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Iowa Hawkeyes roll past Ohio State as head coach Rick Heller picks up 1,000th career win
Iowa hits four home runs in 15-3 victory
IOWA CITY — He didn’t win his first game. Or his second. Or his third.
As best Rick Heller can remember, it took about six games for him to be an actual victorious head college baseball coach.
It was 1987, and he had just gotten the job at Upper Iowa University, where he had recently graduated. He had 14 players on his first Peacocks team.
Fourteen! Needless to say, it struggled.
“We had a rough team that first year, only went 7-30 or something like that,” Heller said Saturday, after his Iowa Hawkeyes pummeled Ohio State, 15-3, at Banks Field. “When I took over, we hadn’t had a winning season in 16 years. We didn’t win until the last game of our spring trip that year. We beat Southwest Baptist in Bolivar, Mo.
“We had two good players, and, unfortunately, one of them, Brent Blumhagen, was our center fielder and our best pitcher, (and) he dove for a ball and broke his collarbone. Back then, we had to drive vans, so I remember driving home from Bolivar, which is way down by Springfield, and every bump I hit he was moaning ‘Oh, that hurts. That hurts.’”
Heller laughed when recalling that moment. There was a lot of reminiscing here, as he picked up his 1,000th career win.
He has the 10th-most victories of all active D-I head coaches.
“I remember I said to that (first) group ‘Here’s the deal. We’re going to change the culture, and we’re going to do it in a way that’s a little bit different,’” Heller said. “We would take turns with a sod cutter going all the way around the field, cutting the warning track, replacing the lips and fixing the field. It was something to give us a source of pride. I think back to those guys. Same thing at UNI. We win a Missouri Valley Conference championship in year two.”
Everywhere the Eldon native has been, he has built a tremendous program: in 12 years at Upper Iowa, 11 at Northern Iowa, four at Indiana State and now 10 at Iowa. He’s 1,000-751-4 total in 37 years.
Iowa Conference championships, Missouri Valley championships, Big Ten championships, NCAA tournament appearances at the Division I and III levels, sending guys on to pro ball and eventually the major leagues, Heller has done it all.
“He’s been around college baseball for a long time, and he has clearly shown he can win wherever he goes,” said Iowa second baseman Sam Hojnar, who had two home runs and five RBIs as part of a 19-hit Hawkeye offensive attack. “It’s just kind of the everyday stuff he preaches to us. Just doing the right thing, everyone doing their part to be able to help the team. He does a great job making sure we stay consistent every day.”
Heller said it was special that there were multiple former players from Iowa, Upper Iowa and Northern Iowa as part of a crowd of 2,138 at Banks. Iowa had its annual golf tournament Friday, which allowed him to meet up with a lot of those guys.
“For me, I just think about all the guys and all the teams. All the great players I have been able to coach and be a part of their lives,” he said. “The other thing for me is this is an awesome time for me to give thanks and be appreciative of all the great assistants I’ve had over the years. There are just so many of them. We’ve been going through them pretty quickly here at Iowa because the pro guys steal them.
“But a lot of guys who have been super loyal, guys like (associate head coach) Marty Sutherland, who has been with me a long, long time. It’s a team effort.”
Iowa improved to 34-11 overall and 10-6 in the Big Ten after shellacking OSU for a second straight game. The Hawkeyes won Friday night, 16-9.
The 31 runs have come despite not having top player Keaton Anthony. The redshirt sophomore and potential All-American was a noticeable absence again, not even in Iowa’s dugout.
In a two-sentence press release, Iowa said “some student-athletes have been withheld from competition” because of a potential NCAA violation. The release said the school would have no further comment while it is investigating and did not mention specifics about the student-athletes involved.
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