What The Heck Is Going On With The Iowa Athletic Department?

Iowa AD Gary Barta (center) speaks with Hawkeyes football coach Kirk Ferentz and Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez last year. Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Reporting a story about the firing of a female coach is often like chasing a ghost.

A simple reason exists for this phenomenon: A female coach who has been fired is unlikely to get another job, and a female coach who speaks publicly about why she was fired will almost certainly never get another job. Because of this, most female coaches refuse to speak out about the issues surrounding women in college athletics. It's a matter of self-preservation.

So often, in the end, these stories are like trying to pin down air.

This is not one of those stories.

What has happened at the University of Iowa over the past two months, in the wake of the firing of field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, does not follow the usual script. Griesbaum -- as well as three other female coaches dismissed by Iowa -- have spoken with espnW about their time at the school. Their language is simple and clear: They believe a gender bias exists within the current Iowa athletic department and that female coaches are being held to different standards than their male counterparts. They're speaking out because they want to call attention to a double standard that they feel exists all around the country, not just at Iowa.

Despite their voices, still nothing has changed.

"I know the environment at Iowa is very fragile right now," Griesbaum told espnW. "They've lost five female coaches in five years and their heads are spinning right now. I was one of those coaches who, two months ago, was looking around going, 'Why are we losing our female coaches? Can we stop it? Can we bring light to the administration about these double standards and the challenges we have?' I was one of the ones who called out the double standard."

And here's what happened: On Aug. 4, Iowa fired Griesbaum just days before the start of the season. The details surrounding Griesbaum's firing are mysterious, as just two weeks before abruptly terminating her, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta held several meetings with university staff saying Griesbaum would remain the head coach after an internal inquiry revealed she hadn't violated university policy. At one point, he even apologized to Griesbaum for the inquiry.

The 48-year-old coach was the most successful at the school, with 169 wins in 14 seasons. She posted 12 winning seasons and made six appearances in the NCAA tournament, including a trip to the 2008 final four. Despite these credentials, Barta launched an internal review after a single student-athlete, who asked to remain anonymous, submitted a complaint to the athletic department. The player alleged that Griesbaum was verbally abusive. (All of the former Iowa players that espnW spoke with said the charge was unfounded.)

Through a public records request, espnW was able to obtain several emails sent by Barta regarding Griesbaum. In addition, espnW obtained a copy of the official memo outlining the findings of the internal review, which was conducted by school officials Josey Bathke and Tiffini Stevenson Early. The review concluded that, "there was insufficient evidence presented to substantiate a violation of university policy," and that "there was no prohibited relationship between Coach Griesbaum and an Athletics' administrator." (Griesbaum is in a long-term relationship with Jane Meyer, the department's senior women's administrator.)

On July 15, Barta sent an email to Bathke and Stevenson Earl about how to break the news to the single complainant that the school was retaining Griesbaum. "Question to the two of you," Barta writes. "How shall we/I respond to the person who originally complained? My thought was to send an email indicating the inquiry has been completed." And then later, Barta writes, "Should I indicate no policy violations found? -- but areas to improve upon?"

And on July 21, Barta sent an email to the field hockey coaching staff that outlined a meeting they were to have later that afternoon to go over the findings from the review of Griesbaum's program. "I know this summer has been filled with uncertainty and has been challenging," Barta wrote in the email, also obtained by espnW. "Again, I thank you for your patience and professionalism, and for your participation in the process. My goal is to move forward and make a very good program even stronger. I want to make sure expectations are clear for all parties involved so we can continue to achieve great success and student-athletes can have a terrific experience."

Everyone who attended that meeting said they were given the impression that Griesbaum would keep her position as head coach, that they were all moving forward together.

Two weeks later, Barta fired Griesbaum.

And three months later, no one can really say why.

Something changed between July 21 and Aug. 4. What was it?

According to the public records request, Barta apparently sent no emails mentioning Griesbaum during that time frame. Then, on the afternoon of Aug. 4, Barta sent an email notifying the rest of the athletic department of Griesbaum's imminent dismissal. He did not provide a reason, but writes, "Please resist the temptation to speculate on the circumstances."

Iowa paid Griesbaum approximately $200,000, in keeping with the "no-fault" termination clause in her contract. Technically, the dismissal is above legal reproach. "My decision to terminate Coach Griesbaum was based on the results of a comprehensive review of the field hockey coach and her program," Barta said after letting her go in August. "When presented with those results, I decided it was time for a change in leadership."

Barta then promoted longtime assistant coach Lisa Cellucci, who had worked closely with Griesbaum for 14 seasons. So how problematic could the program have been if Griesbaum's top assistant took over the team?

For her part, Griesbaum denies the charge that she verbally abused her players, and she retained lawyer Thomas Newkirk to address what she believes is a gender bias, a double standard, that exists within the athletic department. She contends that she was held to different standards than her male counterparts, and that she is just the most recent in a string of gender-based firings made by Barta.

Newkirk posted the following statement on social media: "Tracey was removed because of several different overlapping double standards ... We expect our female coaches to be strong leaders, but not too strong. This means we expect our female coaches not to forget they are women first and leaders second. It means we expect them not to forget they should be 'mothering' or 'nurturing' our daughters while coaching them. We do not expect any of this from male coaches regardless of whether they coach males or females. These are double standards forged from gender bias and are therefore not only harmful, but illegal."

On behalf of Barta, Iowa twice denied further comment, passing along previously released statements regarding Griesbaum's termination and her subsequent lawsuit. "The claims made by Coach Griesbaum's attorney in the series of letters to the University simply aren't true," Barta said.

Barta has offered no explanation of what happened, what changed, between July 21 and Aug. 4.

According to the emails obtained by espnW, when responding to former field hockey players reaching out for an explanation of what happened to their former coach, Barta repeatedly wrote that his decision was "based upon the accumulation of information obtained through an investigation as well as a number of other factors. I know it's natural for people to speculate as to what the information is, however, it simply isn't appropriate for me to share details."

As mentioned above, Griesbaum was the fifth female coach that Barta has fired -- or forced to resign -- in the past five years. (Barta took over as athletic director in 2006.) Softball coach Gayle Blevins "retired" in 2010; golf coach Kelly Crawford was told to "resign or be fired" in 2011; rowing coach Mandi Kowal was told to "resign or be fired" in 2012; and the contract of volleyball coach Sharon Dingman was not renewed in 2012.

But Griesbaum was different than the previous four in that she had been at the school for more than a decade, had a strong track record of winning, and had built a passionate network of alumni, nearly all of who were caught off guard by her dismissal. This network, including coaches and players of rival programs, started a Facebook page "Reinstate Tracey Griesbaum as University of Iowa Field Hockey Coach," which now has nearly 1,500 likes.

Crawford, Kowal and Dingman all spoke with espnW, and all three women supported Griesbaum, saying similar things about the athletic department as a whole. "There is a culture at Iowa that is unhealthy," said Dingman, who is now the head volleyball coach at the University of Chicago. "Women are treated differently, and it's frightening for coaches -- it's not healthy. There are obstacles for success for all women, bottom line."

Iowa athletic trainer Faye Thompson, who had been with the school for 33 years and had worked with field hockey for 14 of those, resigned in protest of the firing. In her letter of resignation, Thompson wrote, "I feel that my work environment is too objectionable to endure. It feels unstable, unpredictable and unsupportive ... These feelings have been smoldering for a few years, but recent events have made me realize how important it is to my professional development to know that I am being supported in my efforts, and that my work environment is nurturing to my health and development."

In that letter, Thompson also wrote, "The appearance of a double standard of accountability is very clear to me. The steady/progressive elimination of female coaching leaders who strive for excellence is insulting to female student-athletes who seek high levels of tutelage, accountability and achievement. Further, it robs those student-athletes of the opportunity to be led and mentored by strong, professional female role models."

Thompson also spoke with espnW, and she said that the accusations against Griesbaum, of which she was made privy during the review process, were all unfounded or taken out of context. (The final report suggested that Griesbaum created a "culture of fear" within the program.) Thompson said the most egregious accusation against the coach -- that she called a student-athlete "fat" -- is simply not true. Thompson, along with the other coaches, said that Iowa enables female student-athletes, almost encourages them, to come to administrators with any complaint, while men's coaches are allowed to engage in behavior that would never be acceptable for a female coach. Multiple coaches pointed out that in 2011, 11 members of the school's football program had to be hospitalized after becoming ill because of intense workouts. The head football coach, Kirk Ferentz, is still with the program; one of the players filed a lawsuit in March against the school.

These same coaches also pointed out how last season, men's basketball coach Fran McCaffrey was asked by the Big Ten to "cool it" after slamming a chair during a game -- a behavior they said would never be tolerated from a female coach. Afterward, Barta said McCaffrey shouldn't have had his outburst, but that he completely supported his coach. "One of my biggest frustrations was that if you're demanding as a female coach, then you're a bitch," Kowal said. "That's what it was like there. You're a bitch and you're unreasonable."

All of the women pointed to small, continual slights that led to a feeling of marginalization. "Not one of the women in the administration has stood up and said, 'We're not going to allow this to happen,'" Crawford said. "It's impossible to prove sexism without documentation, but there is a real lack of administrative control, and there is nobody stepping up as a women's coach advocate within that department. When you look at what's going on there, something is going on. I would say there is a double standard. The male coaches can treat their athletes very differently."

Iowa maintains that Griesbaum was justly fired after a "comprehensive" review of her program, and that the other female coaches were also justly fired or dismissed -- all for various reasons, including mediocre win-loss records. But Griesbaum and her supporters say the review was hardly "comprehensive" -- that the administration did not engage with any players before 2013 except those who had left or transferred from the program.

These coaches also say that Barta rarely engaged them while they were on staff, that he and his top administrators were almost exclusively concerned with football and men's basketball. Griesbaum said this led to an almost unmanageable imbalance, and that coaches of smaller sports felt isolated and unsupported. "A men's coach can sit in the same meeting and challenge the athletic director with his words, but if I challenge the athletic director, am I looked at the same as my male counterparts? I would say I was not."

Griesbaum continued: "I had to have a strategy for the double standard. Over time, I really believed that brought me to a point where I did have to be broad-shouldered, so to speak. I had to fight all these double standards every day. And then am I being portrayed differently? My message isn't being heard, so I have to say it more often or louder, and the only reason I have to say it is because I'm a woman coaching women. That's what I've spent so much time thinking about the last few months."

Female coaches are finally speaking out. But is anyone listening?