How Iowa baseball's 'culture change' became real
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Even casual Iowa baseball followers understand the hiring of second-year coach Rick Heller was at the forefront of this remarkable 2015 resurgence.
But the team that won 38 games and enters this week's Big Ten Conference Tournament with its highest seed in 25 years wouldn't be where it is today without a more important binding contract.
Upon his July 2013 replacing of Jack Dahm, who was fired after 10 years as Iowa's baseball program remained insignificant, Heller knew he needed to assemble the returning players and deliver maybe the most important message of his Hawkeye tenure.
Here's what Heller remembers telling them:
"We're going to ask you to make some changes with attitude, work ethic, classroom, community, everything — and change the culture of Iowa baseball.
"We're not going to listen to what anybody else has to say about you … whoever said you're a bad guy, you're not a good teammate, or you're not a good player.
"Basically, everybody here is going to get a fair shot. We're going to treat you like we recruited you. We're going to love you just like you're our guys. Hopefully you can see soon that you can trust us and buy into what we're talking about."
The core, this year's senior class, was immediately sold on the message.
So, they struck a deal of their own with Heller: You lead, we'll follow.
"I knew right then," Heller said, "that we had a chance to do something special in a couple years with that group."
Out with the old
Center fielder Eric Toole, second baseman Jake Mangler, left fielder Kris Goodman and third baseman Nick Day are staples in Heller's batting order. Right-hander Nick Hibbing is the Hawkeyes' closer.
All five have been at Iowa for their entire careers — first with Dahm, now with Heller.
"It's been a complete culture change around here and around the whole program," said Mangler, the team leader with 33 RBI. "Obviously, it's been a lot for the better."
There's that phrase again, culture change. With a new approach, questions found answers.
"It was, 'Gosh, how are we going to turn this around? Are we ever going to be as good as we are supposed to be?' " said Goodman, who's hitting .279 with a team-high three home runs. "Now that this is happening, I get the chills just talking about it."
So, what changed exactly? First, the players committed to working just as hard inside the white lines as they did in the batting cages and weight room.
But more than anything, change hinged on recalibrating expectations.
Before Heller, Iowa had gone 15 seasons out of 17 with a losing record. The program hadn't been nationally ranked since 1990. Uncertainty had become ingrained to anyone wearing an Iowa jersey onto a Big Ten diamond. They didn't flat-out expect to lose, but at the slightest hint of failure doubt would creep in.
With Heller came a fresh start, and a winning expectation — which, as most athletes at any level know, is easier said than done.
The Hawkeyes opened 2014 with fresh fire, winning eight of nine games. They were an up-and-down 22-22 the rest of the way.
Still, at 30-23, it marked the program's third 30-win season in 21 years, and was summed up by an "F" word.
"It was one of the most fun years I've ever had," said Heller, 51, in his 28th season as a college head coach. He's signed through 2020. "They were so coachable, and it was just a blast."
Fast forward to 2015. Iowa again started hot — 9-1 this time. But stumbles came. Giving up six runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to lose, 9-8, at Middle Tennessee State, then consecutive losses at Houston Baptist could have dented confidence.
But to a man, the seniors say what happened March 27-29 at Duane Banks Field epitomized the program's breakthrough.
That's when Iowa swept a three-game series from then-No. 19 Indiana, which in 2013 became the Big Ten's first College World Series participant since 1984, to open the conference season.
Hawkeye baseball, which eked into the Big Ten Conference Tournament in Heller's first year with a 10-14 record, had announced its arrival.
"They've been the gold standard of the Big Ten the last couple years," Mangler said. "When they came in and we were able to win all three games, it's like, 'It's real now; we're actually a good team. We can do this.' "
A few series later, Toole was on SportsCenter's Top 10 (No. 3) for an incredible diving catch. The Hawkeyes continued to take down some of the Big Ten's top teams — Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska — on their march to a second-place finish and No. 13 national ranking. They slipped in their final series of the regular season, dropping two of three at Rutgers.
But a new season is about to begin. Next stop: Target Field in Minneapolis.
How high can they go?
The Big Ten Tournament, which for Iowa begins at 1 p.m. Wednesday against Ohio State at the home of the Minnesota Twins, looms as a program benchmark. Before the season, Hawkeye players spoke solely of winning the school's first conference championship since 1990.
That didn't happen in the regular season, thanks to a run by Illinois to No. 2 in the national rankings. But behind an all-junior starting rotation of Tyler Peyton, Blake Hickman and Calvin Mathews (combined 20-7 record, 2.76 ERA), the Hawkeyes are a No. 2 seed and in as good a position as they could've imagined.
"After another year with Coach Heller working with us, our full potential is coming out, obviously," Toole said. "Our pitching staff's been amazing. Our hitters, up and down the lineup, have been amazing. Our defensive play has been amazing. Everything you could ask for has been going right."
Illinois was one of five opponents not on Iowa's Big Ten schedule, but the two could finally clash in Minneapolis.
"We're going to be ready for the big stage this year," Toole said, remembering Iowa's elimination after three games (two losses) a year ago. "Last year maybe there were some jitters, some butterflies here and there.
"We have more confidence, more swagger in ourselves. And I think we'll be ready to go."
Talk will shift soon to the NCAA regional tournament. The 64-team field will be announced May 25, and Iowa is a virtual lock to be included for just the fourth time in school history — and first since 1990. There's a good chance the Hawkeyes will be selected as one of 16 regional hosts, which has never happened.
But before all that, the Hawkeyes go to Minneapolis as one of the top teams in what's been a strong year for the Big Ten. And you can bet these Hawkeyes, especially the seniors, won't go down without a fight.
When Iowa lost its series opener April 10 at then-No. 16 Maryland by a score of 10-1, Heller recalibrated the troops. "Keep competing," he told them.
The Hawkeyes won the next two days, 3-1 and 2-1. That's Hellerball.
"Keep competing. That's something I always say to myself now," Goodman said. "No matter what the score is, whether we're winning or losing, just keep competing. The confidence Coach Heller has given us and myself is something I'll never forget."