Leistikow: Heller's original Hawkeyes deserve piece of Big Ten title, too

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

In delivering some of his first public words after leading Iowa to its first Big Ten Conference baseball tournament championship, Rick Heller looked directly into the TV camera.

“Really, I want to mention all those guys four years ago," Heller said, "that bought into making a change, bringing a winning culture, a winning attitude to Iowa baseball. All of you guys are with us today.”

They heard you, Coach.

And they're with you — and the Hawkeyes — too.

Kris Goodman, who now plays Independent League baseball in Gary, Ind., was at a friend’s house Saturday night. Instead of socializing, the former Hawkeye spent most of the time with his phone and the BTN app. He watched every moment of Iowa’s stirring, 13-inning victory against Minnesota that put the Hawkeyes into Sunday’s title game — which it won against Northwestern, 13-4.

MORE: How Iowa 'found a way' to win first Big Ten tournament title

“I get the chills watching those guys play,” Goodman said.

Rick Heller is doused after Iowa picked up a 13-4 win over Northwestern to capture the baseball program's first Big Ten Tournament title.

Goodman remembers what it was like at Iowa in 2012 and 2013, when he would attend class and hear someone say, “Oh, we have a baseball team?”

It hurt.

Then, along came Heller. He looked every player in the eye upon his summer 2013 hiring and told them to believe that Iowa could be a winning program again.

Almost inexplicably, they did.

They bought in. Those players became culture-changers.

“Heller’s not going to tell you anything if he doesn’t believe it himself.,” said Jake Mangler, who like Goodman was a junior on Heller’s first team. “I’ve often told people, he’s the most genuine person I think I’ve ever met.”

As seniors, they delivered a season to remember: A 41-18 record and the school’s first NCAA regional appearance in 25 years. They even won two games at the Springfield, Mo., regional before falling short of advancing to the final 16.

Though the seniors on that 2015 team didn’t win a Big Ten championship, they were a part of turning this thing around. That’s why Heller gave them a prominent postgame shout-out Sunday from Bloomington, Ind.

Eric Toole, the leadoff man on Iowa's 2015 team, saw the video clip of Heller crediting his group Sunday afternoon.

“You kind of get a little tingle when you see (it),” Toole said shortly after playing in a minor-league game with the Colorado Rockies organization in Ashland, N.C. “That’s all we wanted to do. We wanted to give him a chance. We wanted to buy in for him.”

The change in Hawkeye baseball over the last four years is staggering.

In the 226 games since Heller took over, the Hawkeyes have won 139 games.

In the 226 before he arrived, they’d won 95.

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The former players credit Heller. They see how much the native of Eldon loves this state, and how it translated into a personally invested coaching style.

“The best coach I’ve ever had,” Goodman said. “Genuinely cares about every player, whether you’re the starter, backup, third string.

“Coach Heller is pretty much as Iowa as you can get.”

Heller, as is his humble nature, pats the backs of his players — past and present.

The list of past contributors to the turnaround are too many to count, but among them are Toole, Mangler, Goodman, Nick Hibbing, Jake Yacinich, Blake Hickman, Nick Day, Jimmy Frankos, Tyler Peyton, Calvin Mathews, Joel Booker and Nick Roscetti.

“Year 1, we had a group of guys that made a decision that things were going to change,” Heller said, continuing his TV message. “They set to the tone, and they carried it over to the next year. And those guys took it to the next step … the next step. This group did even more. Finally brought the championship home to Iowa. Couldn’t be prouder.”

While the former players I spoke with are thrilled that the current Hawkeyes have continued what they started, they seemed even more impressed with the fan buzz that’s followed.

Last May, more than 10,000 fans — almost every one of them wearing black and gold — poured into Omaha to watch the Big Ten championship game between Iowa and Ohio State.

The former players marvel how much one tweet about Hawkeye baseball can blow up now. And the interest is only building with a Big Ten championship. NCAA regional play begins this week, and it'll include Iowa for the second time in three years.

“I can remember playing home games and there would maybe be 50 people in the stands — and it’d be all of our parents,” said Mangler, who now holds a sales job in Minneapolis. “From that to, look at what it is now — people are traveling to watch them play, and traveling to see what (Heller) is going to do next with the program. It’s pretty special.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.