Heiar Education | Meet Greg Heiar, LSU’s fundamentally obsessed, “superstar” assistant coach

By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor

Editor’s note: This is the cover story of Tiger Rag’s 2017-18 Basketball Preview, out on newsstands across Baton Rouge now. You can also order a copy by clicking here

Will Wade’s reputation for attention to detail is well known in college basketball circles, but everyone is prone to mistakes.

When he was making the preseason publicity rounds prior to his first season at LSU, Wade would often begin discussion of his staff by noting the junior college record of Greg Heiar, whom he plucked away from perennial power Wichita State to join the rebuilding process in Baton Rouge as an assistant coach. Before his time at Wichita, Heiar (sounds like “higher”) was an assistant at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., where he mounted an impressive record 169-15 record in five seasons.

“I used to tell everyone he was 168-15,” Wade says. “He heard me say that when we had the Tiger Tour here in Baton Rouge, and he said, ‘Coach, you shorted me a win.’”

It’s not often Wade gets outflanked on the particulars. In Heiar, his 41-year-old assistant coach with a national reputation for developing guards, crafting wacky drills, and digging up unearthed gems on the recruiting trail, he may have met his match.

It’s Heiar’s default setting. Competition fuels everything he does, including his decision to leave Wichita State and its six-straight NCAA Tournament appearances last spring for LSU, fresh off one of its worst seasons in program history.

“At the end of the day, it’s in the SEC, in the Power 5,” says Heiar. “It’s a change. It’s a challenge. I’ll never back down from a challenge. I love to win.”

 

IT STARTED WITH baseball. Heiar grew up among the cornfields of Dubuque, Iowa, a Mississippi River town located 30 minutes from The Field of Dreams in nearby Dyersville. His parents were friends with Pete Welbes, a former professional catcher who caught Jim Palmer for a season and whose son was friends with Heiar.

“It started with the baseball team,” Heiar says. “I was on the baseball team, and he decided to coach a basketball team. He was a good coach, had a lot of discipline. I really just started to fall in love with sport, in general – basketball, baseball, football – and from there, I just started playing and fell in love.”

That love took him, after an all-state senior season at Dubuque Walhert, to Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, where he earned, in his sophomore season, second-team all-region honors under head coach Chris Jans. Jans, now the head coach at New Mexico State, says he “inherited” Heiar, who was in his second year at Kirkwood when Jans took the head coaching gig for the 1996-97 season.

“I tease him all the time: ‘I don’t think I’d have recruited you,’” Jans laughs. “Fortunately for both of us we were in an ‘inherited’ situation.”

It didn’t take long for Jans to realize Heiar’s talents. He could handle the ball, and shoot the hell out of it, too – he once buried 10 triples in one game for Kirkwood. But Jans also picked up on the intangibles Heiar possessed, too: the grit, the hustle, the “infectious” personality. Jans called him “the central nervous system” of a team that went 25-10 and won a regional title.

“He was also a guy that probably got the wrath more than everyone else,” Jans says. “I felt like if I could ride him the most, they all would all follow in turn.”

They followed, alright, all the way to Kirkwood’s first ever appearance in the national tournament. His season at Kirkwood under Jans was the start of a trend in Heiar’s career, first as a coach, then as a player: wins – and plenty of them – at every stop.

“Everywhere he’s gone, he’s won,” says Wade. “If you’ve spent any time around him, he’s got that ‘it’ factor where he’s just a winner. You just know he’s going to win. You probably wouldn’t want him doing your taxes or anything like that, but you’d want him coaching your basketball team. He just wins.”

Heiar finished up his playing days at Mount St. Claire, who finished 20-9 in his last season, the best record in school history, and won its first conference title. Heiar was team MVP and first team all-conference. In 2001, he married his wife, Jessica, who encouraged him to transition from the floor to the bench.

“What got me into coaching was when I met my wife,” Heiar says. “She basically told me, ‘You need to get into coaching basketball. You love basketball too much. You love kids, you love to be around people, and you’re good at it. That’s what you need to do. You need to give it a try.’”

Heiar spent one season at Mount St. Clare as a student assistant before joining the staff at Loras College in his hometown as a graduate assistant for three seasons. Then, and not for the last time, Jans came calling, this time from a junior college in the Florida panhandle, where he’d just taken a head coaching gig.

“When I got the Chipola job, he was the first guy I tried to hire,” Jans says. “I had to beg him. He was living in his hometown where he grew up, working at a school he was comfortable at, that he was familiar with, probably could’ve easily stayed and been the head coach there had a whole different career. Eventually, he gave into me. So I actually did recruit Greg. It just wasn’t as a player.”[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]

“Everywhere he’s gone, he’s won,” says Wade. “If you’ve spent any time around him, he’s got that ‘it’ factor where he’s just a winner. You just know he’s going to win. You probably wouldn’t want him doing your taxes or anything like that, but you’d want him coaching your basketball team. He just wins.”

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Heiar says he “basically took a pay cut” to head to Chipola, but the reduction in salary would prove a wise investment. In Jans’ first season, the Indians went 32-5, winning the Florida state championship and placing sixth at nationals. Jans parlayed the success into an assistant’s job at Illinois State and promoted his 29-year-old assistant to his vacated seat.

“We basically flipped the program in one year,” Heiar says. “He got an Illinois State assistant coach job, and they named me interim head coach for the year, the president did, because all the players basically went to him and wanted me to be the coach. About 24 games in, they made me the permanent coach.”

It was, Jans says, the perfect training ground for Heiar to develop as a head coach. Like Jans, he didn’t have the “key connections” across the country to get a foot into the Division 1 door: no relatives at Power 5 jobs, no experience playing high-major hoops. He had to work his way up the ladder, and in Jans’ opinion, there’s no better rung upon which to take the first step upward than the junior college level.

“You do it all,” Jans says. “You coach, you’re the strength coach, the counselor. Academics, scheduling, recruiting: you’re doing it all.”

Heiar did it at all at Chipola, and he did it victoriously. He won 169 games – not 168 – and critically, met Wade, who recruited some of his players, setting the stage for his hire at LSU more than a decade later. First, though, Heiar made the leap from the juco ranks to the D1 level, joining Larry Eustachy’s Southern Mississippi staff in 2009 before moving to Wichita State in 2011. The move to join Gregg Marshall’s program came both through Heiar’s relationship with Jans, who’d joined the Wichita State staff in 2007, and, again, at his wife’s insistence.

“They had a spot come open,” Heiar says. “(Jans) called me for some names. I gave him five names and hung the phone up. Once again, my wife, says, ‘God. Call him back and tell him you’re better than all those other names and to hire you.’”

Heiar called Jans back. Jans was waiting, and laughed when Heiar asked, “What about me?” Coaches are paid to make difficult decisions, so they enjoy when the easy ones fall into their laps.

“I knew he’d be a superstar in this business,” says Jans, “if given the chance.”

HEIAR SPENT SIX seasons at Wichita State. All six ended in the NCAA Tournament, including a 2013 Final Four run. Four ended in regular season conference championships. Heiar helped transform three-star Fred Van Vleet and walk-on Ron Baker into NBA players, and helped spearhead from the sidelines a defense that ranked an average of 14th nationally in defensive efficiency over the last six seasons.

“The best move I’ve ever made,” he says of his time in Wichita. “What we did at Wichita State, I’ll always have that on my résumé. The relationship I have with Coach Marshall, I’ll continue to help Coach Marshall in any way possible because of what he’s done for me. But this was a new opportunity.”

That he would leave the Shockers after six seasons wasn’t necessarily a shocker. Heiar has been floated as a head-coaching candidate for multiple openings in recent seasons. Many in college basketball circles expected he’d leave Marshall’s side, eventually, to be the top dog at a mid-to-high major program.

But when Wade took the LSU job, he targeted Heiar as a potential addition to his staff. He remembered Heiar’s tenacity from his days at Chipola. He remembered what a tenacious recruiter and innovative skill-developer he was, and he knew he’d make a difference at the SEC level. Heiar, meanwhile, remembered Wade’s intelligence and relentlessness. Shortly after taking the job in March, Wade invited Heiar to Baton Rouge for an interview. Heiar was blown away by the campus, the pageantry, the diversity. It struck him, he says, as “a complete university.”

“As a kid, I always dreamed of playing in a Power 5 conference,” Heiar says. “I was never good enough to play in a Power 5 conference. Once I got into coaching, I’ve always dreamed of coaching at this level. I wouldn’t take just any opportunity. It had to be with the right people. Place is one thing, but the people that you’re going to work for and live with is a whole other thing.”

Fortunately for LSU, Wade and Heiar clicked. The connection made years back at Chipola carried over through the years. After a day on campus, Wade’s sales pitch landed – with Heiar and, most critically, with his better half.

“When I left, I asked my wife what she was most impressed with, and I asked her, ‘Do you think Coach Wade is going to be successful there?’” Heiar says. “She said, ‘I have no doubts he’s going to win there. I was really impressed with him. He’s a very good person. I know he’s going to be a very good basketball coach, a hard worker, and I know he’s going to win.’ When she said that to me, that just stuck in my head. Because every time she’s told me something, it’s paid off.”

Wichita State’s loss was LSU’s gain. Heiar joined Wade’s staff shortly after Tony Benford and just before Bill Armstrong, rounding out a staff deep in on-court experience, recruiting connections, and Power 5 experience.

“He brings a lot to us in recruiting,” Wade says. “He has deep, deep junior college ties. We’ll be able to get involved with some of the best junior college players in the country. He’s a blue-collar, gritty guy, hard worker. The one thing that stuck with me when I watched him at Chipola, and has stuck out since he’s been here: he’s the best I’ve seen in the country at individual development, particularly with the guards. He does an absolutely phenomenal job with those guys, and works extremely hard with those guys.”

 


DARYL EDWARDS CAN
testify to Heiar’s fondness for fundamentals. A week after Heiar took the job, Edwards, a junior college transfer from Northwest Florida State College, visited LSU. Iowa State, Utah, and UNLV were hot on Edwards’ trail after he shot 47.6 percent from 3 in his sophomore season, but Heiar had a connection: Northwest Florida plays in the same conference as Chipola.

Heiar had another advantage, too: his famous workouts. The sessions that helped Baker, Van Vleet, and others transform their games are unlike anything most programs offer. His drills are outside the box, featuring mid-dribble tennis ball tosses, bouncing multiple basketballs, and incorporating unorthodox footwork.

Edwards knew he’d sign with LSU before his NCAA-permitted on-campus workout session with Heiar was over.

“I never did one thing I did in that workout before,” Edwards laughs. “Crazy ball handling drills with a tennis ball; hook shots from outside the block. It was amazing.”

Six months later, Edwards’ LSU teammates have all grown fond of Heiar’s workouts.

“He’s different,” laughs sophomore Skylar Mays. “That man’s got a drill for everything. Med ball ball handling, med ball shooting, dribbling with tennis balls. He’s got everything, but he’s awesome. You can tell he really loves his craft. He really loves getting us better. I meshed with him immediately because I’m so big on getting better.”

“It’s crazy,” adds junior Brandon Sampson. “It’s amazing how good he is and how detailed he is with his skillwork. He knows a lot of things from the guard view. Passing, dribbling, finishes, shooting, having good feet. It’s crazy how much he knows. It’s been great working with him.”

Ask Heiar about those workouts, and he practically explodes with excitement. In three minutes, he repeats the word “fundamentals” 12 times. His goal in player development, he says, is to develop “ball confidence” and to create “ambidextrous players” who can not only use both hands, but both feet, as well. When he’s not in the gym, he devours clips of NBA players, breaking down their skills into manageable, teachable parts he can translate to his players in practice.

“I see the greatest players in the world do things the average guy sees on SportsCenter and says, ‘Ooh, aah,’ and I look at and say, ‘What’s the fundamentals it took to do what he just did?’” he says. “They wouldn’t be elite at what they do if they weren’t elite at the fundamentals.”

His approach to thinking about the game is contagious, particularly at LSU, where last year’s losing season has given Heiar, Wade, and the entire staff a roster of willing learners. They’ve tasted 10-21, Heiar says. Offer them the chance to fix it, and they’ll jump at it, even if it’s as wacky as tossing a tennis ball into the sky.

“When student-athletes know they’re getting better, and they feel like they’re getting better from the coaching, they’re willing to run through a brick wall for you,” Heiar says. “And they want more. When they want more, that’s when you’ve got a culture.”

There’s more to Heiar, though, than his on-court work. Jans says he often sees coaches like Heiar “pigeonholed” into limited roles: recruiter, scouter, developer. Heiar, he says in a tone communicating the utmost respect, is “a ball coach.”

“Greg can do it all,” he says. “In baseball they talk about the five-tool guys – Greg’s like that as a basketball coach.”

Heiar has helped create a winning culture at every stop before arriving at LSU, and he hopes to help Wade foster one at LSU for the foreseeable future. All Heiar knows is winning, whether it’s an offseason workout drill or an NCAA Tournament matchup. No matter the setting, the path to victory, Heiar says, is singular, simple, and universal.

“If you’re a hard worker, it translates,” he says. “Doesn’t matter if you’re a coach, if you’re a player. If you’re a hard worker and you’re good to people and you build relationships, nothing else really matters, because you’ll figure it out. I’ve always worked hard. I’ve always built good relationships with my coaches, with my players, the fans, the boosters. It’s important to be good to people. That’s how I was as a head coach. That’s how I was at Southern Miss. That’s how I was at Wichita State. That’s how I’ll be at LSU.”

Keeping him at LSU could be Wade’s biggest challenge. That he’s not already a D1 head coach surprises many in coaching circles. That he will eventually be one seems inevitable, too.

“He’s more than ready to be a head coach,” says Jans. “Once he’s given that opportunity, he’ll be wildly successful. He’s more than ready. Someone’s going to figure this out real quick that’s in a position to hire a young, hungry, experienced, well-rounded head coach. It’ll be a heckuva move for that particular AD that figures that out. “

The good news: Heiar’s contract runs through 2019, and the $300,000 he’ll earn annually will make it difficult for an enterprising athletic director to pry him away. The better news is he’s not going anywhere until he sees out the task at hand: helping Wade turn LSU into a winner.

“I’m going to work hard every day,” he says. “I’m going to be a team player. All that stuff translates. I don’t have no ego. It’s not about me. It’s about us and whatever it takes to win.”

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