By Pete Ruden
Rick Heller spent a lot of time on the green fields in Fayette, Iowa, during his college days, wearing the blue and white of Upper Iowa University.
A three-sport athlete, he manned the shortstop position on the baseball team, played wide receiver and returner in football, and dabbled on the hardwood.
While playing for the Peacocks, the Eldon, Iowa, native started on the diamond for four years and also lettered on the gridiron and in basketball.
Eventually, the versatile Heller turned his love of sports into a career.
“I could’ve told you when I was 12 that I was going to be doing something in athletics,” the fifth-year Iowa baseball coach said.
From putting everything he could into a professional baseball career to now serving as a Big Ten Tournament-winning head coach and the man who turned the Iowa baseball program around, it’s clear Heller made the right decision.
After being stuck in mediocrity for decades and achieving only five winning seasons from 1991 to 2013, the Hawkeyes enjoyed their best four-year stretch from 2014-17, achieving at least 30 wins each season. Iowa also made two NCAA regional appearances in that span and picked up its first Big Ten Tournament title just last season, giving tangible proof that something special is happening at Banks Field.
But how did the program get turned around in the matter of four years? The answer is pretty simple. Heller.
Heller, whose contract was extended through 2024 in December 2017, put the Big Ten on notice by using his personality in his coaching and recruiting the players he knew would help the program become better on and off the field.
“He’s a great guy,” right fielder Robert Neustrom said. “He’s always laughing about goofy things. He’s just a good coach. He works really hard, too. He expects a lot out of you, which a coach at this level should. I think it’s great. You get the best of both worlds — a guy who can laugh and a guy who can be serious at the same time.”
It was Heller’s previous coaching jobs that taught him a lot and helped him get to where he is now. Before coming to Iowa, he made stops at Upper Iowa, Northern Iowa, and Indiana State, and he learned one thing from all of those places in particular: how to be resourceful.
When Heller was hired as head coach at Upper Iowa in 1987, he was just 23 years old.
Although the opportunity was perfect for a young coach trying to get his foot in the door, Heller had competed with many of the players on his team, so he needed to be careful not to get too close to them.
Still, he found ways to talk with the players in a professional way, which he says taught him about the dynamic between players and coaches.
As the head coach for the Peacocks, Heller said, he didn’t really have a plan or system in place, but he knew what he wanted from a team culture.
The difficulties of not having a specific plan were combined with limited resources and funding at the school, but he found ways to work within the budget.
“We didn’t have the resources like we have [at Iowa] or a practice facility like this,” Heller said. “I mean, we were practicing in a gym in a batting cage that looked more like a dungeon than a batting cage, and you had to wear catcher’s equipment so you didn’t get hurt when the ricochets hit you in the head. We spent hours and hours and hours in places like that to just figure out a way to improve and get better.”
Despite the limits he faced, Heller found some unusual ways to help his squad grow. For instance, he decided to get more training as a player in order to pass more knowledge on to his athletes, so he signed up to play baseball in summer leagues, where he played until he was 36.
As he kept competing, he kept learning. Heller intentionally played a few games at catcher, so he could have a better perspective of what his players were facing.
“I went to a lot of clinics, I read a lot of books, I watched a lot of videos,” he said. “When I started to feel like, ‘Hey, you know what, this makes a lot of sense to me, this is what I like,’ I’d take it and try it that summer. If it made me a better player or helped me be more consistent, I’d feel more comfortable teaching it to our team.”
Heller took that knowledge with him to Indiana State, where he became the head coach in 2009. Everything was different in Terre Haute — especially the budget. Although it was still in the Missouri Valley Conference with Northern Iowa, Heller said, it felt as if he had won the lottery because of the more advanced facilities and resources.
In a strong four-year run at the helm for the Sycamores, Heller led Indiana State to its first outright Missouri Valley title and earned the 2012 Dan Callahan MVC Coach of the Year award.
Heller took that winning tradition to Iowa City. In addition to having success through adjustments throughout his career, his skill on the recruiting trail helped Iowa become the conference contender it is now. In his time as the Hawkeye head coach, he has displayed a knack for keeping talented high-school players from Iowa in the state.
Talent in the Midwest often gets overlooked, and Neustrom is just one example of that. Neustrom, who was voted the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, only received one call from a Division-1 school, and that was Iowa.
And even though Heller was the only Division-1 coach trying to get the Sioux City native to sign, Neustrom said Heller still made him feel like a prized recruit.
It has worked out so far — Neustrom has piled up accolade after accolade to help lead the team, hitting .345.
Trying to find recruits who match what a program stands for is not an easy thing to do, but Heller found a way to keep Iowa’s team chemistry going throughout the years.
“Obviously, if you do a poor job of recruiting and don’t get the right fit, it can go down in a hurry,” Heller said. “Team culture is something you can’t take for granted. It has to be built each and every year. You can’t sit back and say, ‘OK we got it going now,’ because every team in every year is different.”
When going on recruiting visits, Heller and his staff ask questions to find out what a player is like off the field. But at the same time, the Hawkeye staff can tell a lot about potential recruits by simply watching them on the diamond.
Heller noted observing players when they fail and whether they hustle on the field. Simple things, he said, such as how they warm up and how they interact with teammates, say a lot about them.
“We’re always looking for someone who’s humble,” Heller said. “I’ve never had a player in 31 years who overachieved who wasn’t a humble kid. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had plenty of kids who weren’t humble. It’s not a perfect world. You can miss on guys. But if you’re selfish and you get a team that has a lot of selfish guys, you might win games, but you’ll never have a chance to win a championship.”
With Iowa running through the 2017 Big Ten Tournament and taking home the title, the Hawkeyes made it clear: Heller’s plan is working.
While he knows exactly what he wants from a culture standpoint, his ability to adapt on the fly has helped the Hawkeyes become a nationally known program. With a team that is continually changing, he has managed to get the most out of his players each season, leading to one of the most successful runs in the history of Iowa baseball.
“He’s obviously had huge success, and I’m sitting here trying to figure out, ‘OK, what is it that’s made him successful?’ ” Iowa pitching coach Desi Druschel said. “And I think one of the things is he’s open to new and different ideas. We’re not doing the same things today that we did last year, or the year before, or the year before that.”
Heller’s consistency in coaching style and holding players accountable mixed with his infectious personality revitalized a once-dormant baseball program and put Iowa on the map.
“I wanted to be a part of something special,” Neustrom said. “Coach Heller was building that culture around here.”