Hawkeyes’ Heller thrives as a ‘players’ coach’

Ex-players Flattery, Reiners reflect on their UNI days

Photo by Brian Ray, Iowa Media Relations Iowa’s Jake Adams (35) is greeted after hitting his 27th home run this season during the Big Ten Tournament.

Long before the University of Iowa realized it made a home-run hire by bringing baseball coach Rick Heller on board four years ago, Tim Flattery and Terry Reiners both knew.

Flattery, a former St. Edmond all-stater, and Reiners, an ex-Fort Dodge Senior High standout, played for Heller at the University of Northern Iowa during his decade-long tenure there. ”Hellerball” is a way of life now in Hawkeye country — a phrase made wildly popular during the program’s recent four-year resurrection — but it was en vogue in places like Fayette and Cedar Falls first.

”He is very passionate about the sport, and most of all, the kids,” said Reiners, who played on Heller’s 2001 Missouri Valley Conference championship team at UNI. ”It doesn’t matter what role you play on the team — nobody is more important than the other. He knows it takes everyone to win.

”His passion for the game reminds me a lot of an Ed McNeil or a Rick Sandquist (former Dodger baseball coaches). That never-give-up attitude. He really relates to the kids and believes in them.”

Flattery, who pitched at both St. Edmond and Iowa Central, went 4-0 with a team-best 3.00 earned run average as a senior for Heller’s Panthers in 2008. Like Reiners, Flattery touted Heller’s unwavering commitment to his student-athletes under any and all circumstances.

”A lot of people think a ‘players’ coach’ means players walking all over the coach,” Flattery said. ”(With Heller), he makes it very clear to each guy where he fits and contributes to the team. He trusts the players in their roles and, in turn, the players trust him.”

A native of Eldon, Heller played and then coached at Upper Iowa University before accepting the Northern Iowa job in 2000. He left UNI for Indiana State in 2010, and after four productive seasons in Terre Haute, he took over the struggling Iowa program.

Heller turned the Hawkeyes around in a hurry. A team that had only four seasons of 30 or more wins from 1991 through 2013 has produced four in a row under his tutelage. Iowa has qualified for the NCAA regionals twice in the last three years, reached the Big Ten tournament’s championship round in each of the last two seasons, and captured the league crown this past Sunday.

In all, Heller has won 831 career games while taking Upper Iowa to the College World Series in 1996 and his three other programs to the NCAA Tournament at least once. Iowa is in the regional round for the second time in three years; from 1947 to 2014, they’d advanced three times total.

Some thought Heller caught lightning in a bottle during the ’15 campaign, when the Hawks were 41-18 overall and 19-5 in the Big Ten. Iowa has graduated 22 players since the end of that season, yet has posted 68 overall wins and 27 victories in the conference — with those back-to-back title-game appearances — in the last two years.

There are 23 Iowans on the current Hawkeye roster, including FDSH graduate Kole Kampen, who is redshirting this season. Heller has also shown a penchant for going the junior college route, with 12 players — including All-American slugger Jake Adams — having played JUCO ball.

It’s taken all shapes and sizes for Iowa to reach this point, and sometimes, that melting pot is just what a ballclub needs to meld together. The Hawkeyes were 9-8 on March 18, but have won 30 of 42 games heading into Friday’s NCAA regional opener against the University of Houston.

Iowa may still be turning heads and stumping critics, but former players like Flattery and Reiners could’ve predicted a turnaround like this from day one.

”It sounds simple, but a baseball dugout is a delicate balance,” Flattery said. ”He manages it as well as anyone to get the most of out of his guys.”

Reiners added, ”he also hires great assistants to surround him — other coaches that have the same values and goals. He’s a great coach, mentor and friend.”

Something tells me that five, 10 or 20 years down the road, Heller’s current Hawkeyes will be singing his praises in similar fashion. Flattery is right: this ”players’ coach” is defeating all of those stigmas and stereotypes with bonds of lifelong loyalty. In the end, isn’t that what coaching is supposed to be about?

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net