State of the Program: Field Hockey

By Patrick Vint on April 2, 2018 at 9:00 am
Field hockey time.
@iowafieldhockey
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The 2017-18 academic year is coming to an end, so over the next couple of months, Go Iowa Awesome will look at the performance of every Hawkeye sports program. We'll do it on athletic director Gary Barta's favorite terms, too: Did Iowa actually win games, graduate its players, and "do it right"?

Iowa Field Hockey

2017-18 record: 7-11
Big Ten record: 3-5 (T-5th)
Postseason: Lost in first round of Big Ten Tournament, no NCAA postseason

Five-year record: 52-43 (16-25)
Last Big Ten regular season title: 2004
Last Big Ten tournament title: 2008

2017 APR score: 976

Head coach: Lisa Cellucci (4 seasons)
Record at Iowa: 39-35 (14-21)
Contract: Extended in August 2017 through 2022

Prior to its discontinuation as a Big Ten sponsored sport after the 1988 season, Iowa and Northwestern reigned supreme over the league's field hockey landscape.  In the eight years after the initial inception of the sport, Iowa claimed four outright conference titles, Northwestern earned three, while both the Hawkeyes and Wildcats shared the 1983 championship.  During that span, Iowa won both Big Ten and NCAA Championship titles in 1986....

In NCAA Championship success, Iowa leads all Big Ten teams with 17 appearances....

Individually, former Iowa head coach Beth Beglin leads all conference mentors with five Big Ten Coach of the Year awards.

The Big Ten's official capsule on field hockey reads not that far from the capsule on wrestling.  The Hawkeyes utterly dominated the conference in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Iowa won 25 straight Big Ten games from 1990 through 1993.  The Hawkeyes posted an undefeated 10-0 record in 1996, winning the conference by four games in a ten-game season.  Even as recently as 1999, Beglin was serving notice on the conference that the ace was back.

And then Beglin shockingly left, replaced by assistant Tracey Griesbaum.  And it's telling that, if you Google "Beth Beglin," the accompanying picture is of Griesbaum, because the story of the program now is the story of Tracey Griesbaum.

Beglin

Iowa field hockey exists in a world where there is no actual Iowa field hockey.  The sport is not sanctioned by the state's high school athletic union; a local recruiting base is nonexistent.  There are more players on the current roster from the United Kingdom than there are from within 500 miles of Iowa City.  Iowa field hockey recruits the east coast and overseas out of necessity, trading on brand name to play.

That didn't much matter to Beglin, who brought an Olympic pedigree and her own force of personality to the program.  It didn't seem to matter much to Griesbaum, who didn't have the same results but drew from the same places as Beglin.  But Iowa field hockey isn't known for Beglin anymore.  It's not known for Lisa Cellucci, either, as tough as the last few years have had to have been for someone stuck in the middle of an unfolding off-field disaster.  Iowa field hockey is now synonymous with Griesbaum's departure, and Gary Barta, and jury verdicts, and actions which slaughtered thirty years of goodwill built by those before him, goodwill that allowed Iowa field hockey to walk into homes on the east coast and the United Kingdom and pitch the program to players who couldn't find Iowa on a map.

Win?

Not really, at least not at the level that Iowa had grown accustomed to.  The cracks began to appear near the end of Griesbaum's tenure; back-to-back losing seasons in 2009 and 2010, culminating in a 3-14 disaster, were the first two losing campaigns for Iowa field hockey in thirty years.  Griesbaum righted the ship somewhat, but Iowa field hockey hasn't been back to its usual standard in a decade now.  This season's 7-11 record is disappointing, but it's the second losing season in four under Cellucci, and there has to be a sense that the structural problems of Iowa field hockey, so often glossed over by previous coaches, might be catching up with the program.

Graduate?

Iowa's 976 APR is next-to-last in the Big Ten -- only Ohio State is worse -- and is in the bottom quintile nationally, but it's still miles from putting the program in any real jeopardy.  Props to Cellucci for holding the program together as well as she did; losing an iconic coach from a program where every player is a long way from home could destroy lesser programs.

Do it Right?

Do they 'do it right'?  Sure.  I haven't heard of anything untoward about the field hockey program in a decade, aside from that two-year period where the athletic director fired the longtime coach days before the season began, wouldn't tell anyone why he did it, intentionally avoided documenting anything regarding the incident to avoid Freedom of Information Act laws, moved the fired coach's partner to another department of the university (again, without documenting why, to avoid Freedom of Information Act laws), had a jury of Iowans tell him he discriminated against the partner, then paid $6.5 million to the former coach and partner to avoid having to go to trial on the coach's discrimination claims.  And that whole thing doesn't seem to be the fault of field hockey, so sure, they're doing it right.

Summary

Lisa Cellucci has better job security than Kirk Ferentz.  Recent results have been middling, expectations are diminishing, and Iowa is settling into its new status as a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten field hockey team in a league now dominated by Maryland, Penn State and Northwestern (all more likely field hockey powerhouses than Iowa ever was, on geography and history).  But Lisa Cellucci got an extension last year, and can have as many extensions as she wants from Gary Barta for as long as she wants them, because Gary Barta can never again fire a field hockey coach.  It's to her credit that she has stuck around, given her ties to Griesbaum, and Iowa could certainly be in worse hands.

On the field, this looks like inevitability.  Iowa has tradition, but tradition can only carry you so far against structural deficiencies that make competing more difficult.  Yes, Iowa could trade off the cache of Beglin for a generation, and did.  But Iowa traded in equal part off the legacy of Christine Grant, herself well-known in field hockey circles and a voice nonpareil for equality in athletics.  It could have continued to use those connections to the past to cultivate on-field respectability, even if the days of national championship games and Big Ten dominance are probably over.

Instead, four years ago, Iowa set fire to both legacies.  The first effect of that decision was felt in a Des Moines courtroom last summer.  The final effect has not yet been fully realized, but it's coming.

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