Rick Heller has turned the University of Iowa baseball program into a perennial Big Ten Conference and NCAA contender in his first seven seasons as the Hawkeyes’ head coach.
Heller has injected new life into the Iowa program, leading the Hawkeyes to the 214 victories — an average of 30.5 wins per season — advancing to two NCAA Regionals, and claiming the first Big Ten Tournament title in program history. The 2017 title was Iowa’s first since winning the regular season crown in 1990.
The Eldon, Iowa, native became the 20th head coach in program history in 2013 — his fourth stop as a collegiate head coach. He has enjoyed stints at Iowa (2014-present), Indiana State (2009-13), Northern Iowa (1999-2009), and Upper Iowa (1987-99), leading all four schools to NCAA postseason play. He is one of nine coaches all-time and one of five active coaches to lead three different Division I programs to NCAA Regional play.
In 34 seasons as a head coach, Heller owns a career record of 904-703-4. He is one of two Iowa head coaches to lead the program to the NCAA Tournament.
Under Heller’s watch, Iowa advanced to the postseason in six consecutive years for the first time in program history, he has coached seven All-Americans and at least one first-team All-Big Ten selection in five seasons. Iowa has had 21 Major League Baseball Draft picks in six seasons — the most in a six-year stretch all-time.
Heller has also given the Hawkeyes an international flavor, taking the team to the Dominican Republic in 2016 and Taipei, Taiwan, as the United States representative at the 2017 World University Games. Heller led USA to a silver medal, as the team became the first American squad to medal in Universiade history.
USA team went 5-2 during the two-week stretch, before falling to Japan in the gold medal game. The Americans posted victories over Mexico, Russia, Korea, and two games against the Czech Republic. Junior Cole McDonald tossed a nine-inning no-hitter in game one against the Czechs — the first by a Hawkeye since 1965.
During Heller’s second season, Heller guided Iowa to an at-large berth into NCAA Regional play in 2015 — a first for the program since 1990 — and the team posted the school’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1972. The Hawkeyes were the runners-up at the 2016 Big Ten Tournament before claiming the program’s first tournament title in 2017 to lock up the school’s second NCAA Regional appearance in three seasons.
Iowa made just three NCAA Tournament appearances in its history prior to Heller’s arrival.
Heller led the Hawkeyes to 10 victories in the first month of the 2020 season against a challenging nonconference schedule. Iowa posted three wins against ranked foes, downing No. 18 Arizona, No. 20 North Carolina, and No. 14 Duke. The Hawkeyes went 2-1 at the CambriaCollegeClassic, a tournament in Minneapolis pitting the Big Ten Conference against the ACC.
Heller notched his 900th career win in the 2020 home opener — a 15-2 victory over Grand View. Nine days later (on March 12), the season was cancelled because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
After losing several key pieces to the MLB Draft following the 2018 season, 2019 was expected to be a transition year with a re-worked roster. Instead, the Hawkeyes posted their sixth straight 30-win season and qualified for a record sixth straight Big Ten Tournament.
Iowa won six straight series during the season, which included series wins over No. 23 Illinois, No. 30 Nebraska, and No. 18 UC Irvine. The team went 10-3 against top-30 opponents in 2019, including taking two of three games at No. 19 Oklahoma State.
Redshirt junior Grant Leonard set a program saves record, converting all 14 of his chances to garner second-team All-Big Ten honors. Leonard was named to the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Midseason List and he finished seventh nationally in saves.
After leading the Hawkeyes to a Big Ten Tournament win over top-seeded Indiana, Friday night starter Cole McDonald was selected in the 14th round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Houston Astros. It marked the 13th straight year a Hawkeye was selected in the draft.
Twenty-three players have been drafted or signed a professional contract in Heller’s six seasons in Iowa City. Iowa had 20 players drafted from 2004-13.
Heller guided Iowa to its fifth straight 30-win season, as the team finished 33-20 overall. Iowa posted three series wins against ranked opponents and finished with eight victories against top 25 teams. The Hawkeyes snapped seventh-ranked Michigan’s 20-game winning streak, giving the program its first win over a top 10 opponent since 2008.
With a re-worked starting rotation, Iowa uncovered a gem in staff ace Nick Allgeyer in 2018. The southpaw tallied quality starts in 13 outings as a junior, finishing with five wins and 95 strikeouts, the second-most in a single-season all-time. Iowa’s pitching staff shattered the single-season strikeout record, fanning 499 in just 53 contests.
The Hawkeyes had four All-Big Ten selections, including three first-team selections in Allgeyer, Tyler Cropley, and Robert Neustrom. It was the most first-team selections for the program since 1990. Cropley also earned second-team All-America honors by Collegiate Baseball, a second-team ABCA all-district nod, and was a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award, an honor presented to the top collegiate catcher.
Iowa was well represented in the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft with a record-tying five selections. Neustrom was selected in the fifth round by the Baltimore Orioles, becoming the Hawkeyes’ highest position player selection since 1992. Cropley was taken in the eighth round (Washington), Allgeyer was a 12th-round pick by Toronto, Zach Daniels was selected in Round 19 by Atlanta, and Brady Schanuel in the 27th Round by Milwaukee.
The 2017 season was expected to be rebuilding year in Iowa City after the program lost 25 players to graduation and/or the Major League Baseball Draft in 2015 and 2016. Instead, the Hawkeyes won 39 games — the fifth-most in program history — claimed the first Big Ten Tournament title in program history, and earned an automatic bid into NCAA Regional play.
The groundwork for the 2017 success was laid over Thanksgiving Break when the Hawkeyes spent a week in the Dominican Republic for a foreign trip. The team came together off the field, which led to a team unity and grit that would prove to be special during the regular season.
Iowa finished 15-9 in Big Ten Conference play to tie for fourth in the regular season standings. The 15 wins were the second most since 2008 and it was the program’s fourth top-four finish since 2000. The Hawkeyes were the No. 5 seed at the Big Ten Tournament, where they knocked off three higher seeds to advance to the title game — a 13-4 rout of Northwestern.
Iowa was the talk of the state in late May, as “Hellerball” dominated the headlines across the state. Iowa carried its momentum to the NCAA Houston Regional, where it knocked off top-seeded and 15th-ranked Houston in its opener. The season ended with 39 wins with losses to Texas A&M and Houston by a combined three runs.
The Hawkeyes saw five players garner All-Big Ten recognition, including unanimous first-team All-Big Ten first baseman and unanimous Big Ten Player of the Year honoree Jake Adams. Adams’ lone season in Iowa City was one for the ages, as the South Dakota native hit an NCAA leading, Iowa school and Big Ten record 29 home runs.
Iowa’s offense served as the catalyst, as the team blasted 71 home runs — the most by the program since 1999. The Hawkeyes ranked among the top three in the Big Ten in nine difference offensive categories, including leading the league in hits, RBIs, and slugging percentage, while ranking second in runs, doubles, home runs, and total bases. Individually, Iowa players led the Big Ten in runs, slugging percentage, hits, RBIs, home runs, and total bases.
The Hawkeyes overcame injury adversity on the mound to break the school strikeout record and the defense was among the nation’s best. Iowa finished in the top-25 in the NCAA in team fielding percentage and was tied for second nationally in doubles plays (67) — an Iowa school record.
Adams earned All-America distinction from seven different outlets and he was a semifinalist for USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award, an honor presented to the top amateur in the United States. Iowa’s Ben Norman and Kyle Shimp also earned freshmen All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball.
The Hawkeyes had four players drafted in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Adams and senior Mason McCoy were selected within seven picks of one another in the sixth round. They were the program’s highest draft picks since 1999 and the highest by a position player since 1992. Nick Gallagher and Ryan Erickson also had their names called in the 16th and 30th rounds, giving Heller 15 MLB Draft picks in four seasons.
Heller’s team faced the toughest Big Ten Conference schedule, facing six of the eight Big Ten Tournament qualifiers. The Hawkeyes closed out the regular season with back-to-back series wins over Michigan State and Penn State to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament for a third straight season. The Hawkeyes carried that momentum into Omaha, where they won their first three games to advance to the Big Ten title game, and the Iowa faithful followed.
Hawkeye fans flocked to TD Ameritrade Park, as a pro-Iowa crowd 10,350 filled the stands to see the program’s first championship game appearance since 2010. Iowa fell just short of its second straight NCAA Regional bid, as Ohio State plated a ninth-inning run to hand the Hawkeyes an 8-7 defeat. Iowa ended the year with a 30-26 record, reaching the 30-win plateau for a third straight season — a first for the program since 1983-85.
Two Iowa players — outfielder Joel Booker and shortstop Nick Roscetti — earned first-team All-Big Ten honors at season’s end. They are the first Hawkeye duo since 2007 to receive first-team recognition in the same season.
Booker led a resurgent Iowa offense that ranked in the top six of the Big Ten in virtually every offensive category as he emerged as a semifinalist for the Gregg Olson Breakout Player of the Year Award after tying for the Big Ten Conference lead in hits (87) and ranking in the top 12 in the league in eight offensive categories. Roscetti, meanwhile, was a semifinalist for the Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year Award.
Booker, Roscetti, and Tyler Peyton were selected in the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft come season’s end. Booker was taken in the 22nd round by the Chicago White Sox, Roscetti in the 26th round by the Milwaukee Brewers, and Peyton in the 29th round by the Chicago Cubs.
Iowa’s pitching staff posted the second-best ERA (3.54) in program history and ranked in the top four in the Big Ten for a second straight season. Sophomore Nick Gallagher led the team with an 8-2 record and a 2.57 ERA to rank second in the league in wins and seventh in ERA. The Hawkeye defense was again its strong suit, finishing the season ranked in the top 15 nationally.
Iowa had a breakthrough season in Heller’s second season in Iowa City, going 41-18 with the 41 victories being the second-most all-time and just the fourth 40-win season in program history. Iowa earned the school’s first NCAA Regional berth since 1990, where it went 2-2 at the Springfield Regional for the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1972.
The Hawkeyes rolled to a 15-5 start and won its first 11 series of the season, including a school-record eight consecutive Big Ten series wins dating back to the 2014 season. Iowa swept No. 19 Indiana to open Big Ten play to catapult the Hawkeyes into the national rankings for the first time in 25 years. Iowa climbed to as high as No. 13 before finishing the year 20th by Collegiate Baseball, 25th by Baseball America, and 28th by the NCBWA — the program’s first appearance in the final rankings in school history.
Heller guided Iowa to a Big Ten runner-up (three games ahead of the third place finisher) finish in a year where the league was at its all-time best with a record five NCAA Regional participants. Iowa went 19-5 in conference play for a .792 winning percentage — the best winning percentage by a second place team since the Big Ten returned to single division play in 1988.
In NCAA Regional play, Heller led the Hawkeyes to a pair of wins over Oregon in Springfield, Missouri, and lost two games to No. 8 national seed Missouri State by a combined three runs. Senior reliever Nick Hibbing was tabbed as the Springfield Regional’s Most Outstanding Player and was named to the all-tournament team.
Under Heller’s watch, Iowa had a pair of players earn three All-America distinctions, had a school-record six All-Big Ten selections, and a semifinalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award. Tyler Peyton earned third-team All-America honors as a utility from D1Baseball.com and the NCBWA, while starting pitcher Blake Hickman was a Louisville Slugger third-team All-American.
The Hawkeyes won with Hellerball — a term coined to highlight the team’s gritty style of play. Iowa’s pitching and defense both finished in the top 16 nationally (fielding percentage, 11th; ERA, 16th) in 2015 and the team had a never-say die attitude, posting six walk-off wins and going 18-9 in games decided by two runs or less.
The pitching staff shattered the school ERA record, posting a 2.95 ERA in 59 games and had a school-record 19 saves. It was a remarkable turnaround for the Hawkeye hurlers — a unit that had a 4.34 ERA with virtually the same cast in 2014.
At season’s end, five players had their name called in the 2015 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, tying a program record. Hickman was selected in the seventh round by the Chicago White Sox, which, at the time was the highest Hawkeye draftee since 1999.
In his first season at Iowa, Heller guided the Hawkeyes to a 9-1 start — the program’s best start since 1940 — a Big Ten Tournament berth and conference tournament win. Iowa finished the year with a 30-23 record for just the third 30-win season since 1993. The 30 victories are the most by a first-year coach in Iowa history.
Heller won his 700th career game in a 13-1 rout of Georgetown on March 15 at the Snowbird Classic in Florida. The Hawkeyes also took 2-of-3 games from Nebraska to open the Big Ten regular season — Iowa’s first conference-opening series win since 1998 and took 2-of-3 games against Minnesota for the first time since 2005.
Under Heller’s direction, Iowa became one of the most potent offensive teams in the Big Ten in 2014. The Hawkeyes led the conference in four offensive categories (batting average, hits, runs and on-base percentage) and ranked second in four more (slugging percentage, RBIs, home runs and total bases). Iowa finished with 23 home runs — a season after the team had two long balls in 49 contests.
Heller coached five student-athletes to All-Big Ten recognition, the most for the program since 2007. Junior shortstop Jake Yacinich garnered first-team All-Big Ten honors after ranking second in the league in batting average and steals. He was the first Iowa first-teamer since 2009.
Heller came to Iowa after a strong four-year run at Indiana State. He led the Sycamores to their first outright Missouri Valley Conference championship in school history and back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 during the record-setting 2012 season.
Indiana State finished 41-19, including a 14-7 record in conference play to claim the regular season crown and earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. The 41 wins were the most for the program since 1991.
Heller was named the 2012 Dan Callahan MVC Coach of the Year, while junior Jeremy Lucas earned the Joe Carter MVC Player of the Year award — the first student-athlete in ISU history to earn the league’s MVP — and junior Dakota Bacus was selected as the MVC Newcomer of the Year. Eight members of the team were named All-MVC. Following the season, two Sycamores were drafted in the top-12 rounds and a total of three signed contracts to begin their professional careers.
Heller led Indiana State to its fifth-consecutive winning season in 2013, and to a semifinal appearance in the MVC Tournament. The Sycamores, who finished 26-25 overall, had four players earn All-MVC honors, including Sean Manaea, the 34th overall selection in the 2013 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals. The draft selection was the second-highest in ISU baseball program history. Manaea became the 16th Sycamore to either be drafted or sign a professional free agent contract since Heller became head coach in 2009.
Heller led Indiana State to a 35-19 record in his first season in Terre Haute, Ind. — the most wins for any first-year coach in ISU baseball history — and a third place MVC finish. The Sycamores were one of two MVC teams to receive votes in the national polls during the season.
During his tenure at Northern Iowa, Heller’s teams won 270 games, including the 2001 Missouri Valley Conference championship and NCAA Regional berth. While building the Panthers into an annual contender, Heller coached three MVC Most Valuable Players, one MVC Pitcher of the Year and helped put 22 players in professional baseball.
While at UNI, Heller’s teams broke a total of 57 team or individual records, including setting team records for hits, runs batted in, doubles and extra base hits during the 2001 season. Heller led the Panthers to four MVC tournaments, winning the championship in 2001. All-American Ryan Brunner claimed the league MVP award and All-American Nic Ungs was named Pitcher of the Year.
The Panthers recorded back-to-back 30-plus win seasons in 2001 and 2002 for the first time in school history and set the school single-season record with 35 wins in 2001. Heller also coached two Academic All-Americans in Brunner and Travis Welsch.
Before taking over the Northern Iowa program prior to the 2000 season, Heller spent 12 years as a head coach at Upper Iowa University, a Division III institution. While at Upper Iowa, Heller recorded a 291-194-3 overall record and was named the Iowa Conference Coach of the Year four times.
Heller won his first conference championship in 1993 — the first for Upper Iowa in 20 years — while advancing to the NCAA Division III Regionals. His team won the Iowa Conference title and advanced to NCAA Regionals again in 1995, finishing 19th in the national rankings as Heller won his third Coach of the Year honor.
He repeated Coach of the Year honors again in 1996 when the Peacocks won the Iowa Conference and Central Regional to advance to the NCAA Division III College World Series. His team finished the year ranked sixth nationally and he was named NCAA Division III Central Region Coach of the Year.
In 1997, his team was ranked seventh nationally in the pre-season poll and won the Iowa Conference Tournament. In 1998, his team was ranked as high as 10th nationally while finishing with a 38-8 record to set a school record for winning percentage (.826). His final UIU team finished 30-15-1 and finished third in the Iowa Conference while setting five school records.
As a player at Upper Iowa from 1982-86, he was a four-year starter at shortstop and he also lettered in football and basketball. He is a member of the Upper Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame.
Heller is a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association and serves on the ABCA All-American Committee. He is also a member of the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Associations. In 2008, he was inducted into the IHSBCA Hall of Fame, and in 2017, he received the Harold “Pinky” Primrose Award.
Heller has three daughters — Tara, Alyssa, and Vivienne. His wife’s name is Rachelle.