TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - Indiana State Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman announced the hiring of Rick Heller as the 28th head baseball coach in the 113-year history of the Sycamore program.
Heller spent the previous 10 seasons as the head coach at Northern Iowa. With the Panthers, Heller earned a Missouri Valley Conference championship and the school's only trip to the NCAA Championship.
Heller's final season at Northern Iowa saw Travis Bennett grab Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year honors. Bennett made an immediate impact on the Panther lineup, hitting .315 in league games with a team-high 28 hits, 13 runs batted in and a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. Overall, he started all 48 UNI games and was the Panthers' leading hitter (.338) with 67 hits, 43 RBI and a .490 slugging percentage. Bennett delivered 18 multi-hit games and hit safely in 38 contests and was the first-ever Panther to earn the Valley's Newcomer of the Year honor.
In 2007, Heller earned his 200th win with the Panthers, as well as his 500th win as a head coach. During his tenure, Heller developed the program into a conference contender year in and year out, while coaching three MVC Most Valuable Players, one MVC Pitcher of the Year and one MVC Newcomer of the Year.
The Panthers broke 57 team or individual school records with Heller at the helm, which included UNI posting a 4.63 earned run average in 2006, its lowest ERA since becoming a NCAA Division I program in 1981. UNI also broke team records for hits, runs batted in, doubles and extra base hits during the 2001 season.
In 2008, UNI finished with its third 30-win season, posting a 30-24 mark. Shortstop Brandon Douglas earned MVC Player of the Year honors, as well as second-team All-America honors. The Panthers finished with the third-highest batting average in the Valley, and Douglas finished the year with the league's second highest average at the plate.
Including 2008, Heller led the Panthers to four MVC tournaments, winning the championship in 2001 with All-American Ryan Brunner claiming the league MVP award and All-American Nic Ungs taking home Pitcher of the Year honors. Under Heller, 18 Panther players went on to play professional baseball, including current minor leaguers Brandon Douglas, Guido Fonseca, Nic Ungs, and Adam Boeve. The Panthers recorded back-to-back 30-plus win seasons in 2001 and 2002 for the first time in school history and set the school single-season record at 35 wins in 2001.
UNI's NCAA Regional appearance in 2001 was the school's first since becoming Division I in 1981. Heller also coached two ESPN The Magazine Academic All-Americans in Travis Welsch and Ryan Brunner.
Since Heller's arrival in 2000, the school record books were virtually rewritten. The Panthers had a strong tradition as one of the best offensive teams in the conference, as well as the country. In Heller's nine years, UNI led the league in hitting three times and finished second once.
In 2001, UNI was ranked 10th in the nation in hitting with a team average of .333. The Panthers were sixth in the country in stolen bases with 130 in 2003. The team averaged more than seven runs per game in three of the six years he has been at the helm. In 2003, Boeve finished second in the league in hitting, leading in home runs and RBI. Boeve was also the second player during Heller's tenure to earn the MVC Player of the Year award.
Team hitting was not the only thing that improved under Heller, as the pitching and fielding also strengthened. UNI's earned run average lowered in six of Heller's years, with the 2006 ERA being the best in school history. The club's walk to strikeout ratio improved with nearly every season since 2000. The 2003 and 2004 Panther squads also put together the top two defensive teams in school history with an overall fielding percentage of .964.
Heller became just the sixth UNI baseball coach since 1926 when he was hired in 1999. He had spent the previous 12 seasons building a nationally-ranked program as the head coach at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa.
While at Upper Iowa, Heller recorded a 291-194-3 record and was named Iowa Conference Coach of the Year four times. The Peacocks won three regular-season and three Iowa Conference Tournament titles in his tenure.
Heller arrived in Fayette in the fall of 1987 and quickly turned things around, earning his first Iowa Conference Coach of the Year honor in 1989. One year later, he led Upper Iowa to its first winning season in 17 years. In 1993, Heller won his first conference championship, and the first for any UIU program in 20 years, while advancing to the NCAA Division III Regionals.
Heller's team won the Iowa Conference and advanced to a NCAA Regional again in 1995. His team finished 19th in the national rankings, and he won his third Coach of the Year honor. He repeated Coach of the Year honors again in 1996 when the Peacocks won the Iowa Conference and Central Regional to advance to the NCAA Division III College World Series. His team finished the year ranked sixth nationally, and he was named NCAA Division III Central Region Coach of the Year. That 39-12 team also set a school record for wins.
In 1997, his team was ranked seventh nationally in the preseason poll and won the Iowa Conference Tournament. In 1998, his team reached as high as 10th nationally while finishing with a 38-8 record to set a school record for winning percentage. His final UIU team finished 30-15-1 and finished third in the Iowa Conference while setting five school records.
As a player at Upper Iowa from 1982-86, he was a four-year starter at shortstop, and he also lettered in football and basketball. He is a member of the Upper Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame.
Heller has two daughters - Tara and Alyssa. He and his wife, Rachelle, will reside in Terre Haute.