July 15, 2013
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — As head baseball coach, Rick Heller took Upper Iowa and Northern Iowa from the bottom to the top. He inherited a good Indiana State team and turned it into a 41-game winner.
Now he is charged with elevating the University of Iowa baseball program that most recently finished eighth in the 11-team Big Ten Conference into a consistent winner. Heller was introduced Monday as the 20th head baseball coach in UI history during a news conference in the Feller Club Room inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I’ve always said that if I got to a place where we had a loaded gun, my philosophies would work even better; we proved that a little bit at Indiana State, and I think it will be even more significant here,” Heller said.
Heller, a native of Eldon, Iowa, has been head coach 26 seasons (692 victories), leading Upper Iowa, Northern Iowa, and Indiana State into NCAA postseason play. In 2012, Indiana State advanced to the NCAA Tournament, a feat that many baseball observers feel could happen soon at Iowa.
Fred Mims, associate athletics director at the UI who led the search committee, said there were more than 80 applicants for the job and that he heard from four Major League Baseball general managers.
“All of them said the same thing: Iowa is a place ready to explode,” Mims said. “We have great talent in the state, we just need to get it rolling.”
If the UI — the lone Division I baseball program in the state — is ready to explode, it is Heller who will light the fuse.
“All I wanted to hear is that the (UI) administration is going to be beside me. If that happens, there is no question we can get this thing going. We are the University of Iowa, one of the best universities in America. If we can’t get it done in baseball, then there is something wrong.”
“All I wanted to hear is that the (UI) administration is going to be beside me,” Heller said. “If that happens, there is no question we can get this thing going. We are the University of Iowa, one of the best universities in America. If we can’t get it done in baseball, then there is something wrong.”
The Hawkeyes finished 22-27 last season, 10-14 in the Big Ten Conference. Since going 30-28 and reaching the championship of the Big Ten Tournament in 2010, Iowa has turned in three consecutive losing seasons and a .430 winning percentage.
“It’s not magic, it’s a lot of hard work and having a good plan, and it all starts with recruiting,” Heller said. “We have to do a great job in our state and take advantage of the good high school players that are here and keep them from leaving — close down the boarders and get the kids that we need.”
Heller prides himself on player development and said there is no greater compliment than when he hears a coach or scout say, “If you go to school with Rick, you’re going to get better.”
This isn’t the first time Heller has shown interest in the Iowa head coaching vacancy. He also interviewed in 2003 when Jack Dahm was hired.
“Not getting it the first time has made me a better coach,” Heller said. “I am a lot more prepared to succeed now. The climate to be successful now is better than it was then. In the long run, it is probably a blessing.”
The Hawkeyes return 10 position players who started at least 25 games in 2014, as well as seven pitchers who combined for 26 starts and 11 victories. Junior Eric Toole batted .337 in 45 games with seven extra-base hits and 22 stolen bases; juniors Taylor Kaufman and Nick Hibbing had three wins, while sophomore Sasha Kuebel made 11 starts.
“Our players will be well-taught, well-schooled, and we’ll have a solid plan. One part of the game that is still there is it has to be fun,” Heller said, pointing to his heart. “We will have a lot of fun.”
UI athletics director Gary Barta said Heller was on his short list of candidates all along.
“I saw in the fact he loves baseball, he loves the Hawkeyes, and he loves baseball in the state of Iowa,” Barta said. “When you pull all that together, it felt right.”