Former Heller pupil makes national impact leading Dallas Baptist
I OWA CITY, Ia. – The Rick Heller coaching tree extends southwest to a small, Christian university in Texas that just so happens to have one of the country's top baseball programs.
Dan Heefner, a native of Iowa City, is in charge of the only Division I sport at Dallas Baptist, enrollment 5,470.
Much like his mentor who has led a baseball revival at Iowa, Heefner has guided Dallas Baptist — DBU, for short — to new heights.
It's fitting that both schools are part of the 64-team NCAA baseball tournament that begins Friday. They've molded their programs with a personal touch that for Heefner was born when he was an assistant under Heller at Northern Iowa in 2002-03.
"We have the same philosophy," Heefner said. "We both love baseball, and we want to help develop our players and help them reach our full potential."
Heller is in his 28th year as a head coach, but it's been Heefner, in his eighth season, who has made the bigger national splash. The former Iowa City High slugger is taking the Patriots to their fifth NCAA regional under his direction; they made it to the Super Regionals — baseball's Sweet 16 — in 2011.
When Heefner's name comes up, Heller cracks a smile and laughs with visible joy.
"I can talk about Dan for a long time," Heller, 51, said.
It's hard not to root for the story of Heefner, 37, and an underdog like DBU, which was built from the ground up. This year, the Patriots are hosting an NCAA regional for the first time (facing VCU on Friday), a reward for spending much of the year with the nation's No. 1 RPI.
And, thanks to the 2011 Super Regional success, DBU has a spectacular new stadium, with a capacity of more than 2,000 in a state-of-the-art, red-brick facility, to be a proud host. Not bad for a school that competes in most sports as the Division II level.
How did it happen? Character counts. Heefner treats his players right, a lesson reinforced from Heller.
Heller fondly recalls his days with Heefner, then a hungry-to-learn assistant in Cedar Falls.
"The first thing that struck me with Dan was how good of person he was. His character is off the charts," Heller said. "Definitely a guy I wanted to be around. Even though I'd done it for a long time at that time, I learned a lot from Dan."
The two hit it off. Heefner went on to become an assistant coach at Creighton, before taking the same position at DBU. He ascended to the head position in 2008, and he's built a life there, in addition to a baseball dynasty.
With wife Liz, his high school sweetheart, he has five sons, ages 1 to 12. Heefner's family values have taken root in Dallas, so much so that he didn't even consider a move back to his hometown when the Iowa baseball job opened in 2013.
"It's a perfect fit for me here," Heefner said. "It's really neat to be somewhere where you've seen it from the beginning."
Heller is paying attention to his former pupil. The DBU stadium came about after a donor watched the 2011 success. Eventually, Heller hopes that Duane Banks Field can be expanded as well, though a project like that would cost many millions.
The Hawkeyes are taking the right steps. They've begun to break through on a national level in Heller's second season. Heefner isn't surprised at the success of a mentor that remains a close friend.
"I was just excited for him to see when he gets into the Big Ten, when he starts getting better players, with the philosophy of development, how high could he take that program?" Heefner said. "I think we're seeing that right now."
It's strange think about a Big Ten program mirroring that of a mostly Division II school, but the situations are similar. At DBU, Heefner isn't yet able to attract the elite recruits — those in the southwest still default to power conferences like the Big 12 or SEC — so he's been able to rise to prominence through development. That's Heller's approach as well.
Heefner's program is built on relationships. He leads a weekly chapel service. Bible studies among players are common, but not required. While the circumstances are different at a public school like Iowa, Heller has forged a mutual bond with his players, and it's led to more elite Iowans wanting to stay home to play their college ball.
"All the high school coaches love (Heller), because he treats people well," Heefner said. "You knew he'd do an awesome job. He doesn't view that as a stepping-stone job."
And so, as the NCAAs are about to begin, Heefner and Heller have their own horses in the race. While Iowa is breaking into the field for the first time in 25 years, it's become old hat at DBU. A veteran group, led by a stellar pitching staff, has Heefner's hopes high for his fifth tournament venture.
"This is by far our best team," Heefner said.
You can bet Heefner is rooting for Heller, and Heller for Heefner. That's always the case, except for the times they battled when Heller coached at Indiana State from 2010 to 2013 — even if the phone calls taper off each May.
"This time of year, we don't want to jinx each other," Heller said with a hearty laugh, "so we usually don't call."
The bond is so tight, Iowa will open the 2016 baseball season with a three-game series at, you guessed it, Dallas Baptist. Who knows, maybe one — or both — will be coming off their school's first College World Series appearance.
"It just feels like we keep building," Heefner said, "and then there's another step we can take with the program."