IOWA CITY, Iowa — Every few years for more than a generation, whispers have followed the Iowa baseball program.
When Iowa State dropped baseball nearly 20 years ago, people wondered if Iowa would be next. The same questions arose after Northern Iowa dropped baseball nearly 10 years ago. After Iowa baseball coach Jack Dahm was let go in 2013, again, whispers.
Those doomsday questions halted when Rick Heller replaced Dahm. Heller twice has led Iowa to the NCAA Tournament in his first four seasons and nearly a third. Before Heller, Iowa had 15 losing seasons in the previous 17 years, and its last NCAA appearance was in 1990.
The Hawkeyes have won three NCAA Tournament games under Heller, including a victory over host Houston in a 2017 regional. Iowa’s most recent NCAA win before Heller’s arrival was in 1972.
Yes, the worst questions vaporized with Iowa’s success. But other hypotheticals grew during the summer. What if an SEC school came after Heller? After all, if he could generate this type of success at a school with a limited history in the North, why couldn’t he do it consistently in the South?
“I was getting a ton of questions,” Heller said. “‘Are you going to leave?’ That type of thing. Maybe somebody casually tells [recruits], ‘Oh he’s not going to be there when you get there.'”
Heller had no interest in leaving Iowa, his home state. But that commitment works both ways, too. When he first took over, Iowa had the Big Ten’s worst facilities. After adding on-campus hitting facilities, access to the indoor football practice facility and a $2.5 million AstroTurf surface, the baseball program was placed on equal footing with its peers. Heller then delivered an unprecedented run of success.
But to keep away the traditional powerhouses, Iowa had to deliver for Heller personally. Those questions were answered in December when Heller’s salary jumped from $155,000 to $250,000, according to the contract obtained by Land of 10 via state open-records laws. Just about every incentive doubled, and his contract lasts through 2024 with annual raises.
“First and foremost the fact that [athletics director] Gary Barta has confidence in what we’re doing that means a lot,” Heller said. “It really lets us go into a recruiting effort and be able to say, ‘Look it, we’re here for the long haul.’
“At my age and what we’ve done here and what we’ve done at three other schools, I really don’t want to move. I love it here. My family’s close. I love Iowa City, I love the people I work with, I love what we’re doing here in baseball. We’d love to be a part of building a new stadium that I think’s going to happen in the future. Just having a great time and enjoying it. It’s fun.”
The contract also has sent a message to athletes around the state and region. Within the state borders, there’s no other Division I program. Wisconsin doesn’t have baseball, either. Most of Iowa’s best prep baseball players left the state for other schools, even in the Big Ten. Now, they’re all fighting to stay home.
“It definitely says what he’s going with the program and where the program’s going and how they want it to stay the same if not keep going — and it will keep going — because he’s going to get big-time recruits,” said Iowa catcher Tyler Cropley, who played high school baseball at Sioux City (Iowa) Heelan and grew up in South Dakota. “He’s going to keep a lot of in-state recruits here like Rob [Neustrom] and me. He’s going to get more of those recruits, the Illinois kids, the Minnesota kids.
“He’s definitely taking us in the right direction. That extension is going to help.”
Neustrom was named the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year and also hails from Sioux City. Cropley admits his interest in Iowa baseball was nonexistent as a youth. Now with Heller secure and the program stable, Iowa should lock down the borders and contend annually for the postseason.
“Honestly I didn’t look at the Iowa program seven, eight years ago,” Cropley said. “I don’t know how many people really did until Coach came in and turned it around. But now I think people are looking for us to go further than we did last year and the expectations are really high.
“I know we’ve had a couple of younger kids come in already, freshmen, sophomores in high school, and they said. ‘I can’t wait to see if we can get here.’ Now the extension is there, Coach is going to be here. That definitely helps with some of those kids.”
Plans are in the works for a new $15 million baseball stadium that will include luxury suites. Nothing like that seriously was discussed even five years ago.
In four seasons, the baseball program has compiled a 140-89 record. Those are the most wins in a four-year stretch in school history. With that run of success, the goals start at reaching regionals and ultimately to play in a College World Series. That’s what Heller has brought to Iowa baseball.
“I think the next step is definitely winning that regional and hosting the Super [Regional],” Cropley said. “That’s the goal. I think we can get to Omaha. I think we’ve got the talent. We’ve got the drive.”
They also have the coach.
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