Rick Heller appears on the verge of getting a new contract

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Rick Heller

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Gary Barta wants Rick Heller to coach the Iowa baseball team until Heller retires whenever that might be.

Heller also has said that he wants to coach at Iowa for as long as possible.

Now it’s just a matter of Barta convincing the 53-year old Heller to stay put. And the best way to assure it happens would be to give Heller a substantial raise.

“You talk about great leaders,” Barta said Tuesday of Heller. “Rick and I spoke before he went to the Big Ten (Tournament) about his future and we’ve spoken a couple more times about it.

“It’s ongoing. But we both agreed; we want him and he wants to be our coach until he retires. Nothing ready to report yet.”

Heller has led Iowa to the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three seasons and to at least 30 victories in each of his first four seasons as head coach.

He also led the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten Tournament title in May, but did so with a contract that only pays Heller a base salary of $162,750, which ranks among the lowest salaries in the Big Ten Conference.

“When we hired Rick, we asked him to become another one of those leaders and when we hired him we thought he could be someone who might be here ten or twenty years and I still believe that,” said Barta, who has been Iowa's Athletic Director since 2006.

The negotiations with Heller come at a time when the UI athletic athletic department is dealing with some significant expenses, including the renovation of the north end zone at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa also just recently paid $6.5 millon to reach a settlement in separate lawsuits involving former UI athletic administrator Jane Meyer and former Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum.

However, Barta told reporters on Tuesday that the money used to pay for the settlement came from the reserve fund and would not affect any of the UI sports teams or the daily operation of the Iowa athletic department.

Barta also downplayed a recent article in USA Today that said the Iowa athletic department had lost money in consecutive years from 2014 to 2016. He called it more of a cash flow problem that soon will correct itself.

"We're on very strong financial ground right now," Barta said. "I anticipate one more year of negative and mostly because of the settlement. And we'll take that out of our reserve."

Iowa's reserve fund has dipped to about $3 million according to Barta. That is about three times less than what is considered a desired amount. 

"We're still able to run our operating budget as long as we manage things fine and we have that reserve fund," Barta said. "The goal is to build it back up to ten-million plus. I don't know how long it will take us. But we have a plan to do it over the next several years."  

Iowa would have to more than double Heller's current salary to put him among the highest paid baseball coaches in the Big Ten.

Heller grew up in Iowa and played baseball at Upper Iowa, where he also served as the head baseball coach before taking the same job at Northern Iowa. He also was the head coach for Indiana State before being hired by Iowa shortly after the 2013 season.

Barta praised Heller and first baseman Jake Adams for helping the team overcome some critical injuries this past season, especially to the pitching staff where starter C.J. Eldred missed almost the entire season because of an elbow injury.

Adams set a school-record by belting 29 home runs this past season. He now plays professionally after being selected by the Houston Astros in the sixth round of the amateur baseball draft in June.

“What an amazing year,” Barta said. “What an amazing run, especially in a year where we lost a couple of pitchers' arms. We knew we were going to be shorthanded on the pitching side.

“Thankfully, Jake came along and we just kept scoring runs. But really in fairness to the whole team, just everybody stepped up and did an amazing job.”