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King of the baseball rebound

BY RYAN RODRIGUEZ | MARCH 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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Rick Heller sits at the desk in his office, arms crossed, silently going over notes from his teams’ three-game series at Austin Peay on Feb. 15.

“I feel like we’re in a good place right now,” Heller said. “We learned a lot about ourselves the last few days.”

Looking relaxed and comfortable in his new digs, you would never know that the desk he sits at has only been his for a handful of months.

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“For the most part, it’s been really good,” Heller said. “We’ve had a few blips and bumps in the road first semester, but I feel really good about where we’re at now that we’re here.”

Since then, the Hawkeyes have gone 9-4 in their first 13 games, one of the hottest starts in team history.

In July, Heller was brought in to replace Jack Dahm as the head coach of the Iowa baseball team. As the 20th coach in program history, Heller has acclimated well to his surroundings and is excited to continue in his first season as skipper for the Hawkeyes.

A native of Eldon, Iowa, Heller is a local product with baseball ties all over the state. The 50-something year old bench boss played college ball at Upper Iowa before being named head coach upon graduation.

Heller quickly transitioned from player to coach, sharpening his baseball sense every step of the way. Only one season after his arrival behind the bench, Heller led the team to achievements that had eluded him as a player, namely their first winning season in 17 years.

After 12 years as a Peacock, Heller then packed up and made the one-hour drive south to Northern Iowa, where again he spent nine seasons as head coach. After a three-year stop at Indiana State, Heller came full circle and returned to the program he grew up watching.

His experience as a coach have taken him from a Division III underdog turned powerhouse through the Missouri Valley and now the Big Ten.

While he has ties to Iowa baseball, Heller says that the decision to take the job as a Hawkeye had nothing to do with his connections to the area.

“It wasn’t really something I always thought about,” Heller said. “I was just focusing on the job I had really. I always felt that if the situation came up where I was given the opportunity to have that job, I would love to take it, but it wasn’t like it was something I was constantly focusing on.”

Heller was brought aboard for more than his local ties and the story that came with his arrival.

In his 26 seasons as a coach, Heller has had success at every level and has proved time and again to be a master of turning struggling programs into contenders.

Most recently, Heller guided an Indiana State squad that finished below .500 in the two years prior to his arrival to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 17 years.

Now a member of the Black and Gold, Heller will be called on to do the same thing for the Hawkeyes, a team that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament or won the Big Ten conference since 1990.

Heller is methodical in his approach to rebuilding, stressing that team focus and a winning attitude in his players is the main key to the success he’s had in the past, a tactic which he has begun to instill with the Hawkeyes.

“It sounds pretty cliché, but the big thing is just focusing on winning every day,” Heller said. “Trying to get the team to buy into checking their egos at the door or checking their batting averages at the door and focus on things that are going to help the team win games.

“That really is a huge part of it.”

And while he has enjoyed winning, Heller’s coaching career has not been without adversity.

After nine years coaching Northern Iowa, Heller and his team were notified that the university would drop the baseball program after the 2009 season and that all personnel involved would be forced to relocate.

Nine hard seasons, down the drain just like that.

With little time to dwell on the negative, Heller and his staff instead threw their full efforts into making sure the remaining players on his team had places to go should they choose so.

Only after the affairs of his players were settled did he begin to focus on finding a new job for himself.

“It was horrible,” Heller said. “It was just about as bad a situation that you could be in, but it was also very real. It was what it was, and it definitely made me tougher and made me a better coach.”

Drawing on his life and experience, the lessons Heller learned at Northern Iowa are ones he hopes to ingrain in his new team at Iowa.

“You really never know how guys are buying in until you hit a bad streak,” Heller said. “It’s easy when things are going well, but when things have gone south for a while, then you find out the true character of the ball club and each individual.”


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