By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Gary Barta has made some decisions as the Iowa Athletic Director that left much to be desired, and in some cases, that’s putting it nicely.
He hired Todd Lickliter in 2007 to coach the Iowa men’s basketball team, but that proved to be a three-year disaster that left the program in shambles.
He hired Marla Looper in 2010 to coach the Iowa softball team, but that has also mostly been a disaster with her overall record well below .500 for a program that used to compete for Big Ten titles on a regular basis.
Barta also mishandled discrimination cases involving former UI athletic administrator Jane Meyer and former UI field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum enough to where the UI agreed to pay $6.5 million as part of a legal settlement.
But on the flipside, Barta also hired Rick Heller to rebuild the Iowa baseball program, and to say that Heller has met the challenge would be an understatement. So Barta deserves credit for that.
Entering his fifth season as head coach, Heller has created a buzz that was noticeable on Thursday with the large turnout for Iowa’s annual media day event.
In Heller’s first four seasons, Iowa won 30, 41, 30, and 39 games – the best four-year run in school history and the program's most successful stretch since posting seven consecutive 30-win campaigns from 1979-95.
The Hawkeyes also won the Big Ten Tournament last season for the first time in program history and have played in the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three seasons.
“If you keep building and get better every day, that's usually what happens," Heller said. "It says we're being more consistent, we are consistently putting good teams on the field, and we're playing the right way. Guys are performing, we have good recruits, Marty (Sutherland) has done an awesome job as our recruiting coordinator. All those things go into that; it is a great sign to see we have established consistency and expectations."
Iowa has to replace some key pieces from last year’s team, including record-setting first baseman Jake Adams, All-Big Ten shortstop Mason McCoy and all of the starting pitchers.
Those are some serious hits, but the mark of a quality and stable program is the ability to reload instead of rebuild.
The Hawkeyes also return six starting position players, including star right fielder Robert Neustrom, and a designated hitter from a team that went 39-22 last season and finished two games from a berth in an NCAA Super Regional.
And, of course, they return the 54-year old Heller. He is the glue that holds everything together.
Heller has built a culture in which winning is expected as part of the process. And as long as you trust and respect the process, the results more times than not will take care of themselves.
Heller has been successful at all of his coaching stops, beginning with his alma mater, Upper Iowa University. He also coached at Northern Iowa and Indiana State before bringing his winning culture to Iowa City.
It is easy to say now with hindsight that Heller probably should’ve been hired by Iowa in 2004, but previous athletic director Bob Bowlsby picked Jack Dahm instead.
And though Dahm had some winning moments, he failed to sustain success and was let go after 10 seasons.
Iowa had gone nearly three decades without much success in baseball when Heller was hired shortly after the 2013 season. He didn’t start from scratch or from rock bottom, but the lack of success had turned America’s pastime into a sport that was easy for Hawkeye fans to pass over.
Winning isn’t everything when rebuilding a college athletic program, but nothing else matters as much as winning.
Iowa could have a bunch of 4.0 students who feed the poor in their free time playing on the baseball team. But fans would eventually lose interest if the team wasn’t very good.
Heller has made baseball important again at Iowa. And fun.
He has shown that hiring the right coach at the right time can help a program overcome built-in disadvantages like a lack of tradition and lousy weather.
Hawkeye fans should take pride in the fact that Iowa has the only Division I baseball program in the state. Iowa is willing to keep supporting a sport that Iowa State and Northern Iowa bailed on years ago.
Heller was recently rewarded with a new contract and Barta also deserves credit for that. Barta had to secure Heller to a long-term deal or risk losing him because others schools were bound to come calling.
Iowa baseball is on a roll right now, and of course, Heller deserves most of the credit.
But Barta also deserves credit for finally hiring the right person to coach the baseball team.