Heller Wants To Bring 'Sense Of Normalcy' Back To Hawkeyes
His office, Rick Heller said, is his ‘happy place.’
So is the ballpark.
The Iowa baseball coach can’t go to either place right now. The Hawkeyes’ season is over — like other college sports spring seasons, canceled over concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Heller and the Hawkeyes would have been opening Big Ten play this weekend with a three-game series at Penn State.
Instead, they’ll be together on a video conference call on Friday morning, “so we can bring a sense of normalcy back to the guys,” Heller said on a teleconference Thursday morning.
Iowa’s last game was a 3-1 home win over Kansas on March 11. The Hawkeyes were scheduled for a 5 p.m. flight the next day for a three-game series at Cal State-Northridge.
Instead, their season was over.
“It’s really a weird feeling going from a hundred miles to zero, basically, and, like everyone else, being taken out of your norm,” Heller said. “Just try to do some exercise, some reading, some self-help type stuff, and then try to stay in communication with the players via text or call. Just trying to get a grip on what our next moves will be — there really isn’t a whole lot we can do right now, other than sit here and wait to get some sort of ruling on what’s going to happen.”
Iowa was 10-5, with three wins over nationally ranked teams, and had won seven of its last eight games before the stoppage.
“We were super-happy with the progress we were making,” Heller said. “We played well at times, really well at times. We had a couple of games early on in the first six or eight games where we had a major letdown. But we bounced back and played well.
“It was coming together. I really felt good about where we were. We were playing well in all areas of the game.
We were in a really good place, and the lineups were starting to get set, and we knew who to use against certain pitchers, certain matchups. We thought this team had a chance to be really good if we could show a high level of consistency day in and day out. The guys just kept steadily, steadily improving, and it was showing on the field.”
The Hawkeyes never got a chance to finish the season.
Heller recalled what it was like the day the season was canceled.
“It was a really trying day,” he said. “We won a game on Wednesday, we’re flying to Northridge at 5 p.m. Thursday. As of noon on Thursday, we were still going to Northridge. We got the call around one o’clock that that trip wasn’t going to happen, so I had to (quickly) get the guys over to the facility, let them know that we weren’t flying to Northridge, but that we were going to scrimmage Friday, Saturday and Sunday here at home, and be ready to go for (a three-game series against) Saint Mary’s the next week. Then, two hours later, it went from that to the season is over.”
Heller compared his meeting to the team to when he was a coach at Northern Iowa and told his players that the program was being discontinued.
“When I had to tell the team that day that it was over, that was awful,” Heller said of when he talked to the Hawkeyes. “I haven’t had to give many worse in my career.
“It was really difficult to get your thoughts together, and to do it in a proper way. Basically, you guys know me, it was matter-of-fact. Here’s the deal, we have no control over this, but it’s just announced that our season is over, there is no more baseball. Kids crying, hugging. It was awful.”
Iowa’s spring break was the following week, a break that was extended for one week as the university prepares for online classes for everyone for the rest of the spring semester.
“It was tough, because it was so final and it happened so quick,” Heller said. “I think, for the first seven to eight days, the majority of the team stayed in Iowa City. I know they were thinking maybe, maybe, something would change and we would all get together again.”
Heller said Friday’s meeting was important.
“My main concern with them is, honestly, that they’ll do their work and be disciplined and get into a routine with their online classes and their video classes,” he said. “You don’t want them to throw their hands in the air and go, “Wheeeee, school’s out, I don’t have to go to class. As a head coach, I probably have to worry about that more than what you guys think. That’s going to be the big message from me tomorrow.”
Next week, the Hawkeyes will go back to the routine of smaller meetings with assistant coaches, also by video conference. Those discussions, Heller said, aren’t about baseball, but will be about how players are dealing with the uncertainties of this time, and whether there are any issues.
“There is going to be a day when this team is back together, and I still believe that,” he said. “And we’ll find a way to do that at some point in time.
“I’m not going to lie — the first thing I look forward to getting up in the morning is going into the office. Those feelings are still there. I miss that, for sure.”