One person will forever be known as the founder, architect and icon of Panthers' fast-pitch softball.
Georgia State's living legend of softball, Bob Heck took the program from slow-pitch to fast-pitch status more than 25 years ago and has continued the growth pattern ever since.
Heck will enter the 2011 season with 1,276 games coached in 23 seasons as the head coach at Georgia State. With 695 career victories, he ranks among the nation's active leaders. Heck has been voted the Coach of the Year in the previous Atlantic Sun Conference and the current CAA.
Still Going Strong
Coach Heck is still going strong as evidenced by a 2010 campaign in which the Panthers posted a 37-19 record and finished second in the CAA (14-7) during the regular before advancing to the CAA Championship game.
Georgia State moved into the Colonial Athletic Association in 2005-06, and the Panthers were picked by the league head coaches to finish fifth in their inaugural season. But Heck guided his team to the regular-season championship and the No. 1 seed in the CAA Championship, which was played at Bob Heck Field.
In five seasons in the CAA, Heck's Panthers have finished third or higher in the league standings each year, including the regular-season title in 2006 and runner-up finishes the last three seasons. With a 70-32 record in conference play, GSU has won nearly 70 percent of its CAA games. The Panthers have advanced to the CAA Championship game in three of the five seasons.
In the CAA era, Heck has coached four CAA Rookie of the Year winners, one CAA Player of the Year, one CAA Pitcher of the Year and two CAA Scholar-Athletes of the Year, along with 36 all-conference and all-rookie honorees.
The Formative Years
The World War II veteran began in 1981 as a volunteer assistant coach with Georgia State's softball team, then playing slow-pitch. In 1984, he served as the head coach of the slow-pitch team, but the NCAA did not recognize this as a sport. In the spring of 1985, Georgia State began playing NCAA fast-pitch softball, thanks first and foremost to Bob Heck's efforts.
All the team had in 1985 was a rough Recreation Department field, no locker rooms, no practice facilities and no scoreboard. In other words, it was as basic as basic could have possibly been.
Year by year, Bob Heck took this theme:
"The ladies deserve the best place to prepare and play, so I will do whatever I can to provide that for them."
For Heck, that meant coming up with most of the money and providing his own extra financial support to put in a fence, to move the playing field to a new area, to upgrade the playing surface and grounds, to put up a beautiful scoreboard, to put in dugouts with bathrooms, to build a stadium with concrete stands and arm-chair seats, to build a concession stand and press box, and to build a state-of-the-art, indoor practice facility with batting and pitching cages. The facility has a locker room, an athletic training room, a video room, coaches' offices and a weight room. It is no wonder the scoreboard, the field itself and the team house are all aptly named in his honor. Bob Heck Field is recognized as an excellent facility and hosted the 2006 CAA Championship.
In addition to his coaching duties, he has been a diligent groundskeeper in maintaining his field as well as any professional landscaper. Now, he has help with that, but for years, he actually planted, maintained and manicured the shrubs, cut the grass, painted the lines, and rolled out the tarp.
Putting Georgia State Softball on the Map
Heck started a Division I program from scratch, pretty much by himself. When he elevated the Panther program to the fast-pitch level in 1985, Georgia State was the first Division I school in the state to play fast-pitch softball.
He guided the fledging program from the New South Women's Athletic Conference (NSWAC) through its growth into the Trans America Athletic Conference (TAAC) and then the Atlantic Sun Conference. In 2005-06, Georgia State moved into the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).
His first season, 1985, was his only losing record in his first 10 years. From 15-24 with losses to SEC, ACC, Big Ten and even a future CAA school (VCU), Heck turned year two into .500 at 26-26 and then year three into a winning campaign at 26-22.
By his fourth year, he had produced his first 40-win team with a 42-20 squad (.677) in 1988. By year five, he had a NSWAC championship team. In year six (1990), he had yet another conference championship team with a school record-tying 42 wins. In 1993, his 39-16 conference championship team was in the top five in the NCAA South Region rankings.
By 1994, Heck had built a team that was ranked in the Top 25 in the nation and No. 3 in the South Region, and earned an NCAA Tournament bid. Ironically, he lost a 2-1 game in the tournament to perennial power UCLA, which plucked his top pitcher of two years, Kaci Clark. Clark went on to an outstanding professional softball pitching career. Coach Heck was named the conference Coach of the Year for the 1994 season.
The 1995 season marked the eighth time in the short 11-year history that Heck's Panthers hit the 30-win plateau.
After 14 successful years as State's head coach, Bob Heck actually thought he wanted to retire. That lasted for three years, before Georgia State convinced him to come back in the fall of 2001 and coach some more.
Heck has now coached 23 seasons of his "second career," including 16 winning seasons. He has led his teams to five conference championships and has advanced to seven other championship games.
During his career at Georgia State, Heck has had 59 student-athletes earn first team all-conference recognition, 35 earn second team honors and three earn third team all-conference accolades, while 11 have received All-Freshmen scrolls.
While Georgia State has moved into the CAA, Coach Heck has also played, and often won, against numerous programs major conferences. In the past 15 years, Georgia State has recorded wins over schools in major conferences, including SEC schools Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina; Big Ten schools Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue; ACC schools Boston College, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia Tech; Big East schools Pittsburgh and St. John's; and the Big 12's Iowa State. He believes in playing anyone who will play him and challenges his team to rise to the competition. He is an avid teacher of the fundamentals of the game.
Life Before Georgia State
Before softball and Georgia State entered into Bob Heck's life, he had a remarkable career that showed his dedication, devotion and service. As a young man, World War II interrupted his classroom education for three years of service to his country in the U.S. Navy and an education in the reality of the world.
Coming out of the service in 1946, Heck began an education path that earned a college degree from the University of Georgia. He then earned a master's degree from Emory, and a MBA in finance from Georgia State.
His early jobs included teaching at Druid Hills High in Atlanta for five years while serving as the head coach of the track team and the assistant coach for the football team.
In 1957, Heck put his master's in business to good use and began a career as a national bank examiner with the Controller of the Currency's office for 10 years. He moved on up to the Federal Reserve, the arm of the government that oversees the nation's banking system and manages the supply of money, credit, and interest rates. He retired as a Vice President of the Federal Reserve in 1991.
All the while he had his "day job" for 35 years, Heck stayed busy as a high school football referee for 25 years as well as a high school basketball official for five years.
Honored off the Field
The ever-generous Heck is also known in other ways. Georgia State University honored him in 2005 with its Sparks Award and asked him to serve as the head of the university-wide fundraising campaign. He has generously helped other collegiate softball programs in the metro Atlanta area with his donations and his time.
Heck is one of the eight Founding Life Members of the Panther Athletic Club, the fund-raising arm of Georgia State athletics. He is respected by his First United Methodist Church and serves on its Board of Stewards among his other lifelong service with that church.
In 2011, Heck was inducted into the Georgia Dugout Club Softball Hall of Fame.
Born in Wheeling, W. Va., Robert E. Heck's family has proven to be the hundreds of young women he has tutored in softball and nurtured into adult life, as well as the hundreds of people he has touched in the Georgia State community and the city of Atlanta.
His leadership, dedication, commitment and passion for Georgia State and the sport of softball most likely will never be equaled. But, his commitment will always be remembered.