IOWA CITY — Rick Heller is in his fifth season as head baseball coach at the University of Iowa, turning the program around and into a consistent winner. His first four seasons produced the best four-year stretch in program history: 140 wins, a Big Ten Conference tournament championship and an appearance in an NCAA regional twice in the last three years.
The Eldon, Iowa, native came into this season with 830 career victories as head coach at Iowa, Indiana State (2009-13), Northern Iowa (1999-2009) and Upper Iowa (1987-99). The Hawkeyes (12-7) begin 2018 Big Ten play this weekend with a home series against preseason conference favorite Indiana.
Heller was interviewed Wednesday by The Gazette, talking about his team, his program, not getting the Iowa job when he interviewed for it initially and other things.
Q: Everyone seems to be using the term “Hellerball” on social media when they talk about your team and program. So what is “Hellerball?”
A: (Laughs) I don’t know. It probably means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. One of my former players at UNI, Brett Douglas, was the first guy to throw it out there, and I think he used it kind of jokingly in a tweet that kind of caught on with everybody. The success we’ve had the last four years, a lot of people have been having fun with it. But I don’t know what it means. To me, it’s just the style of play we have. We play hard, focus on the next pitch, hustle. Just our style of play and what our program represents on and off the field is kind of how I would look at it.
Q: Where is this team at as it begins Big Ten play?
A: It’s been up and down the early part of the season. We started off fairly hot, as far as winning games, but we really weren’t playing great baseball across the board. Or baseball that I would consider is going to give you a chance to win in the Big Ten. We kind of hit a wall the fourth week of the season with the travel. We were flat at UNLV (losing three straight games two weeks ago) and had some bad timing in that they were really, really hot and playing extremely well. We were kind of on fumes from the travel that we’d had (to Florida, New Orleans and Alabama the three previous weekends) and had some guys scuffling. It wasn’t like we didn’t compete ... The one thing that’s a little concerning heading into the Big Ten is we felt like the strength of our team was our pitching and bullpen depth. The expectations were a lot of the younger arms that we had having roles and executing those roles, though we’ve really kind of struggled with that the last week or two off and on. That is something that has to get cleaned up in a hurry as we head into Big Ten play, because our schedule is really rough.
The positive thing is our offense has been coming around and is being more consistent. Getting Chris Whelan back from injury and into the leadoff spot has been big. I think we’re finding a lineup that we’re going to run out there against lefties and righties, knowing whose roles are going to fit where. That is definitely what you want to have established before Big Ten starts. At least we know we’re going to put a solid defense out there and know the guys who are going to make plays. Our pitching on the weekends has really been pretty good. Zach Daniels, Grant Leonard, Cam Baumann, some of those guys have been really consistent out of the pen. We just need to get the others better confidence wise here.
This team has a ways to go, it’s kind of a work in progress. We knew it would be with a number of new players on the team, and the guys we’ve lost the last couple of years to the (MLB) draft and graduation were all really good players. This team has just been a building process.
Q: Is winning a Big Ten regular-season championship maybe the next step you’d like this program to take?
A: That’s the goal. That’s the big one. Having 13 teams in an extremely tough conference, that’s the goal. We’ve done an extremely good job the last four years. Two years ago, when Illinois won it, we finished second, and the third-place team was Maryland, which was five games behind us. About any other year but that one, we would have won the Big Ten. We’ve been close. That’s what we’re shooting for every year. This year is going to be a year where we’re really going to have to turn it around and play great baseball each and every weekend. That’s kind of been the bugaboo with this team. We just haven’t been as consistent as in the past. That’s going to have to get cleaned up in a hurry if we’re going to make a run. Especially this year, you don’t play all of the other teams, so you are kind of at the mercy of the draw, the computer that decides who you are going to play. Quite frankly, this year, we’ve got a pretty tough draw.
Q: When you took over this program, what was your blueprint? How did you want to build it?
A: It’s kind of gone exactly as planned. We were able to make huge headway in year one: a 30-win season, qualifying and winning a game in the Big Ten tournament. Those were things that hadn’t been done. But the most important thing was estabilishing a winning culutre. Trying to be your best at everything you do, on and off the field. I feel like we got those things established in year one, and every group after that has really done a nice job of carrying that on. That’s the most important thing to me. It’s not just winning baseball games, it’s being a good person in the community, it’s doing a good job in the classroom. Making sure we are graduating our guys and making sure they are playing the game the right way. If you do those things, generally the wins and losses take care of themselves. That’s how I’ve tried to run all the programs I’ve had, and these guys have done a great job with that. There are things you can’t control, players leaving for the pros and recruits (doing the same), that type of thing. We’ve been blessed to have some pretty good players, had 16 go over the last four years. It’s a big challenge with only 11.7 scholarships to maintain that at a high level. But the one thing that can’t ever change is the win-every-day approach we try and instill in our players. That we play the right way and do all the things right on and off the field. It’s not easy. It can take years to build, yet go away in days.
Q: When you got passed over for this job after interviewing for it the first time in 2003, how did you feel? Is there a part of you now that thinks ‘Yeah, I showed you. You should have just hired me in the first place’
A: That’s not really how I operate. It wasn’t my decision. I did everything I could at that time, felt like I did everything necessary to be considered for it. Then it was someone else’s decision, not mine. To be quite honest, those 10 years that went by after I was passed up the first time, I feel like when I was given the opportunity, I was in a much better place. I was a much better coach, I was much more mature. I’d gone through Northern Iowa dropping baseball, which was one of the low points in my career and one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with, yet surviving it and handling it in a professional manner. That really helped me grow as a person and see things from a different perspective. Then getting the opportunity to coach at Indiana State, that was a big step for me, having that chance to get down there and coach there and work with some people that were outstanding ... That really helped me grow as a coach and as a person and really helped me be able to hit the ground running here even more than I would have been able to if I had been hired the first time. I just felt like I was in a much better place, had a much better understanding of what needed to be done to get this thing going quickly. Maybe it was the best thing. Things happen for a reason, so maybe that was the reason.
Q: Can a Big Ten team ever win the College World Series?
A: With the number of great coaches in our league and now the support from the administrations financially, the quality of our facilities, I think it’s definitely possible that a team from our league can win the World Series. Obviously, anybody that is able to do that catches some breaks along the way. A lot of times it’s not just the talent, it’s the bounce of the ball, the call of the umpire, somebody getting upset in the regional or the super regional. Basically it’s getting hot at the right time. But I think our league most definitely has the overall talent, and there are definitely teams from top to bottom in our league that are now talented enough to do that. It’s just a matter of one of us breaking through and getting back to the World Series. Then anything could happen.
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