As a former two-sport athlete at the University of Iowa, Danan Hughes does lots of trash talking these days.
Part of his motivation is the success of the Big Ten-leading Iowa baseball team.
Combine that with Ohio State winning the national title in football and Wisconsin and Michigan State both advancing to the NCAA Final Four in men’s basketball and it’s easy to see why Hughes is proud of his Big Ten roots.
“You can’t imagine how much trash I have talked the last six to eight months about football, Ohio State, basketball, Michigan State and Wisconsin, and now baseball, we’re no longer a door mat of a conference,” Hughes said of the Big Ten. “And to know that Iowa is part of that upper-echelon now (in baseball) and the attitude is we’ll play anybody anywhere and you better not turn your TV off because we’re going to fight until the end, I think that is the epitome of what Hawkeye sports has always been about to me.”
Hughes had little reason to brag about the Iowa baseball program until Rick Heller was hired as head coach in July 2013.
Iowa had sporadic success in the previous two decades before Heller arrived, but nothing compared to what is happening now. The Hawkeyes are 8-1 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1990 and ranked in five different polls.
The 1990 season is also the last time Iowa won the Big Ten regular-season title in baseball. The 44-year old Hughes was a sophomore outfielder on that team.
“A part of me is a little bit surprised just because they haven’t played this well for so many years,” said Hughes, who also played receiver for the Iowa football team from 1989-92. “But on the other hand, I’m not really surprised because I got a chance to witness first-hand how Rick Heller was handling the team and the success that they had last year.”
Hughes saw Heller’s impact up close while helping to cover the 2014 Big Ten Tournament for the Big Ten Network. Hughes works as a baseball and football analyst for the Big Ten Network.
The Hawkeyes lost two out of three games at the 2014 Big Ten Tournament, but just winning one game was a turning point.
It proved to Hughes that Heller was the right person for the job.
“Just to win that one game in the Big Ten Tournament, it’s amazing the influence of a new coach when you preach something at the beginning and you tell the team,” Hughes said. “Great coaches are brain washers. You can tell the team everything that you know they want to hear and you want them to believe.
“But until it’s produced on the field, it doesn’t carry much weight. But once they had experienced some success following his leadership, I knew it was only a matter of time before that success would pay off.”
Former Iowa baseball coach Duane Banks felt the same way.
Banks said Monday that he isn’t surprised by Iowa’s success under Heller. Banks credits previous head coach Jack Dahm for leaving a roster filled with talent.
“I’m not because Rick inherited some pretty good kids,” said Banks, who coached the Iowa baseball team from 1970 to 1997. “Jack had recruited some good kids.
“It took them a year to get into Rick’s system. But Rick is an outstanding coach. He’s one of the best coaches in the country. He’s won every place he’s been, and he could go anyplace and win, I think. He’s really good.”
The 51-year old Heller had success at Upper Iowa, which is his alma mater, and at Northern Iowa and Indiana State before coming to Iowa. He has knack for rebuilding struggling programs.
That’s why former Hawkeye and Major League pitcher Wes Obermueller, who lives in Iowa City, isn’t surprised by Iowa’s rapid ascent.
“With coach Heller’s track record, no, because he’s had success everywhere he’s gone,” said Obermueller, who was selected in the second-round of the 1999 Major League Draft. “The kids are responding to him and it’s just awesome as a former Hawk to watch a buzz around baseball again.”
Iowa has used dominant pitching, timely hitting and solid defense to win games this season. The Hawkeyes won two out of three games at No. 16 Maryland this past weekend.
“Putting up these quality wins against quality opponents, that’s not an easy thing to do, especially consistently,” said Obermueller, who pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers from 2003-05 and for the Florida Marlins in 2007. “The Big Ten has some tough teams usually year and year out, but as many as there are this year, and for Iowa to be put up the numbers they’re putting up is great.”
The Big Ten as a conference is getting stronger in baseball, helped by the recent additions of Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers and by Indiana’s climb to elite status.
So it’s not as if Heller is taking advantage of a soft schedule.
“What Rick has done here is just remarkable,” said Kurt Vitense, who played shortstop at Iowa from 1998-01 and now lives in Iowa City. “But what the kids have done here is really amazing.”
Iowa’s three starting pitchers – Tyler Peyton, Blake Hickman and Calvin Mathews – have been huge factors in the success. They usually pitch deep into games, which puts less strain on the bullpen.
“It starts with pitching and they have three studs out there,” Vitense said.
The Hawkeyes also have shown an ability to bounce back from a disappointing loss, the latest example being last weekend’s series at Maryland. Iowa lost the first game 10-1, but then won the next two games to take the series.
“You lose that first game in that fashion, it’s easy to focus on not getting embarrassed the rest of the series as opposed to winning the rest of the series,” said Hughes, a who played receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1993-98 and currently lives in Kansas City. “And that’s just credit to Rick Heller that he knows the pulse of his team. He knows what gets them going and the right way to keep them focused and motivated. And to me there is no more impressive string of victories than to win the next two games at Maryland.”
Banks moved to Colorado after retiring from coaching, but he moved back to Iowa City three years ago in order to be closer to his family and friends.
He now gets to watch the Iowa baseball team on a regular basis. And he’s not alone as attendance for home games continues to grow.
“I’m really impressed with everything that’s going on,” Banks said. “I’m so proud of those guys.”
Banks is the only coach to lead the Iowa baseball team to the College World Series in 1972. He is also the only coach to lead Iowa to the NCAA Tournament, the other two times occurring in 1975 and 1990.
The Iowa baseball stadium was named in Banks’ honor in 2001.
“I hope they go to Omaha and win it all,” Banks said in reference to where the College Worlds Series is held. “I’d be the first guy there to congratulate them.”