Second chance paying off as Heller has surprising Hawkeyes in thick of things
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Rick Heller never complained about the obstacles he faced as the overworked coach at overlooked Northern Iowa.
For 11 seasons, Heller simply did all he could to field a winner at a school with few ingredients for winning. In the end, none of it mattered. Heller cared more about Northern Iowa than Northern Iowa cared about baseball and the program was cut in 2009.
Six years and two jobs later, Heller is finally getting the recognition he never sought but has long deserved.
Heller has turned Iowa into one of the nation's most surprising teams in just his second season.
The Hawkeyes, long the laughingstock of the Big Ten, are 34-12 and 15-3 in league play heading into this weekend's final regular-season series against Minnesota. They are ranked as high as 15th in the national polls and could reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years.
"It's been a complete culture change ... the work ethic has gotten a lot better," infielder Jake Mangler said. "From day one, coach Heller has asked us to play hard. It's a simple thing that everybody can control. It's something that's overlooked. You say you play hard. But do you?"
Heller grew up in Eldon, Iowa and took over as the head coach of his alma mater, Division III Upper Iowa, just a year after graduating. He was with the Peacocks from 1987-99, turning a moribund program into one that consistently competed for conference titles.
Heller went on to win 270 games at Northern Iowa, a remarkable achievement at the northernmost school of a lesser-known league. The Panthers didn't even have their own ballpark, instead sharing rickety old Riverfront Stadium with a summer league team in Waterloo, miles off campus.
"He has a plan, and the plan works," said Iowa pitching coach Scott Brickman, who worked with Heller at UNI. "You better be humble in his program, and if you're selfish you're not going to make it."
Heller's extracurricular efforts — from personally raising funds to turning on the sprinklers in the middle of the night in the summer so the grass would stay green — weren't enough to save the program. In the locker room after a season opener, he had to tell his team that the school was cutting the program to save money.
"It was painful, because it was the first time in my life where I was out of a job," Heller said. He was "doing all the little things that nobody sees and maybe nobody appreciates, but trying to do the right thing. And then to realize that it really didn't matter to a lot of people. So you get that feeling of, 'Why did I do that?' But that's how I am. That's why I'm here now. Because we did things right back then."
Still, Heller called the ensuing summer a "nightmare." His career was uncertain, his family needed a new house and his wife was pregnant with their third daughter.
Another Missouri Valley school, Indiana State, quickly scooped Heller up. He rewarded the Sycamores with their first outright regular-season Valley title and an at-large NCAA tournament berth in 2012.
"I knew that if I ever got to a place where I had a loaded gun, that the playing field was somewhat level, that our system would work better than a lot of people's systems," Heller said.
In the summer of 2013, the chance to prove that at the only Division I program left in Iowa finally came.
The Hawkeyes had been mostly lousy for decades. Heller was hardly the hire Iowa fans were hoping for, either, and the players were on edge following the change.
But rather than run off kids in an effort to jumpstart a languid program, Heller told the current roster that they'd have every opportunity to prove they could be winners. The Hawkeyes went out and won 30 games in 2014.
Iowa has since strung together back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time in 25 years and could conceivably host an NCAA regional if it keeps winning.
"He came in with arms wide open. He told us that if we believed in him, he'd believe in us. He established his type of baseball here. Being aggressive. Working hard," centerfielder Kris Goodman said. "The major thing is a belief in the teammates ... I don't feel like we had that before. We had confidence, but I don't think we had belief."
Iowa has updated its once-inadequate facilities in recent years. But the lion's share of the credit goes to Heller, who picked up something of a personal and professional mantra while at Indiana State. Sitting behind his desk, in Iowa black and gold, a slogan reads "Be Nice! Be Honest! Work Hard! Make Good Choices!"
Those words have resonated deeply with Heller after his painful departure from Northern Iowa.
"It made me tougher. It made me better. It made me work harder," Heller said. "Any time you go through something that's hard, and you do it the right way, it ends up benefiting you down the road."