Heller ready to revamp Iowa baseball
Rick Heller spent Monday afternoon smiling from ear to ear. Nobody could blame him. He had just been hired for a new job — one he had previously dreamed about.
The job comes with a daunting task: turning the Iowa baseball program into a winner. The Hawkeye baseball team has churned out three-consecutive losing seasons, all under former head coach Jack Dahm, compiling a .430 winning percentage in the process.
But Heller, who was formerly introduced as the newest Iowa baseball coach Monday, has been in these situations before and flourished each time.
“This is what Gary [Barta] said to me: ‘We’ll do this together,’ ” 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.
“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.”
Heller has a track record for success. At each of his previous three head coaching stops — Upper Iowa, Northern Iowa, and, most recently, Indiana State — he took the baseball programs from the basements of their respective conferences to the top. Heller has won 692 games in 26 seasons as a head coach.
The Eldon, Iowa, native’s successful runs have stemmed from his ability to develop his players — and not just any players, but the right ones. Heller was adamant on Monday that the best recruits might not always be the ones that help create great baseball teams.
“We maybe didn’t always get first pick, and sometimes that was a great thing, because the first pick might be a selfish guy, the prima donna — the guy who doesn’t want to buy into a team atmosphere,” he said. “I’ve had a knack for finding the right player for a long time.”
Heller’s developmental skills as a coach are just one aspect that prompted Hawkeye Athletics Director Gary Barta to select Heller for the job. Among the others is Heller’s sheer will and determination to turn a program into a winner. Barta compared Heller’s career with that of Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery’s.
McCaffery turned around three basketball programs — Lehigh, North Carolina-Greensboro, and Siena — before being hired as the Hawkeyes’ head coach. He now has the Iowa men’s team positioned as favorites to make the NCAA Tournament and darkhorse candidates to make a run at the Big Ten championship this season.
“That’s something that I saw in Rick,” Barta said. “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 of that together, it just felt right.”
Heller ended his opening speech by talking about how excited he was about workouts starting and how he’s ready to start practicing with his new team. That’s where he’s most comfortable, he said, because he gets to teach and mold his players.
Two of his new players, Taylor Kaufman and Sasha Kuebel, were in attendance on Monday during Heller’s introductory press conference, and upon hearing their new coach’s excitement about getting started, they, too, cracked delighted smiles.
“Everything he said was exactly what we were looking for,” Kaufman said. “I think I speak for everyone when I say that we’re ready to get this program back up on its feet.”
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