Nov. 15, 2013


Meet Iowa's Rick Heller

By Sean Ryan Co-Founder @collbaseball


Rick Heller was in his 10th season leading Northern Iowa’s baseball program when the school decided to drop the sport in 2009. That jolt, he says, made him a better coach.


He landed softly when Indiana State named him head coach after the 2009 season and guided the Sycamores to four straight winning seasons, including their first outright Missouri Valley Conference championship in school history in 2012. Indiana State went 41-19 that season, reaching the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1995. Heller takes over at Iowa, a program in search of its first NCAA appearance since 1990.


First Inning – What attracted you to Iowa, and what made it a good fit for you at this point in your career?

Big Ten baseball has changed a lot in the last five years. The RPI in the league is the highest it has been and the league has received multiple bids to the NCAA tournament. All of the programs in the league have made a commitment to win. I believe this will continue.


With the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to an already great league, the Big Ten will continue to get better from top to bottom in baseball. The University of Iowa is the only Division I program in our state. I feel we have an opportunity to take the program to new heights. The administration has made a commitment to improve our facilities and give us the support we need to compete. I look at it as a better chance to get to Omaha, and being a native Iowan and coaching in the state for 24 years, it was a chance to go home.


Second Inning – How tough was it leaving Indiana State, a program you took to the Regionals in 2012?

It was tough. I loved our players, and the administration at Indiana State was outstanding to work for. I was the happiest I had been in my career. We had great facilities, support and the winning culture we had developed was fantastic. The people in Terre Haute treated my family great, so leaving was very difficult.


Third Inning – You’ve spent a lot of time in the Missouri Valley Conference. How do you think the Big 10 is similar or different to the MVC?

The Missouri Valley is a good baseball league. With the addition of Dallas Baptist, it will only get better. The Valley has some top-level players, facilities and great coaches. For years, it seemed to me that a lot of administrations in the Big Ten held programs back. The facilities were lacking and money wasn’t being thrown baseball’s way. 


Having played many schools in the Big Ten the last 14 years, I have witnessed a positive change in the last three. Baseball is now being supported by most, if not all schools in the league. That is all it ever needed to become a power conference. The coaches in the league have always done a great job; they just needed the resources to compete on the national level.


With the success of the Big Ten Network, I only see the support getting better. With Indiana going to the College World Series and Purdue hosting an NCAA Regional two years ago, I think most administrations can see that with adequate support baseball can thrive in the Big Ten. One of the main reasons I left Indiana State was the tremendous resources that you have in the Big Ten.


Fourth Inning – Big 10 Baseball has seen an upswing in recent years. What will it take for Iowa to excel in the Big 10?

It has already started. The commitment the administration has made to me and my coaching staff is the first step. Every coach has to have support to win at the national level. We now have that. Our facilities have to improve. We are currently installing AstroTurf on our infield, redoing our backstop and dugouts. We will be getting a new indoor practice facility that will be the size of a football field with new cages next fall. The great thing about this facility is that baseball and softball will have priority. We won’t have to share with football. Next summer, we will finish the turf in the outfield, add a new outfield fence and hopefully get a new scoreboard with video capabilities.


In addition to facilities, we need to keep the best Iowa players in state, while supplementing the Iowa talent with players from across the country. I believe we can do this. I’ve recruited nationally for years and have great connections in all parts of the country. Being in the Big Ten will allow me to recruit an even better student-athlete from out of state than I have in the past.


Fifth Inning – This is your fourth head coaching job. How have you changed over the years at each stop, and how are you the same?

Being at some colleges that didn’t have much, I appreciate the resources that we have at Iowa. Going through the program being dropped at Northern Iowa gave me a new perspective on baseball and life. I think I’m a better coach and person after fighting through it. I love the player development side of the game, and I think I’ve improved in this area at each stop. I’ve been a grinder since Day 1, and I still am. The work ethic and passion for the game are still the same.


Sixth Inning – You were born in Eldon, Iowa, a town of less than 1,000. What do you remember about growing up there? And how exciting is it to be coaching at a school so close to where you were born?

Growing up in Eldon was great. We had a core group of guys who played baseball every day in the summer on our own. I had a lot of fun growing up in that small town and still have a lot of close friends from home. Being close to my family, friends and high school coaches has been great. I can’t tell you how many people have already been up to visit this fall. I’ve had calls and messages from so many people I hadn’t heard from in years. It has been fantastic!


Seventh Inning – What was it like recruiting and coaching a talent like Sean Manaea?

It was a lot of fun. When Sean was a freshman you could see the potential, but he had a long way to go. Seeing him work every day on his mechanics, in the weight room and in the classroom was very rewarding. Sean’s story is a great one. We all see kids with lots of potential that never get there. Sean came farther than any player in my 30-year career, and he still has more in the tank. His best years are ahead of him. Being a player development guy, I really enjoyed his three years. It was special.


Eighth Inning – You were a shortstop in college and also played football and basketball. How tough was that in college, and what do you miss about the sports you don’t coach?

I had a blast! It would be close to impossible now, but in those days you could pull it off. The football-to-basketball transition was the toughest. I usually didn’t get to play much basketball until after Christmas. Basketball-to-baseball was easier. You could get your baseball work done in the mornings or after practice. I just loved to play!


I was the receivers coach at Upper Iowa for 10 years, in addition to being the head baseball coach. Being Division III, we were limited in what we could do in the fall in baseball. I would leave football practice early on Thursday and practice baseball until dark. We would do the same on Sunday afternoons. I miss game day in football, but not all the film study! The thing about football as a player is that when it’s over, it’s over. You can’t play a full pad pick-up game. I really missed it for a long time.  My first full-time high school job was in Bakersfield, Mo., where I was the head basketball and baseball coach. I played enough “noon ball” basketball when I was younger that I never missed it like you do football.


Ninth Inning – If there’s one common denominator you look for when recruiting players, what is it?

Most of the places I’ve coached were rebuilding jobs. When we were recruiting, we weren’t getting the first pick at recess, if you know what I mean. We had to find kids who would overachieve and develop and be plus make up kids. I always look for the most talented kid we can get with great make up and toughness. These kids are usually humble. I’ve never had a kid that overachieved that wasn’t humble. Those qualities are what we look for first.


(photos courtesy of Iowa Media Relatons)