Leistikow: Iowa baseball's Rick Heller deserves a big raise — and soon
Iowa’s athletic year officially concluded over the weekend, giving us a good launching point to discuss a variety of sports and topics.
Looking back, there were some stirring 2016-17 moments:
The football team’s stunning upset of No. 3 Michigan behind Akrum Wadley’s video-game runs and Keith Duncan’s last-second kick.
Jordan Bohannon swishing a 3-pointer in Madison, Wis., to slay a rival and deliver the men’s basketball team its most thrilling of 19 wins.
Ally Disterhoft, an Iowa City native, becoming the all-time leading scorer for the storied women’s basketball program.
And Cory Clark overcoming torn wrist ligaments to beat a former teammate in the 133-pound title bout at the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
But the only Hawkeye team to produce a Big Ten Conference championship was the best story of 2016-17.
Let’s start there, as we wrap up Iowa's spring sports:
For four years, Rick Heller has proven his value. Now, it’s time for Iowa athletics to go all-in for the Hawkeye baseball coach and his long-term vision.
That starts with a necessary investment in Heller's contract.
Under Heller, Iowa’s been to two NCAA Regionals in a three-year span — a program first.
Under Heller, Iowa’s registered four straight 30-win seasons — for a program that had four total in the previous 23 years.
Under Heller, Iowa on Tuesday had two players selected in the MLB Draft’s first six rounds — something that hadn’t happened in 25 years.
Most importantly, though, people are excited about Hawkeye baseball. The groundswell of support was evident in the magical ride of 2015 and again this May as “Hellerball” ran the gauntlet for a Big Ten Tournament championship — another program first.
Iowa baseball was essentially a nationally televised product for two straight weeks. At the NCAA Regional in Houston, “Let’s Go Hawks!” chants were easily heard by fans nationwide who watched ESPN’s broadcasts.
At a base salary of $162,750, Heller — a small-town Iowa kid who grew to become the perfect man to lead this program turnaround — has come at a home-grown Hawkeye discount.
Look around the nation, and you can see a vastly different landscape. Power programs like TCU and Florida pay their coaches more than $1 million a year. Even in the Big Ten, Ohio State’s Greg Beals earns a base salary of nearly $400,000.
(As another means of comparison, the Iowa football team's quarterbacks coach makes $540,000 annually before bonuses.)
Even doubling Heller’s pre-bonuses salary to the low-$300,000s would be only on par with a low-end job in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
If athletics director Gary Barta doesn’t lock up Heller at that level, you can bet other programs will come knocking ... if they aren't already. Oklahoma has a new opening after its coach, who was making roughly $400,000 annually, resigned Monday.
I mentioned this starts with Heller. As valuable as he is, the investment shouldn’t end there.
The college baseball arms race is ongoing, especially in the Big Ten, and that is centered around facilities. Even if it’s a few years down the road, firm plans and a timeline need to be put into place for building a new baseball stadium to replace Duane Banks Field — one that would not only serve as an attractive destination for fans and recruits but one that could, perhaps, someday host an NCAA Regional.
Another home-grown coach deserves a pat on the back for the Hawkeyes’ spring production.
The Iowa men’s track and field team just returned from Eugene, Ore., with a 17th-place team finish in the NCAA Championships — the program’s highest in 50 years and tops among Big Ten teams.
Even though the program was already ascending under director of track and field Joey Woody, it was shut out at last year’s NCAAs. This year, it posted a third-place finish from the 4x400-meter relay (anchored by former Iowa football receiver Emmanuel Ogwo); a fourth from Aaron Mallett in the 110-meter hurdles; and a fifth in the discus from Reno Tuufuli. That’s a relay, a sprint and a field event.
Also, it should be noted that the women’s program under Woody — an Iowa City native — produced two all-Americans and is on the upswing.
The once-proud softball program at Iowa is a different story.
A program that reached 16 NCAA Regionals (and four Women’s College World Series) between 1989 and 2009 has made zero appearances since Marla Looper was hired as coach prior to 2011 and owns these records in the last four seasons: 16-30-1, 19-40, 13-39 and 19-32.
It shouldn't be lost in the what's-wrong-with-Iowa-softball discussion that in-state players are flourishing elsewhere. The Big Ten player of the year, Minnesota’s Kendyl Lindaman, hails from Ankeny; and the star pitcher that helped clinch Oklahoma’s NCAA championship, Paige Lowary, is from Dallas Center.
On a lighter note, everyone seems to be excited this week about the Tiger Hawk logo officially heading to Kinnick Stadium’s midfield.
Now, find a way to put Hayden Fry’s image on the next-door water tower and everyone can really rejoice.
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.