It took almost two months to hire a new baseball coach at the University of Iowa, but the person in charge of the hiring said the result was well worth the wait.
Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta formally introduced Rick Heller as the new Iowa baseball coach at a news conference Monday afternoon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The 49-year-old Heller was hired to replace Jack Dahm, whose contract wasn’t renewed after this season, which was Dahm’s 10th at Iowa.
“We’re very excited,” Barta said. “I’m never going to share with you in any sport who’s on my shortlist (of candidates). I will tell you in hindsight or in retrospect Rick was on my short list. And here’s why: He’s taken three programs and taken them from the bottom of their conference to the championship.”
Barta was referring to Heller’s success at Indiana State, where he spent the previous four seasons as coach. Heller also coached at Northern Iowa for 10 seasons until the school dropped its baseball program following the 2009 campaign. And he coached at his alma mater, Upper Iowa University, for 12 seasons, earning Iowa Conference Coach of the Year honors four times.
Barta compared Heller’s steady climb up the coaching ranks to what Fran McCaffery had accomplished before being hired as the Iowa men’s basketball coach in 2010. McCaffery, who attended Monday’s news conference with his oldest son, Connor, also had rebuilt three programs before being hired at Iowa, which he now has on the cusp of making the NCAA Tournament.
“Remember when we talked about Fran and him joining our team,” Barta said. “And we talked about that process that a coach has in building programs.
“Well, that’s something that I saw in Rick. I saw that and the fact that he loves baseball, he loves the Hawkeyes and he loves baseball in the state of Iowa. And when you pull all that together, it just felt right.”
Heller began the news conference by thanking all the people who helped him reach this milestone moment. He introduced his wife, Rachelle, his youngest daughter, Vivienne, and an uncle.
Heller then talked about a phone call that he had with Barta last week that helped to seal the deal.
“This is what Gary said to me, ‘We’ll do this together. I want a partner,’” Heller said. “We can do this. We can do it together. The administration is going to be beside you. And that’s all I wanted to hear because 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, there is something wrong. And with the partnership that we’re going to have with Gary, myself and the administration, we’ll go to work right now and we’ll get this done. The future starts today, and the future is bright.”
Iowa pitcher Sasha Kuebel attended Monday’s news conference and looks forward to working under his new coach, who used to have a knack for defeating the Hawkeyes while at Northern Iowa.
“That’s good that he’s on our side now,” Kuebel said. “He’s going to be a huge asset. We’re all going to learn. And we’re all going to improve. And we’re definitely going to have a turnaround season next year.”
Heller grew up in tiny Eldon and had applied for the Iowa job twice before only to be passed over. He said he’s dreamed about turning Iowa into a championship-caliber team and now that dream has become a reality.
“It’s a big day for my family and a big day for myself,” Heller said. “It’s great to be a Hawkeye. And it’s great to be home. I can’t tell you how excited I am to get started.”
Barta said the search took longer than some fans might have expected because he and the search committee, which included Iowa associate athletic director Fred Mims, Iowa sports information director Steve Roe and several faculty members, conducted it in two phases. The first phase involved UI officials discussing among themselves and with baseball people throughout the state, what needed to be done internally to make Iowa baseball more appealing to a candidate.
“There were several reasons why this search took longer,” Barta said. “I can tell you the most important is we sat down and we looked at where we are as a baseball program. And we started to talk to baseball people in the state. And Fred and I talked about what is it that we need to go forward. Before we go out and sell this externally to find our next leader? What do we need to do in salaries and budgets? What do we need to do in facilities? What do we need to do to make sure the Hawkeyes can compete for a Big Ten championship?
Contrary to rumors and speculation, Barta said he only officially offered the job to Heller. There were reports that Iowa had offered the job to Saint Louis coach Darin Hendrickson and that he was on the verge of accepting it before ultimately withdrawing his name.
“I talked to probably three or four people and I shared some of the same information with them about what the salary would be, what the facility commitment would be,” Barta said. “And then I would go in about a two- or three-day period where I was talking in terms of if you were my coach this is what it would be like until the official came to one person and he’s sitting next to me.”
Barta said it was hard to narrow the list down after receiving at least 83 applications for the job. The list then was trimmed to 10 and then to a group of finalists, although, Barta didn’t give a specific number.
Barta also declined to discuss the specifics of Heller’s new contract because it’s not finalized, other than to say Heller’s salary will rank in the top half of the Big Ten.
Mims also said four Major League Baseball general managers called to offer their input.
Barta said the goal is to have a new indoor facility completed by the 2015 season. One of Dahm’s biggest complaints during his time as coach was the lack of an indoor hitting facility to offset the adverse weather in Iowa. The athletic department also is considering putting FieldTurf on Duane Banks Field and possibly building a new stadium on the western campus.
“I knew that there were some things that I needed to fix if we were going to be successful,” Barta said. “It’s not just coaching. Coach Dahm and I had great conversations about it’s not just the coach. It has to be the university as well.
“So I wanted to make sure that I had all my ducks in a row before I went out and sold this partnership and went out and sold a coach on why I know we can win at Iowa.”
Heller plans to use the same formula for success at Iowa that has carried him throughout his coaching career.
“It’s not magic,” he said. “Everybody that’s coached knows that it’s a lot of hard work and it’s having a good plan. And it all starts with recruiting. And we have to do a great job in our state. We have to take advantage of the good high school players that are here and keep them from leaving and close down the borders.
“And in recruiting, it’s not always the most talented player. It’s finding the right player. And I’ve had a knack for finding the right player for a long time.”
Heller’s knack for winning, coupled with his devotion to the University of Iowa and to his home state, ultimately made him the perfect hire, Barta said.
“Anybody that I hire, whether it’s a coach or an administrator, they have to be competent,” Barta said. “They have to show that they’ve proven they’ve done it and they can do it. Professionally, it’s their passion and they love it. And then on top of it, if you find somebody who has that and Iowa is the place they most want to be, that’s the home run.”