IOWA CITY, Iowa — College baseball faced an uncertain future — even life expectancy — at Iowa in the spring of 2013.
Athletics director Gary Barta searched for a new coach, and questions engulfed the program the way a downpour sends debris into a sewer drain.
The 2013 spring was so cold and wet that Duane Banks Field could neither draw flies or people. In-state foes Iowa State and Northern Iowa recently had dropped baseball; Wisconsin did the same a generation ago. Iowa’s facilities ranked near the Big Ten’s bottom, and the Hawkeyes lacked an indoor batting facility. Speculation swirled that Iowa might leave the sport behind.
Barta never wavered on keeping baseball, but his coaching search was long and winding. After six weeks, Barta hired native Iowan Rick Heller to lead the program. Heller already had taken Upper Iowa, Northern Iowa and Indiana State to the NCAA Tournament, and he vowed to do the same for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa had losing seasons in 15 of its previous 17 years. Its last NCAA appearance was in 1990, and its last NCAA win was in 1972. Even becoming competitive seemed like a wish at the time. Little did anyone know it was an action plan.
In all four of Heller’s seasons, the Hawkeyes have posted winning records. In 2015, Iowa won 41 games, earned an NCAA at-large bid and won two tournament games. In 2017, Iowa claimed the Big Ten Tournament for the first time and upset host Houston in regional play. Iowa has had 16 draft picks under Heller, and the program will represent the United States in the World University Games next week in Taiwan.
It’s an unlikely success story. The Hawkeyes were an afterthought among fans and recruits before Heller’s arrival. Now, Iowa baseball has earned its place alongside football, basketball and wrestling as a signature program.
“Back when I was younger, Iowa baseball wasn’t exactly the greatest sport here at Iowa,” said Iowa pitcher Sammy Lizarraga, who is from Cedar Rapids. “I think ever since coach Heller has gotten here, baseball has become more of a tradition at Iowa for sure, and it’s definitely something that pops in people’s minds here.”
“Iowa baseball, everybody’s wearing it now — Big Ten championship shirts,” catcher Tyler Cropley said. “It’s really cool to see.”
Iowa baseball’s quick turnaround
Heller calls his approach to baseball “process driven,” which focuses on improving daily on the field, in the classroom and in the community. The improvement lies in the subtleties.
When he took over in the summer of 2013, Heller wanted his holdovers to buy in to that approach. If they did, improvement would accelerate.
“If they didn’t, we’d have to wait it out and bring in our own guys,” Heller said. “Fortunately for us, that first group of guys that we inherited, we can thank all of them because they jumped on board and welcomed us with open arms. We didn’t waste any time right away and had success right away, and that led to the success the last three years.”
Iowa finished 30-23 in Heller’s first season, only the program’s third winning season since 1996. Heller parlayed that success into a dynamite 2015 recruiting class, which was ranked 24th nationally by Perfect Game and first in the Big Ten. By contrast, Iowa posted the 95th recruiting class in 2014 and failed to crack the top 100 in 2013.
— Iowa Baseball (@UIBaseball) August 11, 2017
Heller targeted in-state recruits, many of whom had bolted for other programs. Without its closest neighbors playing Division I baseball, Heller believed he could lock down the state and then dabble in regional prospects. After coaching a combined 22 years at Upper Iowa and Northern Iowa, Heller had formed solid relationships with high school and junior-college coaches around the state. Plus, Iowa high schools play summer baseball, which allowed Heller to identify and evaluate prospects after the college season was finished.
Those relationships established the core of Iowa’s 2017 squad. First baseman Jake Adams, who set the Big Ten record with 29 home runs and was the league’s unanimous MVP, attended Des Moines Area Community College. Shortstop Mason McCoy was a junior-college transfer from central Illinois. Iowa natives Nick Gallagher and Ryan Erickson anchored the pitching staff. Another local product, pitcher C.J. Eldred, transferred from Indiana to Iowa. Adams and McCoy were sixth-round draft picks, the program’s best output since 1993. Gallagher and Erickson also were drafted, and Eldred signed a free-agent contract. All five are on minor-league rosters.
“It’s definitely nice to talk to a recruit now and be able to show them the results as opposed to years one and two, when you’re basically selling a vision and selling yourself on what we’re going to be able to do here,” Heller said. “To be able to talk about that and put it up on a PowerPoint with all the stuff that has happened the last four years, some of the best years in school history and things that hadn’t been done in a long time, haven’t been done ever. Now we’re looking at 16 draft picks in four years and the player development side of it we really preach.”
Iowa won 39 games in 2017, the fifth-most in school history. The Hawkeyes boasted the league’s top offense, pacing the Big Ten in hits, walks, RBI, plate appearances and slugging percentage. That shows a combination of power, average and patience. In 2013, Iowa was last in the Big Ten in slugging percentage and 1oth in hits and RBI.
In perhaps the most striking contrast of all, the Hawkeyes hit 71 home runs this year. In 2013, they hit 2.
Iowa baseball winning off the field
Heller could change the culture with his players, but he also needed to alter the program’s perception. The business side of Iowa baseball was just as important as the on-field product.
Outside of adding lights in 2002, Iowa had done little to improve Duane Banks Field since it was built in 1974. From 2002 through 2013, seven of the 11 Big Ten squads either had built new stadiums or refurbished them. But even worse for Iowa, the grass surface made practice difficult in the spring, and the program had no indoor hitting facility.
“Our guys were taking mopeds to Diamond Dreams over by the [Coralville, Iowa] Marriott in the winter because they had nowhere to hit,” Heller said. “We’ve gone from what I considered the worst indoor situation for a BCS school in the country to what I would tell you is we have the best situation for development in the winter months of anybody in the country. That’s been a big reason why you’ve seen more wins— because [of] games we’re winning more games the first four or five weeks. We don’t feel like we’re behind the southern teams when we go south.”
Iowa’s baseball success under Heller is a byproduct of the $55 million football practice facility, which fully opened in 2015. The former football weight room was transformed into a top-notch hitting facility. In the spring, the baseball team practices inside on the 100-yard football field.
Additionally, Iowa invested in Duane Banks Field. In 2014 and 2015, a $2.5 million renovation brought AstroTurf to the entire playing surface and warning tracks. There’s a large video board over the left field wall and the outfield fence is new.
“I felt like for us to get that turf done the first year sent a message to everybody that, ‘Holy cow, they really are supporting the program to get this done,'” Heller said.
The baseball program’s expenses have about doubled, according to figures obtained by Land of 10 through state open-records laws. In fiscal year 2013, Iowa spent $1,197,122 on baseball. In 2016, that number jumped to $2,077,104. But baseball revenues have nearly quadrupled over the same time period, from $220,941 in 2013 to $815,930 in 2016.
Iowa baseball reported earnings of $68,899 for camps and $65,576 in contributions in 2013. In 2016, the program took in $190,693 for camps and $401,110 in donations.
“I just felt confident in what we could bring to the table and the staff that we could put together here, and I felt confident with my connections and friends throughout the state that we could hit the ground running with the fundraising,” Heller said. “Being able to get that turf the first year, I think it sent a message for everyone in the baseball community — not only in the state but in the Midwest — that Iowa really is serious about building their program.”
Iowa baseball’s next step
Heller and the Hawkeyes were invited to represent Team USA at the World University Games next week in Taiwan. Initially Iowa expected to bring some of its recent players, but Major League Baseball squads denied the program permission. No matter the results at the World University Games, the program will have a jump start on its 2018 season.
“Having the Tiger-Hawk on the side and USA on the front, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Cropley, a Sioux City, Iowa-area, native.
To prepare for the foreign trip, Iowa played three exhibitions at Duane Banks Field and also competed in the NBC World Series in Wichita, Kan. On a sunny, comfortable summer night in Iowa City, several hundred fans watched the Hawkeyes beat the Quad City Cardinals 10-2 in an exhibition.
From 2013 through 2017, baseball attendance has grown by 42 percent. In 2015, Iowa’s 19-5 Big Ten mark was the third-best in the Big Ten from 2009 through 2017. That year, the Hawkeyes averaged nearly 1,000 fans a game, and in the final two series of the season, fans were turned away when there was no room.
Phase III at Duane Banks Field calls for a new stadium with luxury and club seating built around the playing surface. Current cost estimates are around $15 million.
“We all know we need to get a new stadium around it,” Heller said. “We know that’s going to come sometime down the road. I don’t have any doubts that’s going to happen. When? I don’t know. I do know that it will happen.”
Likewise, other college programs have sniffed around Heller because of his success. He plans to talk with Barta next week about his contract status before the team leaves for Taiwan.
“It’s ongoing but we both agreed: I want him and he wants to be our coach until he retires,” Barta said. “Nothing ready to report yet. When we hired Rick, we asked him to become another one of those leaders. When we hired him, we thought he could be someone who might be here 10 or 20 years. And I still believe that.”
— Iowa Baseball (@UIBaseball) August 7, 2017