After firing (or not retaining) Jack Dahm at the conclusion of the season in May, Iowa began a search for a new baseball coach that lasted for several weeks, stretching from late May deep into July. The search drew scorn from both Iowa fans and national observers, both for its length and (allegedly) for its haphazard nature. God knows if Iowa was ever going to land a decent coach. But finally, after weeks stretched into months, something happened:
At this point, I'd be absolutely shocked if Rick Heller isn't the guy. Heller has always wanted to turn #Iowa around -- so it makes sense.— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersPG) July 11, 2013
Rogers' news proved to be on-point, as on Friday official word on the hire finally came from Iowa:
Heller was one of the first names rumored for the job (and one of the first names we profiled, back in June) and a name that had been hanging around the process the entire time. Is Heller a good hire? The final verdict on that will take several years, but the early indications are positive.
Er... better late than never, right?
@MarkHanrahan20 I think Heller is a good coach who at least understands what it takes to win and own that state in recruiting. Important.— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersPG) July 12, 2013
Heller seemingly wasn't the first choice for Iowa, as evidenced both by the fact that the search dragged on for as long as it did and by the fact that other coaches apparently turned them down, such as Texas A&M's Andy Sawyers. That doesn't quite track with what Gary Barta said during Heller's introductory press conference -- he said Heller was the only candidate who received an "official" offer -- although there's probably some wiggle room there in terms of what offers were "official" and what offers weren't. Anyway: Heller's our man now.
@MikeFerrinSXM turned it down too— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersPG) July 12, 2013
Damn! Honestly, doesn't it seem like Hayden would have had the perfect temperament to be a baseball coach? Can't you envision him running out onto the field, throwing his hat at the feet of the umpire, and unleashing holy hell in a Texas drawl about some bullshit call, all with a twinkle hidden behind his aviator-masked eyes? I mean, I sure can.
Heller comes to Iowa from Indiana State, where he had four successful years (131-91 overall, a winning record every season, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2012), but he spent much of his coaching career in Iowa. He's a native of Eldon, IA and began his coaching career at Upper Iowa University, then a DIII institution. They twice made the NCAA Regionals and went to the DIII College World Series in 1996. From Upper Iowa University, Heller moved to UNI, where he also enjoyed considerable success. At UNI, Heller won 270 games, made the NCAA regionals in 2001, and had arguably the best program in the state (his UNI teams enjoyed quite a bit of success in head-to-head match-ups against Iowa, too). In fact, he's made the NCAA Tournament at every stop he's coached at -- encouraging news for an Iowa program that hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 1990.
As noted, Heller is an Iowa native and he's apparently long considered the Iowa job a "dream job;" he even interviewed for the job twice in the past (he was passed over for Jack Dahm the last time Iowa went out and hired a baseball coach). Which... let's just say there probably aren't a ton of coaches who feel that way. If Heller is a success at Iowa, there's a good chance he'll be around for the long haul. I suspect that's more of a fringe benefit than a job requirement, though; given the present state of Iowa baseball, we just needed someone who could provide some success, potential longevity be damned.
Heller should enter the Iowa job with no illusions about what it will take to succeed here. He's deeply familiar with the state and the talent it produces, as well as the coaches at the Iowa high school level. Convincing as much of that talent as possible to stay home and play for the Hawkeyes (and it should help that Iowa's the only DI game in town for local prospects) will be a good first step in resurrecting Iowa baseball. That said, I'm not sure you can build a winner at Iowa with just local talent, so Heller will also need to cast a wider net. (That was the primary appeal of some of the other rumored candidates, many of whom had connections to talent-rich areas like Texas.) But I'm sure Heller is cognizant of that reality, too. Heller will also likely be relied upon to do a great deal of fundraising for the Iowa program; fundraising was one of the areas that Jack Dahm excelled at, so Heller will need to prove that he's up to the task there.
Of course, Heller alone can only do so much to turn around the fortunes of Iowa baseball. He can recruit players and he can develop them and coach them up and manage games smartly... but facilities are also an issue. Presently, Iowa has some of the worst baseball facilities in the Big Ten. While the new indoor football facility was a step forward for many programs (most notably football, of course) it was apparently a big step backwards for baseball -- I have heard several accounts that said the baseball team had more access to indoor practice facilities in the old bubble than they did the new indoor facility. Some accounts said that they had access to indoor facilities for hitting a shockingly low number of times this past spring. Needless to say, that's a bit of a problem for a baseball program in Iowa. Maybe you've noticed, but spring weather isn't always baseball-friendly around these parts (especially when "spring weather" doesn't show up 'til May).
As an example in our own backyard, Indiana has poured in several million dollars in baseball renovations and they've enjoyed increasing amounts of success in recent years, culminating in this year's breakthrough run in the NCAA Tournament, where they became the first Big Ten in almost 30 years to make it to Omaha and the College World Series. It's not as simple as saying "spend millions of dollars to build it, and success will come" (Field of Dividends just doesn't have a great ring, does it?), but improving their facilities certainly improved their odds of success. And that's what it's about: creating conditions where good coaches can prosper.
During the coach hunt, it wasn't clear what Iowa was going to do to address this other side of the baseball performance problem -- the facilities crunch. There were some indications that no upgrades would be forthcoming, at least until Heller was able to show more success on the field. Needless to say, this could create a vicious catch-22: Heller can't get new facilities until he wins games, but not having new facilities would make it considerably more difficult for Heller to win games. And it wouldn't have been surprising if that had been the reality, frankly -- Gary Barta has raised considerable amounts of money for Iowa facilities over the last several years (It's the one part of his job that he's unquestionably successful at, I'd say) and it wasn't clear how many more dollars could be squeezed out of donors after all the other projects they'd been asked to donate to. After all, you never want to be the last team with its hat out looking for donations. (Unless you're the Vikings, in which case you can get a stadium bigger, better, and more expensive than the teams ahead of you in line, like the Twins and Gophers. As always, it's good to be the NFL. But I digress.)
Happily, it appears as though Barta is not only acutely aware of Iowa baseball's facilities shortcomings, but that he's also working to improve them.
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."
The new indoor facility that he's referring to is a $15 million multi-use indoor facility intended to open in 2015. My understanding is that it would be over near Hawkeye Drive. The baseball and softball teams would share the complex with the tennis team and other teams such as soccer, rugby, and lacrosse, as well as the marching band. If you're having trouble picturing this, some additional information (from a Board of Regents meeting a few months ago) about the project is available here. In all, it sounds like a good step forward for the baseball program. Additional upgrades are likely needed (especially to Duane Banks Field, or a hypothetical new stadium), but this sounds like a much-needed step in the right direction.
Likewise, the Heller hire seems like a step in the right direction for the program. There were some who felt that Heller should have been hired instead of Dahm a decade ago -- now we'll have a chance to see exactly what Heller can do with the job. He seemed like one of the best candidates for the job from the beginning of the search, so ending up with him in the head coaching job now seems like a really good outcome -- even if the process to get there wasn't always all that smooth. It's closing time on the Iowa baseball coach search, but just the beginning for Rick Heller's tenure at Iowa. Welcome aboard.