Rick Heller’s resurrection of a dying program

When he took over as Iowa’s head baseball coach in 2014, Rick Heller inherited a dying program. Now, he’s made it into one of the Big Ten’s best.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

Iowa head coach Rick Heller talks to his players during a baseball game between Iowa and St. Thomas at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Tommies, 10-1.

Brad Schultz, Sports Reporter

In 2014, the Iowa baseball program was in a state of disarray. 

The Hawkeyes had just finished their eighth losing season in 10 years under head coach Jack Dahm and interest from fans and students was at an all-time low.

Rumors began to circulate throughout campus that the program could be dropped, a fate that had met each of the other three Division I schools in Iowa: Drake, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa.

Since the retirement of coach Duane Banks in 1997, the program had only two winning seasons in conference play, with no NCAA tournament appearances since 1990. 

The next hire from Iowa athletic director Gary Barta would be critical. If the next coach failed, then the program might be done for good. 

But Barta’s new hire, Rick Heller, answered the call. 

Heller’s background

Heller, an Iowa native, graduated from Upper Iowa University in 1986. He served as the head coach at his alma mater from 1988-1999 and led the Peacocks to 291 wins during his tenure. 

He moved on to Northern Iowa and served as the Panther’s head coach from 2000-2009, leading them to a regional appearance in 2001. The program was discontinued after the 2009 season, causing him to leave for Indiana State. 

At Indiana State, Heller led the Sycamores to a record-setting 41 wins in 2012, culminating in an NCAA regional appearance. Before his arrival, the Sycamores had not been to a regional since 1995. This success led him back to the state of Iowa, where his next challenge was just beginning. 

The rebuild 

Heller’s first Hawkeye team in 2014 had little to no expectations. 

The Hawkeyes surprised everyone by winning nine of their first 10 games and ended the season with 30 wins, the most by any first-year head coach in program history. Heller’s philosophy helped Iowa become one of the best offensive teams in the conference, leading four major offensive categories. 

Five players on the 2014 squad ended with All-Big Ten honors, the most for the program in years. Though the team fell short in the Big Ten Tournament, the Hawkeyes gained new excitement and enthusiasm from fans and silenced the rumors that the program would be shut down. 

In Heller’s second season at Iowa, he led the Hawkeyes to a 41-18 record — the most single-season wins since 1981. 

This success garnered the Hawkeyes their first NCAA berth since 1990. This was the third team Heller had led to a regional.

The Hawkeyes suffered a regional loss, but the hope and optimism around the baseball program were at an all-time high.

Championship glory 

Entering the 2017 season, the Hawkeyes had low expectations because they lost several key contributors. 

Iowa won 15 conference games and finished fifth in the Big Ten. Despite a steep challenge in the conference tournament, Heller and the Hawkeyes weren’t denied. 

Iowa defeated three higher-seeded teams and won the school’s first-ever Big Ten Tournament title with a win over Northwestern. The 2017 squad produced five All-Big Ten players and hit 71 home runs. 

By virtue of winning their conference tournament, the Hawkeyes earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where they once again came up short. 

Coming up short

After 2017, Iowa continued to be at or near the top of the conference standings and qualified for the conference tournament each year. 

Despite strong showings during the non-conference slate and strong finishes to each season, the Hawkeyes were left out of the NCAA regionals every year. Not surprisingly, this was met with criticism from Hawkeye players and coaches

Not to mention, the Hawkeyes also had to battle a canceled season in 2020 and a conference-only season because of COVID-19.

Back in the competition

In 2023, the Hawkeyes finally made a return trip to the NCAA regionals.

Late in the season, a gambling investigation swept throughout the country and several key players were lost for the season. But Heller righted the ship, and the Hawkeyes matched the program’s single-season win record at 44-15.

Iowa finished runner-up in the Big Ten Tournament and lost in the regional finals to Indiana State, one of Heller’s previous teams. 

The Hawkeyes will once again be seen as a preseason contender for the College World Series in 2024. As long as Heller is patrolling the dugout, you can’t count “Hellerball” out.