Leistikow: How a tenured college professor became a transformational Iowa baseball coach
At age 14, Robin Lund’s love for the game of baseball was so deep that he made a mind-blowing life decision.
And perhaps equally amazing (some might say impressive), his parents supported him fully.
Lund was raised in a northern Canadian town of Peace River, situated about 300 miles northwest of Edmonton in the province of Alberta. In Peace River, though, organized baseball stopped after eighth grade. To continue playing, Lund decided he needed to move to the United States. So, his parents made it happen.
One fall day in 1986, they made the 18-hour drive south to Lewiston, Idaho. They dropped off their son with a family they’d never met. Robin Lund's new life was about to begin.
“They told me, ‘Good luck. Follow your dreams,’” Lund said. “I’ll never be able to thank my parents enough for that.”
It was an unconventional move to say the least. But nothing about Lund’s journey, which eventually led to becoming a transformational pitching coach for the University of Iowa baseball team, has been conventional.
Lund’s gratefulness stems from what he appropriately described as a “wild ride” of a life.
In Idaho, he would stay with various families and meet the love of his life at Lewiston High School (he and wife Susie now have three children); he played baseball at Spokane Falls Community College (“I wasn’t very good, but I loved it,” he said) and coached there, too; he earned his Ph.D. in exercise physiology at the University of Idaho and then became a 17-year professor at the University of Northern Iowa in the department of movement and exercise science.
In perhaps his most extraordinary move yet, Lund got called back into the game.
'We're going to hire who?'
In December 2018, Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller (in his words) was in a pinch. Two of his top assistant coaches — Desi Druschel and Joe Migliaccio — had just been snapped up by the New York Yankees. December is about the worst time to lose an assistant coach in college baseball.
“My short list was pretty much exhausted,” Heller said.
Lund’s name popped to the top of Heller’s mind. Maybe the time was finally right for his longtime friend to get back into coaching full-time.
Lund and Heller first met in 2002. One of the first things Lund did after being hired as a professor at UNI was go online to look up the name of the baseball coach at his new employer. So, he cold-called Heller — who coached the Panthers from 2000 until their program was shuttered in 2009 — and offered his services in any way, free of charge. The two connected immediately.
Lund had decided to abandon the idea of coaching as a profession when his wife was expecting their first child, Abbie. He didn’t want to be swept up in the on-the-road lifestyle of college sports and wanted the opportunity to coach his kids. But he didn’t want to lose touch with the game completely.
After getting hired to coach Iowa in 2013, Heller kept Lund as a valued resource. Lund had become thoroughly engaged in baseball’s growing world of analytics — it fit his passion for science and data — and innovative strength-training methods. After all, a central joy in Lund's job was training UNI students to become strength-and-conditioning coaches.
"I kind of treated them like a team," Lund said. "I coached them and trained them like they were athletes, trying to develop them."
Always looking for any possible edge as a northern team with significant recruiting disadvantages in a southern-dominated sport, Heller soaked up any knowledge Lund would share. Heller would make sure his assistant coaches would interact with Lund, who was more than happy to help his friend and the only remaining Division I baseball team in Iowa.
With their kids getting older and the professorial life wearing on Lund — being tenured meant more committee roles and “doing less of the fun stuff” — he became a volunteer coach for the outstanding UNI softball program under coach Ryan Jacobs, a former assistant under Heller. A few months later, the two Iowa coaching jobs opened up.
Heller told Druschel (who has since risen to assistant pitching coach with the Yankees and works in their dugout during games) that he was thinking about calling Lund.
“Desi said, ‘Well, if you can get Robin, you won’t miss me,’” Heller said, laughing. “That gives you a feel for how our guys felt about Robin, even though he wasn’t a full-fledged member of the program.”
Of course, even if Lund was convinced that he was ready to move his family … Heller had to sell Iowa athletics director Gary Barta and top administrator Matt Henderson (Heller’s direct supervisor) on why they should hire an exercise-science professor with almost no coaching résumé for a Big Ten coaching job.
“They looked at me funny and said, ‘We’re going to hire who?’” Heller said. “I said, ‘Trust me. You’ll know within 10 minutes (of his interview) what I’m talking about.’ The rest is history with Robin.”
The transformation of Hawkeyes' ace
Lund is almost always the smartest guy in the room. But one of his best qualities is that he doesn’t talk down to anyone. In fact, his tone is described as loving.
“Just a wonderful person,” Heller said. “He brings tons of positive energy.”
Adam Mazur learned that immediately. A hard-throwing right-handed pitcher from the Minneapolis area, Mazur entered the NCAA transfer portal last summer after two seasons at South Dakota State. Two Zoom calls with Lund that lasted one hour each gave Lund all the info he needed to choose Iowa.
“From the start,” Mazur said, “I knew he was very detail-oriented.”
After joining the Hawkeye program in August, Mazur’s first day on campus was memorable. He and the other pitchers met with Lund and were asked to attach sensors to their bodies and throw fastballs into a net while a high-speed camera captured their every move. As Mazur explained, Lund sent the data to a friend with the Los Angeles Dodgers. That feedback became the starting point for Lund to create a personalized plan for each Hawkeye pitcher.
“It wasn’t cookie-cutter, which was nice,” Mazur said.
At South Dakota State, Mazur was statistically an average-at-best pitcher. In two seasons as the team’s No. 1 starter, he went 3-9 with a 5.50 ERA.
When Mazur arrived, his fastball had some heat (low- to mid-90s) but it was extremely straight and hittable. One of the big early adjustments Lund made with Mazur was to move him from the left side of the pitching rubber to the right. That changed the angle of his pitches.
“Now he pitches in the zone much more effectively,” Lund said. “He was always throwing hard, but he wasn’t getting swings and misses on his fastball. Now he’s getting swing-and-miss on his fastball, because his fastball profile is much better.”
Mazur also gained 15 pounds of strength; all part of the plan. An out-of-the-box drill involving PVC pipe and weighted balls “helped me keep my nose over my belly button,” Mazur said. “Land more stacked. Make sure my hips aren’t flying open too early. And then making sure my arm is on time with the rest of my body. He's been an amazing teacher."
Under Lund’s direction, Mazur’s average fastball speed has increased by 1-2 mph and topped out at 99. Lund didn’t touch Mazur's “plus” slider. Tweaks to his change-up made that a more dominant pitch. And he’s gone from not having a curve ball to using one frequently. In a recent sterling performance against Big Ten-leading Rutgers — eight innings, one run, 11 strikeouts — Mazur leaned on his newfound fourth pitch, the curve.
In his last five starts (including a dominant 5-2 win Friday against Purdue), Mazur is posting video-game numbers: 39⅔ innings pitched, 5 earned runs, 22 hits, five walks, 40 strikeouts. That’s a 1.13 ERA and 0.68 WHIP.
Just this week, The Athletic released its first “Big Board” for the upcoming MLB Draft. Mazur — the guy who won three games in two seasons at South Dakota State — was listed No. 24 overall. He’s in the conversation for being a first-round pick. For perspective, Iowa hasn’t had a player drafted before the fifth round since Wes Obermueller (second round) in 1999.
The Mazur example is just a snapshot of how Lund meticulously finds ways to get the most out of each Iowa pitcher. And the beauty for Heller is, the more evidence of success that piles up (such as Trenton Wallace in 2021 becoming the program's first-ever Big Ten pitcher of the year), the more pitchers believe in Lund's unconventional teaching style.
“It’s really interesting to watch him work at that and just to see guys really buy-in and adapt to what he’s saying and just learn a lot from him,” Mazur said. “He’s the best pitching coach I’ve ever had. He has helped me in amazing ways.”
'I'm a scientist that coaches pitchers'
It makes sense, doesn’t it? That a college professor would have an ability to communicate as a college sports coach.
“You can know everything … and talk the right things, but if you can’t get buy-in from the players, it doesn’t matter what you know,” Heller said. “And that’s a huge part of coaching.
“I’ve been around a lot of coaches in my 35 years, and Robin is the best by far at getting guys to (buy in).”
As Lund would appreciate, the numbers/data tell the story.
Though this is Lund’s fourth season officially with the Hawkeye program, it’s really the first in which he’s had a fully functional year as Iowa’s pitching coach. The first, he was actually the hitting coach — as former big-leaguer Tom Gorzelanny helped Heller with the pitchers in that early-2019 pinch. The second, college baseball’s season was canceled by COVID-19. The third, strict pandemic protocols followed by a program shutdown over positive tests created an uneven calendar.
Now, the Iowa pitching staff is humming. Entering Friday’s series opener against Purdue, the Hawkeyes (27-15 overall and battling for an NCAA bid) were leading the Big Ten and ranked in the top-10 nationally in ERA (3.46) and WHIP (1.25). Their opponents’ batting average is a salty .198; in the Big Ten, the only other staffs under .250 are Rutgers (.227) and Maryland (.230).
And the most telling stat of all: Iowa’s 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings were second nationally to Florida State’s 12.0. That means a lot of swing-and-miss numbers, and that’s one of Lund’s many specialties.
He has a database of 1.5 million in-game pitches and uses help from 12 student analysts to gather an obscene amount of data. For example, Lund can find 1,000 sliders that perform in a certain way that might match one of his pitchers. He can then take those sliders and virtually adjust something in the throwing motion or the velocity — and show his pitcher what kind of upgraded results a real adjustment can provide. Each adjustment is like a laboratory experiment, with evidence to back it up.
“I’m a scientist that coaches pitchers," Lund said. "I don’t know if it’s innovation.”
Pitchers understand if they hit on the right combination of changes, their results will improve. And that’s what has happened staff-wide for the Hawkeyes.
“Our guys are throwing harder than they ever have, and their sliders and curve-balls and change-ups were better than they were in the fall,” Lund said. “It’s not an opinion. The numbers are just different, and they correlate with things like swing-and-miss. It’s not a mystery. That’s what it is."
On gamedays, Lund calls all the pitches from the dugout. For days, he’ll diligently scout Iowa’s upcoming opponent with large swaths of data. He capitalizes on his player’s strengths and his opponents’ weaknesses. His pitchers trust what he's calling and execute. Thus, you get a sub-.200 opponent batting average.
“We’re as prepared as any team in the country,” Heller said, “in every game we play.”
For Lund, life still centers around family
If Lund was a well-kept secret before, he certainly isn’t going to be for long … not with the type of development he’s been able to demonstrate in a short period of time at Iowa.
To date, Lund has turned down suitors without listening. Remember, he’s wired differently.
He’s a family guy. His wife is an elementary school principal in the Washington district (30 miles south of Iowa City). Abbie, a softball standout at 2019 Division II national champion Augustana in Sioux Falls, has been accepted to Iowa’s medical school and starts this fall. Son Brett is mechanical engineering major at Iowa, where he serves in the Air Force ROTC program. Youngest son Samuel attends Clear Creek-Amana High School and wants to be a physics teacher; he, too, is likely to end up at Iowa.
“We’re a Hawkeye family now,” Lund said.
Circling back to his parents, Mom has died. Father Gary still lives in northern Alberta and is his son’s biggest fan, following the Hawkeyes closely from nearly 2,000 miles away. Robin Lund talks almost daily with Dad, who is in the process of building an off-the-grid cabin powered by solar and propane in the remote town of Worsley (population 28) near the British Columbia border.
Unconventional has always been a theme in Lund’s life.
Heller knows he’s got something unique in his longtime and unlikely friend, the guy who called him out of the blue back in 2002.
If Lund were to move on, Heller would be supportive. That is an impressive quality in Iowa’s head coach, who wants the best for those that work for him.
“A lot of head coaches get mad when guys leave,” Heller said. "One of my mentors when I was young told me, ‘I’ll never get to where I want to go unless I help at least five to 10 people get to where they want to go first.'"
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.