Almost a decade ago, when Ryan Heberling first stepped on campus as a walk-on athlete, he knew two things: he loved FIU and wanted to eventually become a college track and field coach.
So when he was named head coach of the track & field/cross country program at FIU earlier this month, it was a dream come true and the culmination of a long journey for Heberling.
“This is my dream job and I plan on retiring from here,” Heberling says. “I chose to come here as a student-athlete 10 years ago and begged to coach here five years ago. I really do love this place, the program, the people that are here and I want to see the best for FIU.”
He first found out about FIU during his senior year of high school in Vero Beach, Fla. in October 2004.
“The latest version of NCAA had come out recently and I noticed that there was another school in Miami,” Heberling says. “I decided that I wanted to find out more about the school.”
That winter, Heberling came down to Miami to visit and immediately became enamored with the campus.
“I made the decision that I was going to go to FIU right away,” Heberling says. “I knew that I wanted to be connected to this university for as long as I could be.”
He enrolled at FIU the following year and made the team as a walk-on athlete. During his freshman year, he posted two results that still stand in the top 10 in their respective events – a 49.75-meter long javelin throw and scoring a 5,202 in the decathlon.
“I was never a good athlete per se, but I worked really hard,” Heberling says. “When it came to something that required a lot of technique, I was pretty good at.”
His senior year, he posted a 53.61-meter javelin throw that currently stands as the fourth longest in men’s all-time record books.
“I worked hard to get to that point and that’s when I realized I didn’t want to leave the sport,” says Heberling, who earned a bachelor’s in exercise physiology in 2009. “I didn’t want to leave the school. There was something special that I felt about this place.”
FROM PLAYER TO COACH
Heberling wanted to go into coaching as soon as his career as a student-athlete came to a close, but first his attempts to get his foot in the door went nowhere.
“I was in the office probably every other day asking if they need help and they kept saying ‘No, get out of here,’” Heberling jokes.
That quickly changed.
A vacancy opened up in the coaching staff to lead the throws squad before the 2009-2010 season and Heberling was hired right before the Fall semester began.
“To have the opportunity to coach at the college level so soon after graduating was really exciting,” Heberling says.
But coaching student-athletes who less than a year earlier were your teammates proved to be a challenge initially.
“When you’re starting off at the beginning and you’re telling them ‘This is what you have to do to get better’ and they ask ‘Why?’ you don’t have anything to back it up on,” Heberling says.
Since then, his high-energy and hands-on approach to coaching has earned the respect of the athletes and results. In five years as an assistant coach, they’ve earned 17 all-conference honors, six NCAA regional qualifiers, and one All-American nod. They also hold school records in the men’s shot put and discus, and the women’s hammer, weight, and javelin throws.
Part of that success has been the result of bringing in the kind of student-athletes Heberling believes will take the program to the next level – those filled with a desire to represent the blue and gold well on the track, in the classroom and in the community.
“We try to find people who are as excited to be Panthers as I am,” he says.
A whirlwind of events in early January led to a coaching shakeup for the program. Heberling was named interim head coach just before the indoor track season was about to begin.
After being thrust into the position in the midst of a turbulent transition, Heberling’s main concern was for his student-athletes and how to keep them.
“When it happened, a lot asked what I was going to do to try and get the job permanently, but I wasn’t concerned about getting it. I was concerned about doing it,” Heberling says.
At the end of the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons, FIU sent six-student athletes to the NCAA East Regionals in Jacksonville – a program record – and 11 Panthers were honored by Conference USA with all-conference recognition.
“I wasn’t concerned with five years, 10 years down the road, my future career or any of that, but what I had to say to the athletes to make sure that they’re okay and make sure they know this season isn’t a wash,” Heberling says. “We proved that. They didn’t give up and decided to keep fighting.”
Now that all is settled and he is firmly in charge of the program, Heberling is ready to make the Panthers a conference contender. He believes the team can recruit many of South Florida’s rich talent and become a top program nationally down the road.
“I understand that FIU wants a winner and they want one really bad,” Heberling says. “I’m hoping we can deliver that for the university.”