The University of Iowa has been the home for some master rebuilders of sports programs.
From Forest Evashevski to Lute Olson to Hayden Fry to Kirk Ferentz, the list of head coaches who have rebuilt programs at Iowa is impressive.
And now you can add Rick Heller to that list, if not sooner.
Iowa’s second-year baseball coach has orchestrated a stunning turnaround for a program that only had sporadic success in the previous two decades before his arrival.
Iowa is the No. 2 seed heading into Wednesday’s game against seventh-seed Ohio State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis. The Hawkeyes earned the second seed by finishing 19-5 in the Big Ten and 38-14 overall.
Iowa won seven of its eight Big Ten series this season; recorded three-game sweeps against Purdue, Indiana, Nebraska and Minnesota and had a school-record six players earn all-Big Ten recognition this week.
All this came after a 2014 season in which Heller led Iowa to a 30-23 record. The 30 victories are the most for a first-year coach at Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished 22-27 in the season before Heller was hired.
So the turnaround under Heller has been immediate, considering Iowa had losing records in five of the six seasons before he took over.
“Last year, he told us he wanted us to change the program,” first-team all-Big Ten pitcher Blake Hickman said of the 51-year old Heller. “And since he got here, he has done that.”
Heller’s rebuilding job compares favorably with other turnarounds at Iowa, including what Fry did in football.
Iowa didn’t have a winning record under Fry until his third season when he led the Hawkeyes to the Rose Bowl. Ferentz also had two losing seasons before leading Iowa to a 7-5 record in 2001, while Evashevski had a losing record (2-7) in his first season as the Iowa football coach in 1952, as did Olson in men’s basketball, finishing 10-16 in the 1974-75 season.
Tom Davis had an immediate impact as the Iowa men’s basketball coach, with his first team setting a school record with 30 victories. However, Davis wasn’t faced with a major rebuilding job when he replaced George Raveling as head coach prior to the 1986-87 season. The Hawkeyes had participated in the NCAA Tournament and won at least 20 games in each of the two seasons before Davis was hired.
Davis took a good situation and made it better, unlike Fran McCaffery, who inherited a mess when he replaced Todd Lickliter as the Iowa men’s basketball coach in 2010. Iowa finished 11-20 in McCaffery’s first season, but has since had four consecutive winning seasons and participated in the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons.
Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder also made an immediate impact after being hired in 2000, leading the Hawkeyes to a 21-10 record in her first season. Iowa had finished just 9-18 in the season before Bluder was hired.
Tom Brands took over an Iowa wrestling program in 2006 that was struggling by its high standards and then led the Hawkeyes to national titles in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Heller, meanwhile, was optimistic heading into this season, largely because of how Iowa performed at the end of last season. In addition to winning 30 games, the Hawkeyes also won a game at the 2014 Big Ten Tournament.
“We talked after the conference tournament last year before the guys all went off to the summer leagues that we can make a run at this,” Heller said. “I think being in the tournament last year, those guys saw, `hey, you know what, we’re every bit as good as these other teams. We just have to put it together.’
“And I really believe that our guys felt that as we left the tournament and then from day one in the fall there has been a drive to try and compete for a championship.”
Some of Iowa’s best rebuilding jobs:
Rick Heller, baseball
Iowa’s record the year before he was hired: 22-27
2014 – 30-23
2015 – 38-14
Fran McCaffery, men’s basketball
Iowa’s record the year before he was hired:10-21
2010-11 – 11-20
2011-12 – 18-17
2012-23 – 25-13
Kirk Ferentz, football
Iowa’s record the year before he was hired: 3-8
1999 – 1-10
2000 – 3-9
2001 – 7-5
Hayden Fry, football
Iowa’s record the year before he was hired: 2-9
1979 – 5-6
1980 – 4-7
1981 – 8-4
Lute Olson, men’s basketball
Iowa’s record the year before he was hired: 8-16
1974-75 – 10-16
1975-76 – 19-10
1976-77 – 20-7
Forest Evashevski, football
Iowa’s record the year before he was hired: 2-5-2
1952 – 2-7
1953 – 5-3-1
1954 – 5-4
Lisa Bluder, women’s basketball
Iowa’s record the year before she was hired: 9-18
2000-01 – 21-10
2001-02 – 18-11
2002-03 – 18-15