PHOTO: ZACK SCHMIDT
You've got to be kidding me.
It is 5 p.m. and Jan Jensen's family has gathered at an Iowa City restaurant to celebrate her son's fourth birthday. She gazes down at her buzzing cell phone and sees the caller is a high school senior she's tried to contact for weeks.
She sighs and chooses to skip the call. If it had been any other occasion, she would've answered. Day or night, she steps outside movie theaters, pulls to the side of the road, and excuses herself from countless dinners to carry out her high-pressured duties as associate head coach and recruiting director for the University of Iowa women's basketball team.
This is the reality of the college sports biz. And it's a not-so-glamorous side that Jensen shares with some 20 students in the UI's first-year seminar "An Inside Look at College Athletics"—a popular course about the complexities and surprises involved in operating a university athletic program.
"A lot of stuff happens in the wee hours of the morning," admits Jensen, adding that fans clamor for news about five-star recruits, but don't realize what goes into the process. "We track players for four to five years; we travel to all their games. [Recruiting] is the lifeblood of your program and there's an intensity with which you have to do it. And sometimes we're basing our decision on a teenager who can't decide between the blue or green sweater from the Gap."
In other words, it's stressful—for potential players and coaches alike. One recruit was so anxious about her UI commitment that she backed out of the garage with the door still down. Jensen will never forget all those flights to Denver, Flint, and Cincinnati to "show the Iowa love." On the plus side, one player's grandmother sent her delicious homemade salsa. And Jensen loves her job.
During Wednesday class sessions in the Upper Club Room of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, freshmen eagerly listen to such tales from the sports trail. Over the span of 10 weeks, several presenters from the athletic department's senior administration provide insight into finance, game day production and management, marketing, media, fundraising, legal issues, and facilities planning. All these specialized elements are central to running an elite Big Ten program with an $80 million budget, 200 full-time staff members, 24 sports, 650 student-athletes, and an overriding mission to preserve both its integrity and the well-being of its participants.
"Athletics is not the most important thing that happens on campus, but it is the most visible," says athletics director Gary Barta, who leads the course alongside Mark Abbott*, 73JD, associate director of athletics and legal counsel.
Three years ago, Barta suggested this course as one way athletics could extend its reach. At the time, UI President Sally Mason and her cabinet were discussing the idea of first-year seminars to improve student retention. They began to plan a selection of small classes that introduce freshmen to the intellectual life of the university and allow them to work closely with instructors. Barta volunteered to develop a team-taught class featuring a comprehensive overview of Hawkeye sports.
Each year, Iowa athletic events attract millions of dollars and millions of people. Typically, the only contact these fans enjoy comes from attendance at athletic events; they know little about the process of game ticketing, the years of effort poured into a new sports facility, or the strict NCAA rules behind team recruitment. "An Inside Look" offers freshmen an opportunity to understand the big picture involved in bringing UI sporting events to the public. In its third year, the course fills fast with students pursuing majors in education, marketing, business, finance, and law.
Samantha Farmer* registered for last year's seminar—and was lucky enough to grab the last spot in class. A huge sports fan, she also wants to attend law school and eventually represent an athletic department or perhaps individual players. Learning about all the recruitment guidelines proved most surprising to Farmer—particularly the fact that coaches can't speak directly to a student until he or she is a high school senior. She also gained more respect for athletes and the department itself, which she didn't previously realize was financially self-sufficient.
Says Farmer, a political science and French major, "I thought a lot of athletes, especially football players, received generous scholarships for coming to school here. But each team is limited on how many scholarships it can give and how much money is allotted. There are very few full rides."
As well as enjoying tours of athletic facilities like Kinnick Stadium, Farmer was impressed with the department's well-oiled organization and that it provides access to education for some kids who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity.
Abbott agrees, saying: "Our goal is for student-athletes to graduate from the UI with a world-class education while participating in a high-caliber competitive experience." He cites last year's 74 percent graduation rate among student-athletes, an all-time record, as compared to 70 percent of the general student population. Historically, the department's graduation rate runs higher than the rest of the university, and half of the 650 athletes maintain 3.0 GPAs.
So far, Abbott considers the course a fun adventure for all involved. In addition to discussions, students must attend two athletic events other than football or basketball and submit a paper that describes the experience in detail. A final paper requires them to study a current event related to college athletics, carefully outline the issue, explain its relevance, and predict possible outcomes. Previous paper topics have included an analysis of the BCS bowl system versus a playoff; the Ohio State NCAA football investigation; conference realignment; and whether student-athletes should be paid.
Barta suspects a few of this semester's papers will focus on the Penn State child sex abuse scandal—an excruciating debacle that sent assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to jail and tarnished the legacy of former head coach Joe Paterno. Earlier this summer, the NCAA fined the school $60 million, banned the program from bowl games for four years, eliminated scholarships, and vacated wins from 1998 to 2011 for "a culture that put football above human decency."
Penn State is an unprecedented and horrifying example of a program's moral failings, Barta says. The scandal has given everyone in college athletics considerable pause, he adds, but an emphasis on integrity and character has always been part of the Iowa fabric.
"Our mission is to win, graduate, and do it the right way," he says. "No individual is greater than the institution, and we recruit and hire people who share our values."
The department's primary slogan is "Today's Hawkeyes, Tomorrow's Leaders." "At the end of the day, it's not just about winning or losing," says Barta. "It's about sending successful leaders into the world."
While she's looking for new players, Jensen says five-star rankings don't mean much. A young woman has to jump and shoot extraordinarily well, but she won't get an offer without good academics or character. And although what these athletes do on the court and field is significant, Iowa coaches care most about what they'll do with the rest of their lives.
When they leave, these student-athletes carry the Tigerhawk wherever they go. It's the symbol that reflects so much about their college experience and the one that Iowa fans rally around for fun, food, and fellowship.
"It feels good when we win; it hurts when we lose," says Barta, always proud of the esprit de corps that athletics brings when viewed with appropriate balance. "As long as we keep it in healthy perspective, sport serves a great role in our society." "