A family business called college sports


A wise friend once remarked to me, “What good is nepotism if you can’t keep it in the family?”

I’m not sure what prompted his comment. We know that family-owned businesses are different. But we like to believe that in corporate America or government everyone is entitled to a fair shot at a job.

Generally, that is the case. But keeping nepotism in the family seems to be the approach in the University of Iowa football program under head coach Kirk Ferentz — in spite of a pretty clear anti-nepotism policy at the University of Iowa and in state law.

Ferentz has guided the Hawkeyes since 1999. He’s also provided a job for his son, Brian, the Hawkeyes’ offensive line coach since 2012. And last week, the team announced that the new director of recruiting will be Tyler Barnes, who is married to Kirk Ferentz’s daughter, Joanne.

Yes, this is the same Tyler Barnes who was hired for a one-year temporary job as an administrative assistant on the football staff in 2012 while Barnes was dating Joanne Ferentz. This is the same temporary job that Kirk Ferentz asked to extend for a second year after Barnes and Joanne Ferentz became engaged.

There was, of course, that small matter of Ferentz neglecting to disclose any of this to his boss, U of I Athletics Director Gary Barta. As you might imagine, there was quite the buzz when Barta and U of I administrators learned from a reporter about the coming marriage of Ferentz’s daughter and Ferentz’s employee.

Several months later, Barnes left for Vanderbilt University, where he worked as a football recruiting coordinator and later as director of player personnel in the football program.

The University of Iowa’s hiring policies state: “The University of Iowa and its employees are committed to the principle of objective, fair and equitable treatment of all employees. Accordingly, it is crucial that university activities be conducted in an atmosphere that is free of actual or apparent conflicts of interest that compromise this principle. ... The decision to manage a conflict of interest in employment rather than avoid it must be based on a sound institutional reason.”

Iowa’s anti-nepotism law is more blunt, although lawmakers are more worried about employees in the county courthouse than in a university’s football offices. State law prohibits any person elected or appointed to a public position from hiring an immediate family member unless the employee is paid less than $600 annually, is a public school teacher or is a clerk in the Legislature.

The hiring of Brian Ferentz and Tyler Barnes forced the U of I Athletics Department to go through some supervisory contortions to avoid having the two report directly to people who owe their jobs to Kirk Ferentz. Brian Ferentz reports to Gary Barta. Tyler Barnes will report to Barta’s deputy, Gene Taylor.

I know what you are thinking. Is Barta really going to chew out Brian Ferentz after his offensive line has a couple of lousy games? Or is Gene Taylor really going to come down on Tyler Barnes if there are snafus with arrangements for recruiting trips?

There is more to this than just some anti-Ferentz grousing.

The University of Iowa agreed earlier this year to pay $200,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by Mike Scott, now a coach at Missouri State University, who was passed over for an assistant track coach job in Iowa City in 2012. He alleged the university rewrote the job description several times to tilt the hiring process in favor of female applicants.

Scott said he sued the university to ensure that its hiring decisions for highly competitive jobs in college athletics are based on merit, not on gender. Or family connections?

With the size of the paychecks in big-time college sports, it’s easy to see why there is fertile ground for lawsuits.

Brian Ferentz’s base pay last season was $317,500. Michael Gartner’s “Civic Skinny” column in Des Moines said that doesn’t include annual bonuses equal to two or three months’ salary. His pay raises have been running between 8% and 14% annually. Tyler Barnes’ starting pay will be $85,000.

To be fair, Kirk Ferentz isn’t the only coach to view his staff as an extension of his family.

Former U of I men’s basketball coach Steve Alford put his father, Sam, on the payroll. Six years ago, Iowa State University women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly hired his son, Billy, first as director of player development and then as an assistant coach.

Because this involves college sports, too few people are bothered by how coaches are hired or paid. It’s part of our culture of acceptance with athletics. We are more interested in victories.

Yes, the job security of coaches can lead to ulcers. And yes, when a coach is fired, many on the staff get their walking papers, too.

But if you are hired to run the University of Iowa Foundation or to direct the U of I Department of History, administrators and lawmakers would not sit still if you tried to put two or three of your relatives on your staff — even if you sincerely believed your fund-raising efforts, or your department’s teaching, would be better with relatives there.

With collegiate athletics, however, it can be a family business, even though it isn’t.