI women student-athletes. “I’m excited about my tenure here and certainly look forward to staying as long as President Wilson will have me.”
Of course, that could always change.
But what if Goetz were to last for as long as her three predecessors?
She replaced Gary Barta, who retired this past August after having served as the Iowa Athletic Director since 2006.
Barta replaced Bob Bowlsby, who held the job from 1991 to 2006, while Bowlsby replaced Bump Elliott, who had the job from 1970 to 1991.
All three of Goetz’s predecessors had the job for at least 15 years, and each made some significant head coaching hires.
Bump Elliott hired Lute Olson, Hayden Fry, Tom Davis and Dan Gable, while Bowlsby hired Kirk Ferentz, Tom Brands and Steve Alford.
Barta hired Fran McCaffery, Rick Heller in baseball, Joey Woody in track and field and Lisa Cellucci in field hockey.
Goetz’s three predecessors also made what proved to be some bad hires, and in a few cases, some really bad hires.
Bump Elliott had to get it right with Hayden Fry or Bump might have been fired because he already had missed on his two previous football hires of Frank Lauterbur and Bob Commings.
Bowlsby’s hiring of Alford ultimately backfired for reasons on and off the court, while Barta missed badly on his decision to hire Todd Lickliter as the men’s basketball coach in 2007.
Hiring head coaches is probably the most important part of an athletic director’s job, besides fundraising, and Goetz will almost certainly be challenged in this area moving forward.
Head coaching hires shape an athletic director’s legacy more than than anything else related to the job.
If an athletic director sticks around long enough, he or she will undoubtedly makes some head coaching hires. It just part of the job, the biggest part.
But with Goetz, the hiring process could be extreme under the circumstances.
She takes over at a time when the Iowa football coach, men’s basketball coach and women’s basketball coach are all in their 60s.
Kirk Ferentz will be 69 when his 26th season as the Iowa football coach starts next fall.
Lisa Bluder is currently in her 24th season as the Iowa women’s basketball coach, while Fran McCaffery is in his 14th season as the Iowa men’s basketball coach.
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands is also 55 years old, so even he’s getting up there in age.
So, Goetz could realistically have to hire head coaches in football, men’s and women’s basketball, and wrestling.
Add Rick Heller to that list, too, since he’s approaching 60 and has been coaching college baseball since the late 1980s.
None of these head coaches have given any indication that they’re ready to step down, but it will inevitably happen, and in some cases, maybe sooner than later.
And if Goetz were to last for as long as her three predecessors, she would almost certainly make all the hires because none of the previously mentioned head coaches will last for another 15 years.
That just isn’t realistic.
Goetz was asked in her press conference on Tuesday if when hiring a head coach are there things that are non-negotiable for her or characteristics that she looks for during that process?
“Absolutely, and there’s really nothing we do that’s more important because when we make a hire of a coach, a head coach in particular, that’s who’s going to be a mentor to all these young athletes that you see around you right now,” Goetz said. “So it’s critical that we try to — that we make that right decision and that we don’t miss on the things that are most important: Integrity, their commitment to the well-being of the students.
“But from a big-picture standpoint, I think there’s a lot of different things you look at. You may have heard me say this before, but I don’t think that every leader is the right leader for every different institution. I think you have to identify the four, the five things that are specific to your needs at that moment in time here at the University of Iowa. That’s how you start your search.
“Certainly, there’s the need to be an expert in Xs and Os, to understand the recruiting landscape, all of those other pieces, but we want to find a package for who we are at the University of Iowa who shares our values and is ambitious and excited to work in partnership with our team, our institution to go chase championships.”
Her answer seemed to cover all the bases and made a lot of sense because a big part of hiring a head coach is finding the right fit at the right time.
What works for Iowa might not work for some other institution.
Todd Lickliter was fantastic as the Butler men’s basketball head coach, but awful as the Iowa head coach.
The hiring of Steve Alford in 1999 made a lot of sense at the time since he was considered a rising star in the profession, and he also had name recognition as a former All-America guard for Indiana.
But ultimately it didn’t work out for Alford at Iowa.
He certainly had his moments, including winning two Big Ten Tournament titles, but he also failed to make the NCAA Tournament in five of his eight seasons as head coach, and he alienated some fans with his handling of the Pierre Pierce sexual assault controversy.
Alford was starting to feel the heat when he fled from Iowa to take the New Mexico job shortly after the 2006-07 season.
McCaffery inherited a mess when he replaced Lickliter in 2010.
The program had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons under Lickliter and players were leaving the program at an alarming rate.
Something had to change.
Barta fired Lickliter after just three seasons and then hired Fran McCaffery.
The program is now respectable again, with four NCAA Tournament appearances over the past five seasons. But Iowa still hasn’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 1999, and now Fran McCaffery, fair or not, is carrying that burden.
Attendance for men’s basketball also leaves much to be desired right now.
But in no way is Fran McCaffery’s job in jeopardy, nor should it be.
He’s Iowa’s all-time winningest men’s basketball coach, and the good outweighs the bad under his watch.
But Fran McCaffery is also 64 years old, and he’s been coaching for a long time.
His youngest child, Jack McCaffery, is a junior in high school and a rising basketball star.
Jack’s future in the sport could impact how long his father keeps coaching.
As for Kirk Ferentz, he could’ve retired in the wake of his son being fired as the Iowa offensive coordinator with four games left in the 2023 regular season.
But Kirk Ferentz seems determined to keep coaching the Hawkeyes, even without Brian Ferentz at his side.
At some point, however, Kirk Ferentz will decide that he’s had enough and will move on.
Lisa Bluder, Rick Heller, and Tom Brands will ultimately do the same.
And it’s very likely that Beth Goetz will be the athletic director when all this happens.
It’ll be fascinating to see where her legacy is in 10 to 15 years because head coaching hires will go a long way in shaping her legacy.