League Pitching Machines and its show Around the Bases recently featured an interview with Indiana State University baseball coach Rick Heller on its website (www.leaguepitchingmachines.com) and praised Heller, who celebrated his 600th career win last year, for a strong focus on player development both on and off the field. Heller led the Sycamores to the Missouri Valley Conference Championship in 2012 and to its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1995. In 2012, he was also named MVC Coach of the Year. An edited version of the interview with coach appears below.
LPM: Twenty five years as a coach – can you tell me, because of that history, we got to go back to the beginning a little bit if it’s okay with you – where did it all start?
Heller: I was at a high school after my last year in college down in Bakersfield, Missouri. I was head basketball, baseball, and a history teacher, and a PE teacher. I’d went to a small school, Upper Iowa University, where they were making some changes. My old coach was actually – back in those days some of the guys would have to coach basketball and baseball or multiple sports. And that was the situation with my old coach who was really a basketball coach that kind of had to do the baseball.
Our new athletic director at the time was going to make a change with the baseball and just leave Coach Prahaskim as the basketball coach. I was going to work a basketball camp for him, and I just randomly called the office to see when he wanted me to be there, and the A.D. answered and he said, ‘Hey Rick, how would you like to come back and interview for the baseball job?’ I said, ‘Well, I most certainly would.’ So, to make a long story short, I went back and I had to be the residence hall director, head baseball coach, and took a $7,000 pay-cut from the high school job to roll the dice that we could turn that program around.
When I was hired I was the youngest head coach in NCAA – in the country. It wasn’t because I was any good, or special. I think it was because no one else wanted that job.
LPM: Well, don’t take anything away from yourself either!
Heller: Well, I just felt like, when I was there, that if there was someone there who could really focus on the baseball – I mean, we did a lot of things early in my years there – changing the field, fixing the field, starting to build some tradition. And three years into it we had our first winning season in years and years, and then in ’93 we won the first championship in the Iowa Conference and went to a regional. And then in ’96 we won the regional and went to the College World Series in Salem, Virginia for the first time. I was lucky enough to get a break and get my division one job at the University of Northern Iowa. Another situation that I had a northern school – tough place to win – but it was another situation where you’re beating your head on the steering wheel because you built the program up at Upper Iowa and we had it to a point where I felt we could win – and win big most years. And then to start all over at another program that was not funded very well, and not full scholarships, and to have to compete in the Missouri Valley Conference was going to be a big challenge. But as a Division III guy, you don’t get many opportunities, if any, to make the jump to Division I – so again we rolled the dice and took the chance. And I’m really glad that I did.
LPM: Well, if you look back at the timeline, Coach Heller, you’re a guy that builds. Right? From Upper Iowa coming into nothing. So, that’s what they were looking for.
Heller: Exactly. It was interesting how it worked at Upper Iowa, because I thought originally that I could do it with Iowa kids and local kids and quickly found out that nobody was really interested in hearing from me locally. So I had to come up with a plan to get some players and basically scoured the United States and we worked our tails off. I remember renting a car in 1989 in San Diego and stopping at every junior college all the way up to Santa Rosa, and Losson, and Euba City, and staying out there for a couple weeks and just beating the bushes. And we did that year, after year, after year. We did the same thing in Florida and Arizona. Well, we found our niche. Because at that time in California there weren’t a lot of Division III schools out there. And at the time nobody really was doing what I was doing – trying to get that Division II- type kid or that kid who couldn’t qualify for Division I to come play out in the Midwest. And it was great because I found a lot of really good players and really good kids who just wanted a chance to play, and that’s kind of how we did it. And we did it with player development – I’ve always been a strong player development guy. If you’re in schools like that, and you’re not, you’re going to get your brains beat out. So, we got a good reputation of having kids improve in our programs and did it with a total program: academics, off the field, etc. And we really stick with the same plan today here at Indiana State. It’s a lot better situation for me personally from a scholarship standpoint. Kind of skipping Northern Iowa here so maybe we can talk a little bit about that – because when I was there they ended up dropping the program after my tenth year – things were pretty grim.
LPM: Oh, the baseball – they dropped it?
Heller: Yeah, they dropped the program and it was about as bad a situation as anybody could go through. Horrible to our players, and myself and our staff. Jobless – and to catch a break and land at Indiana State, a school that has some baseball tradition and nice recruiting base and full scholarships. I’ve always felt like if we had a fair chance, that we could really do some things, and I think that’s shown here in the last three years here at Indiana State.
LPM: So, you talked about performance. As a coach at the college level, that seems very important to you, with your players – they’re students – academic responsibility and their performance at baseball how do you balance that? And what emphasis do you put on both?
Heller: Well, number one, in our program – and in baseball I think there is a lot of guys out there who do a great job at this – the academics come first. They always take first priority. And I always think it’s important that you do a good job as a coach as far as stressing that on a daily basis and just don’t make it lip-service. If a kid has to go study, then he goes and studies. We’re fortunate here at Indiana State to have a great academic support system. We’ve got a situation where we can get kids tutors, we can get them help and our study halls are monitored and it’s very organized. I’m getting updates from our people every two weeks on how the kids are doing academically. Really, it’s just setting the tone early on and making it the culture where we get good grades. Here at our school – and I know they do at all of them – but here we compete within the department with all the programs on GPA and so forth, and make it a pretty big deal.
LPM: O, good…
Heller: For example, this past year we were looking at a 3.24 for our team. In baseball circles, that’s pretty good. I think it was the highest since they started keeping track here fifteen years ago. The last three semesters we’ve got things rolling and we’ve been over a 3.03. It’s just the culture that we have. And then, again, we try to recruit kids who are strong academically. The last thing any coach wants to do is worry about his best pitcher, or catcher, or short stop coming up ineligible and being on that borderline every semester. We try to do a good job of picking the kids that will fit into our program. A lot of times that’s turning down the “name kid” or the kid that is perceived as the best player. We take that a step further with trying to do a great job of finding tough kids and hard-working kids, and overachieving kids. When I say overachieving I think that stems from being a humble person. I don’t think I, in my 25 years, have ever seen a kid overachieve that hasn’t been a humble kid.
Heller: Yeah, and that’s just something that I’ve found. The kids that are humble will overachieve, and the kids that are self-centered and cocky, to that degree, in the recruiting process or even with their families, tend to not overachieve.
LPM: Wow, that’s interesting.
Heller: Yeah, and so we look for that type of kid. And a lot of times that means that people look at you cross-eyed because you’re not recruiting this guy, and you are this guy. But, it’s really worked for us. In the programs that I’ve been in, if you can’t get kids to buy into your system – if you can’t get kids to work their tails off and overachieve then we have no chance. Like at Northern Iowa, most days in the Missouri Valley we were teaming up against teams that were more talented than us. And we lived by that old saying that “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t show up.” You just got to go out every single day and play your best. We knew going into it we had to play perfect baseball on a lot of days to beat some of the teams that we had to beat. And if they do play great, and they do show up and play as hard as we do, we’re probably going to lose. But our guys had made a living at showing up and playing hard everyday and making sure that we gave ourselves a chance to win – and that’s our system.
LPM: Congratulations on the 600th win with the Sycamores, right?
Heller: Yeah, that was an interesting day – not because of the 600th win – but because one of our pitchers, Jason Van Skike, who is now in the White Sox organization, threw a no-hitter on that day. We were at Central Arkansas, and it was a pretty special day to have a nine inning, no-hitter thrown on the day that you got your 600th win. At the time, I didn’t even know it was the 600th win…The sports information guy had told me afterwards because obviously we were pretty excited about the no-hitter. I thought that was pretty fun. Definitely made it a day you wouldn’t forget.
LPM: Sure. Well, what’s your experience been at ISU? I mean, has it been different, a continuation of, or something special?
Heller: It’s been something special for me – it’s almost like a God-sent. Coming from Upper Iowa where we had limited resources and really had to make the most of everything we had and then at Northern Iowa a far worse situation where the budget was the worst in the league by maybe a hundred grand and I was raising a hundred thousand just to play the season, and all the work we had to do off the field. Taking care of the field – it wasn’t ours, it was a city field. So we would make it nice and then a summer team would come tear it up and then you’d have to go fix it again. We had no real sales. All the little things you had to do to just survive and then only having seven in-state scholarships – it was a battle. And then to have them drop the program after we felt that we had done everything we could and did this entire extra work and were the best team players in the department. Our kids were doing the right things off the field in the community and in the classroom. And then just to say “Ah, we’re just going to drop baseball.” Gone. And really give us no warning. It was a kick in the face. And then to get the job down here where we are fully funded and I work in an athletic department that is very supportive and don’t have to spend 90 percent of my time fundraising. We have a nice new field and an athletic director that’s a baseball guy. It’s just been, for me, what I’ve always wanted. What I would consider a fair chance. To a lot of people they felt like, “Indiana State? They’re the bottom rung from a budget standpoint in the Missouri Valley.” But compared to what I did have, I felt like I had won the lottery. So I think I was the perfect pick for their coach. A lot of guys who maybe were at some BCS schools would have thought that this was a pretty rough job. But to me it’s a great job. Indiana is a state that has a solid base to recruit. There are a lot of good players in Indiana. We border Illinois, so there’s a ton of players there. I can recruit locally. I mean, this past year I think I had five – maybe six guys right from Terre Haute on our team, which made it a lot of fun on a 40-win season and a conference championship. The people in town were really supportive because of the local kids. Anyway, it’s just been a great fit for me.
LPM: Great. So, two quick questions to finish up. And the first one will probably be short because no one likes to “toot their own horn” or pat themselves on the back. But I’m going to ask it. As a coach, how would you think that players – past or present – and coaches would describe you if asked?
Heller: Well, I’d think that they’d say that I’m a guy that really cares about his players. That is always there for them, not only when they’re playing for me, but years down the road. The thing that makes me feel the best is that when we won the championship this year, I was getting notes from guys that played for me in 1989 and 1990 and 1995.
LPM: Oh, really?
Heller: Yeah, and it’s almost like we’re just a big family. And even though they didn’t go to school here, they feel like they’re a part of the program, which is what I talk to the current players about. No matter what happens down the road their legacy will live on and they’ll be a part of all the championships and all the wins. That’s the kind of program that we have, and that makes me feel great. I think if you asked other coaches, they’d say our kids play hard and they hustle and they do the right things and they respect the game.
LPM: Great. And finally, for any upcoming coach, young or even a coach at your level, what would be one nugget of wisdom that you could share with them.
Heller: Well, I guess the thing that I would tell them is that they need to go out every single day and teach. I look at this as a teaching job and the part that I enjoy most about this job is really the fall. Because there is no pressure to win games and it’s all about just practice and getting better and improving. To me, the biggest reward is when you see a kid improve and get better and turn himself, on the field and off, into a man and a guy that is going to be very productive in his life down the road because of the discipline and structure that you’ve instilled in them. I think a lot of kids that come into it just see the games, and the wins, and the excitement of the game. To me, it’s the grind that’s the most important – what you do every single day to get better. That would be what I would try to instill in the young coaches – and what I do with my young coaches. We have to do a great job of teaching every single day and make sure that it never turns into a program where we just roll the balls out and chew seeds and have a good time. In our program, if we did that, we would win 10 games. So that’s my motto.