By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Rick Heller already has coached himself into a select group at the University of Iowa.
Heller is one of few head coaches in the history of Iowa athletics to turn a habitual losing program into a Big Ten contender.
The Iowa baseball program had festered in mediocrity for over two decades before Heller arrived, but is now in position to make the NCAA Tournament for the third time in his five years as head coach.
The Hawkeyes helped their cause by winning two of three games against No. 12 Oklahoma State this past weekend at Banks Field.
The fact that Oklahoma State even came to Iowa City to play a three-game series is proof of Heller’s impact. It wouldn’t have happened five years ago because the Iowa baseball program was irrelevant and didn’t deserve to host a traditional power.
“That’s a testament to where our program is now thanks to all those guys who set the groundwork four and five years ago and put ourselves in a position where a team like that would want to play us for an RPI boost on the road and give us a chance to come down there next season,” Heller said of Oklahoma State. “And then this group took care of business and found a way to win a series against a highly ranked team and the first-place team in the Big 12.”
The Hawkeyes already have played the toughest part of the conference schedule and will face Big Ten bottom feeders Northwestern and Penn State in the final two series of the regular season.
Iowa will enter Friday’s series opener at Northwestern with a 28-16 overall record, including 9-7 in conference play.
Anything less than a series sweep would hurt Iowa’s postseason chances.
Heller wasted no time in shifting the focus to Northwestern following this past Sunday’s series-clinching victory over Oklahoma State.
“You have to play in this league every single day, and if you don’t, you’re going to lose,” Heller said. “That was just what I reiterated to the team. We have to keep our focus. And if anybody thinks just because we’ve finished the gauntlet part of our schedule that it’s going to be easier, you’re sadly mistaken because those guys are going to be coming from you and we had better play our best.”
The 54-year old Heller already stands out amongst his Hawkeye coaching peers, both past and present, because there haven’t been many Iowa head coaches who turned a habitual loser into a consistent winner.
Of course, there is Hayden Fry in football, whose rebuilding job in the early 1980s made him a Hawkeye legend. A program that hadn’t had a winning season in nearly two decades made it to the Rose Bowl in Fry’s third season as head coach.
Iowa’s historic turnaround under Fry happened about 25 years after Forest Evashevski had rebuilt the Iowa football program. Iowa had finished with a losing record in 13 of the 18 previous seasons before Evashevski took over in 1952.
Evashevski led Iowa to its only two victories in the Rose Bowl and to its only share of a national title with the 1958 team the recipient of the Grantland Rice Award.
Vivian Stringer turned a mediocre Iowa women’s basketball program into a Big Ten power after being hired in 1983. But the program had only been around since 1974, so there was little tradition to speak of, good or bad.
Gayle Blevins in softball and Judith Davidson in field hockey also built Big Ten powers, but both sports still were in their infancy when they took over at Iowa, so the circumstances were different.
Iowa’s rise under Heller isn’t unprecedented, but is extremely rare.
Winning is hard enough. But to turn a long-time loser into a sustained winner is exceptionally hard.
Glenn Patton in men's swimming, Mark Hankins in men’s golf and Larry Wieczorek in men’s track and field all deserve credit for ending years of mediocrity. But it’s hard to think of many Iowa coaches beyond those already mentioned in this column who turned a habitual loser into a winner.
Lute Olson rebuilt a struggling Iowa men’s basketball program in the mid-1970s, but the program was far from a habitual loser when he took over.
Iowa had won a Big Ten regular-season title as recently as 1970 when Ralph Miller’s legendary "Six-Pack" finished 14-0 in conference play and averaged over 100 points per game.
Bucky O'Connor led the Iowa men's basketball program to unprecedented success in the mid-1950s, highlighted by an NCAA runner-up finish to a Bill Russell-led San Francisco squad in 1956. But Iowa also had finished with a winning record in nine of the previous 11 seasons before O'Connor was hired, including a 17-1 record in 1945.
O'Connor took a good program and made it much better before being killed in a car accident in 1958.
The Iowa football program was coming off a 3-8 season in 1998 when Kirk Ferentz replaced Fry as head coach. Talent was in short supply, but there still was plenty of tradition with Iowa having combined to win 16 games in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. The 1996 squad also crushed Texas Tech 26-0 in the Alamo Bowl, while the 1997 squad climbed to eighth in the national rankings after starting 4-0.
Even the great Dan Gable inherited a good situation at Iowa in 1976 with the Iowa wrestling team having won the previous two national titles under his predecessor, Gary Kurdelmeier. Gable would go on to build a dynasty, but he had something good to start with.
Heller, on the other hand, inherited a program that had been mostly mediocre or worse during the previous 25 years.
Jack Dahm and Scott Broghamer both had their moments while coaching the Iowa baseball team, but neither could sustain success.
Duane Banks led the Iowa baseball team to its only World Series appearance in 1972, and Iowa’s home field is named after him. But the program also was struggling when Banks retired in 1997 and didn’t fully recover until Heller arrived in 2014.
Heller has led Iowa to four consecutive 30-win seasons with a fifth almost certain to happen. He is traveling a path that few others have at Iowa.
Heller’s success shows how big of a difference the right or wrong head coach can make.
It was the same with former Iowa men’s basketball coach Todd Lickliter, but for all the wrong reasons.
Fran McCaffery deserves credit for cleaning up Lickliter’s mess, but the Iowa men’s basketball program still had more tradition than baseball when McCaffery was hired in 2010.
Baseball had been mediocre for so long that you started to wonder if the circumstances ever would change.
They finally did under Heller and that puts him in a special group.