IOWA CITY, Ia. — As Iowa athletic director Gary Barta peppered his baseball head-coaching candidate with questions during an interview, Rick Heller had one important inquiry of his own.
Is the university committed to baseball?
Barta’s commitment to the program’s future set the groundwork for Heller to come aboard, and now the surprising Hawkeyes are off to one of the best starts in school history.
“I think anybody that was interested in the job wanted to know what the commitment level was going to be from the administration,” Heller said. “When Gary Barta told me that he was all in, and he wanted to see baseball succeed, and he was going to support it — that was all I needed to hear.”
The Hawkeyes have finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten Conference standings in five of the last six seasons, including back-to-back, last-place finishes in 2008 and 2009.
As interest in the program declined and the team suffered three straight losing seasons, Barta elected to not bring back coach Jack Dahm, who had spent 10 seasons at the helm.
When Barta searched for a replacement, fans voiced their support for Heller on social media. The Eldon native had a resume full of success with stops at Upper Iowa, Northern Iowa and Indiana State.
At all three schools, Heller guided his teams to NCAA postseason play and historic success.
HELLER’S RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
After Northern Iowa dropped its program following the 2009 season, Heller ventured to Indiana State, where he guided the Sycamores to their first outright Missouri Valley Conference title in 2012 and back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995.
Heller said the secret to his success is simple.
“At the programs I’ve been at, if you didn’t develop players, you were going to get your brains beat out,” Heller said. “Because let’s face it, they weren’t the recruiting hotbeds of the country. And you had to get good athletes in.”
Heller interviewed for the Iowa job in 2003, but lost out to Dahm. In the past decade, Heller watched from afar as Iowa’s record and facilities fell into the bottom half of the Big Ten.
Heller had reservations about interviewing again. One of his main concerns was the Hawkeyes’ home, Duane Banks Field, which opened in 1974 and struggled to keep up with the bells and whistles of other stadiums in the Big Ten.
“Anyone who was serious about this job wanted to know that the facility was going to have an upgrade,” Heller said. “This is a nice field. It’s always been a good field in the Big Ten, but for years it was status quo.”
The stadium was part of the discussions that Heller had with Barta.
“I told him, ‘I’m looking for a partnership,’ ” Barta said. “You need to accept this job with what we have today and then let’s create the vision. We talked about the vision in the interview.”
Heller was sold and brought on board in July.
A CLEAN SLATE
The hire brought excitement and a clean slate for the team.
“He’s a proven winner and he’s an Iowa guy, too,” Iowa junior infielder Jake Yacinich said. “He has a lot of passion for the game, and we knew that he was going to get the best out of us when he came here.”
Heller wasted no time getting to work, focusing more on weight gains and losses. He also instituted new hitting and pitching drills and added more work in the weight room.
He even designed new uniforms.
“(Heller) brought a table of things that helped us out a lot,” junior outfielder Eric Toole said.
The Hawkeyes tore through the opening part of their schedule, winning nine of their first 10 — including a seven-game winning streak that capped off the best start in program history since 1940.
Heller’s bunch took two of three at home against Nebraska last month to win their first Big Ten-opening series since 1998.
Entering a three-game series against Indiana, which starts today in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes (16-9 overall, 3-3 Big Ten) were leading the league with 11 home runs (including four from Taylor Zeutenhorst) — after totaling two all of last year.
The Hawkeyes also ranked among the conference leaders in batting (.292) and team fielding.
Through his first seven appearances, right-handed pitcher Calvin Matthews owned a 3-1 mark with a 1.91 earned run average.
Senior catcher and first baseman Trevor Kenyon credited Heller with the upgrades.
“We never really had somebody behind us that could push us to be better,” Kenyon said.
The team also has a newfound sense of confidence.
“Sometimes, we’d come out here and we’d put up runs and we wouldn’t believe in ourselves and we’d give up the game,” Toole said. “But this year, we get runs, we believe in ourselves and we end up putting teams away.”
Said Yacinich: “The atmosphere is different. Guys feel free.”
The Hawkeyes’ work is just beginning.
Heller hopes his team can make a run at the Big Ten championship. He also has his sights set on a trip to Omaha for the College World Series down the road.
Iowa has made only one appearance in the CWS — in 1972, Banks’ second full year at Iowa.
“I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t feel like I was a step closer to Omaha than I was at Indiana State,” Heller said. “It can be done.”
This season’s roster features just three seniors.
“The most important thing for me was establishing how things were going to be down the road and that these guys start a tradition here,” Heller said. “And they’ve done a really nice job.”
Outside the box score, things are also on the upswing, with new turf being added to the Banks Field infield. There’s also talk of new turf in the outfield, a new scoreboard and other additions.
“Eventually yes, the goal would be to build a new stadium,” Barta said. “We don’t know if that new stadium will be right where Duane Banks Field currently is, or if we would look at another location. But that’s down the road a little ways.”
The first step, though, was hiring Heller.
“Everybody has made a commitment to try to win in baseball and I just felt like the timing was right,” Heller said. “If we could win here and get some things rolling, we have a chance to take this program to a level that it hasn’t been in a long, long time.”