Whenever it finally comes to an end, there will be a lot to be said about Gary Barta's tenure as Iowa athletic director, both good and bad. But one unquestionably good decision that he made was to hire Rick Heller to be the head coach for the Iowa baseball program in the summer of 2013. That decision was, to pardon the pun, a home run hire. Hell, even that undersells it -- it was a walk-off grand slam of a hire for Iowa sports.
It didn't require a lot of digging to find the right man; Heller was a winner before Iowa -- he ran the most successful program in the state when he was at UNI and he was successful at Indiana State after UNI program was dissolved -- and he's kept winning here. It didn't require a lot of persuasion, either; Heller is an Iowa native (from Eldon, IA) who was chomping at the bit to return to his home state. But the best hires don't have to be complicated. Heller has been an unquestioned success at Iowa, which is borne out by a slew of impressive stats:
- Iowa made three trips to the NCAA Tournament in their entire history pre-Heller (1972, 1975, and 1990); they've already made two trips to the NCAA Tournament in his four years in charge (2015, 2017)
- Iowa had not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1972 pre-Heller; they've won three games in two appearances since his arrival
- Iowa had zero Big Ten Tournament titles and only two Championship Game appearances pre-Heller; they've made two Championship Game appearances since his arrival and won the title this year
- Iowa had three wins (total) in the Big Ten Tournament in the previous decade pre-Heller; they've won nine games in the Big Ten Tournament since his arrival
- Iowa had only made the Big Ten Tournament* three times in the previous decade pre-Heller; they've made the Big Ten Tournament all four years since his arrival
* Unlike the Big Ten Basketball Tournaments, which let in everyone (even Rutgers), the Big Ten Baseball Tournament is more of a meritocracy -- only the top eight finishers get in to the tournament. Admittedly, it's not the most stringent meritocracy, but hey.
And there's this:
The @UIBaseball team won 30 or more games four times from 1991-2013. Hawkeyes have done it four times in as many years under Rick Heller.— Eric Pratt (@MessengerSports) May 28, 2017
Jack Dahm reached 140 wins at Iowa after 6 seasons. Rick Heller reached that feat tonight in his 4th season, and it's not over yet.— Jeremy Karll (@JeremyKarll5) June 3, 2017
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Heller is succeeding at a tremendous rate at Iowa. Winning makes anything better, but Heller has also put together a team that's very fun to watch, as fans who tuned in to Iowa's runs in the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Regional can attest. They went 19-12 in close games (two runs or less) this year and they had 13 wins when trailing or tied entering or through seven innings, including nine wins in their final at-bat and four walk-off wins. They couldn't quite pull off that comeback magic against Texas A&M or Houston this weekend, but they were consistently thrilling throughout the season.
This year in particular has been fun, since they've been a strong power-hitting team, led by Jake Adams' incredible season.
Who doesn't love home runs? (No one.)
The only shame is that it's not easier to watch them play. Very few of their games were on BTN during the regular season. Worse, they weren't even available on BTN's (free) streaming platform, BTN2Go. Technically you could watch most of their games, but only via BTN Plus ($), the BTN streaming service that you have to pay for. It would certainly be nice if more of their games were more readily available to fans. Again, more BTN games would be ideal, but even just making the games more accessible on BTN2Go would be a nice step. The Big Ten makes money hand over fist with the BTN and their other media deals; it seems overly punitive to charge fans even more to watch their teams via BTN Plus.
As we saw with the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Regional, when the games are available to watch, the interest is there. We had solid traffic on our website for baseball coverage over the last few weeks and outlets like The Gazette, Hawk Central, Land of 10, BHGP, and Hawkeye Nation all covered the games very thoroughly as well. Iowa fans on Twitter and Facebook were very engaged and interested in this team and their run, too, which was fantastic.
That level of interest is one of my biggest -- and happiest -- takeaways from Iowa's run this year and their overall rise under Heller over the last four seasons. It still blows me away that we're in June and we're talking about current Iowa sports successes. We're not re-hashing the football and basketball seasons that were or trying to prognosticate the seasons to come. He and his program have given Iowa fans a reason to care about Iowa sports after March, when Iowa's postseason basketball exploits are done and the NCAA Wrestling Tournament is over. When we started blogging back at BHGP (around 2007), the spring sports season for Iowa was a wasteland, aside from wrestling. There were times when the most exciting spring sports activity involving Iowa sports (again, aside from wrestling) was spring football. Yes, we talkin' 'bout practice. Not even a game. Practice. Iowa men's basketball was a muddled mess with a widely despised head coach; a coaching change replaced the despised head coach with someone far less loathsome, but the on-court product got even worse and turned off fans in droves. There was a reason we threw ourselves into MARCHIFORNICATION so much in the old days.
And baseball? It would be generous to even call Iowa baseball an afterthought in those days. No one was going to spend much time thinking -- or writing -- about a minor program that lost games by the bushel and routinely finished near the bottom of the league standings. The only time I can ever remember us writing substantively about Iowa baseball was in 2010 when they went on an improbable Big Ten Tournament run and made the Championship Game before falling to Minnesota.
But Heller's arrival has changed all that. He's turned Iowa from a laughingstock into a solid team and, increasingly, a legitimate Big Ten contender. He's turned Iowa into a consistent winner that's fun to watch. And it's absolutely wonderful. It's great to have another sport to care about, to follow, and to get invested in. For one thing, it makes the offseason go by faster -- it's June now, meaning we're just three months away from football's return. It's also fun to get wrapped up in an Iowa sport that doesn't have as much baggage as the other primary sports around here. Wrestling is a failure if Iowa doesn't bring home Big Ten or NCAA championships and while the standard isn't quite that high for football or basketball, decades of success have still raised the bar for those sports. But we have so few expectations for Iowa baseball, so few preconceived notions, that it's easier to just enjoy it on its merits. That will probably change if Iowa continues to enjoy success and we get jaded with current levels of performance and expect more and more -- but that's a problem for the future.
Another exciting thing about Iowa baseball? There's no Ohio State football here. No Michigan State basketball. No Penn State wrestling. (Or, from a women's sports perspective, no Maryland basketball.) There isn't a regular powerhouse team year in and year out in Big Ten baseball. Most years the Big Ten is fairly wide open in terms of challengers. This year, for instance, was expected to be a rebuilding year for Iowa after the personnel losses they suffered a year ago; instead they finished just a few games out of a Big Ten regular season championship and won the Big Ten Tournament. Not too shabby for a "rebuilding" year.
There should be an opportunity for Iowa to compete for Big Ten titles year after year. Heller has routinely brought in some of the Big Ten's best recruiting classes since he's been in Iowa City and his player development skills are clear to see when you see how players like Nick Gallagher or Calvin Matthews or Joel Booker or Mason McCoy (to name just a few) have improved over the course of their Iowa careers. Heller has brought good times to Iowa baseball and those good times could stay around for a while. And, frankly, we're thrilled -- the first four years of #Hellerball have brought a host of delights, so we can't wait to see what might be next.