Barta soaks in winning baseball, talks Heller's future

Chad Leistikow
Rick Heller, after leading Iowa to the Big Ten Tournament last year, has created excitement in Iowa baseball that’s filling the seats.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – As Gary Barta stood in the top row at Duane Banks Field, he had a great look at the grandstands surrounding him, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with with nearly 2,000 black-and-gold-wearing fans — there to watch baseball.

This is a new thing at Iowa, and also could be seen as validation for the ninth-year athletic director who two seasons ago did not renew the contract of Jack Dahm and instead brought in Rick Heller, the man now in charge.

Barta doesn't view it that way, ticking off similar crowd support he's seen in football, basketball and wrestling.

"The fact that we have a big crowd for baseball is just more validation that Hawkeye fans love to watch their team," Barta said. "Especially when they're competitive."

It's an understatement to say these Hawkeyes have been competitive. After a 13-4 win over Northwestern in the first game of an 11th-hour doubleheader Saturday with rain in Sunday's forecast, 14th-ranked Iowa improved to 26-10 overall and 10-1 in the Big Ten Conference in front of 1,961 fans. A crowd of 1,588 watched Friday's 4-3 Iowa win.

If this keeps up, Iowa will reach the NCAA regionals for just the fourth time in school history and first time since 1990 — also the last year the Hawkeyes won the Big Ten. They reached a season-high ranking of No. 13 that year.

And if this keeps up, Heller could be viewed as a hot coaching candidate for any program.

Heller, an Eldon native, signed a six-year deal with the Iowa in July 2013 after four years at Indiana State. Making last year's Big Ten Tournament triggered a contract extension through the 2020 season.

Heller's base salary is $142,500 — competitive in the Big Ten and roughly $40,000 more than Dahm made in his final season in 2013. And given this year's success, he could earn tens of thousands more in performance bonuses.

For instance, an NCAA regional appearance would add $7,000. If he's Big Ten Coach of the Year — which seems plausible at this point — that's another $5,000.

"He loves Iowa," Barta said of Heller, who coached for 12 seasons at Upper Iowa and another 10 at Northern Iowa before that program was discontinued in 2009. "He's wanted to be the head coach at Iowa for a long time. It's a partnership."

Fans Saturday got to see a new video board and a new turf field that are the centerpieces of a $2.5 million renovation at Duane Banks Field. Barta said there are future hopes for Phase 2 — in "five to 10 years," which would be much more costly — that would include stadium expansion beyond the approximately 2,200 available seats.

Heller has been a big hit with the Hawkeyes, and Barta hopes it's just the start of a long, fruitful marriage.

"He has a great contract," Barta said. "And it's a partnernship we're looking forward to for a long time."