A tenacious, second-year Husker baseball coach takes his underdogs to the conference tournament and wins!
If Darin Erstad’s team pulls it off, it wouldn’t be the first time. This week in 1999, Dave Van Horn took his fifth-seeded Huskers to Oklahoma City and captured NU’s first baseball championship since 1950.
John Cole’s leaping catch in left field to beat Baylor, 4-3, was the unofficial beginning of a baseball boom at Nebraska. It represented one of the greatest (and most improbable) success stories in the history of the athletic department.
Can Erstad reignite the program 14 years later? He probably doesn’t have the arms to win the Big Ten tournament, which begins today in Minneapolis. He’ll probably have to wait another year to make an NCAA tournament run.
But nobody expected the Huskers to win in ’99, either. At the bottom of today’s Chatter, I’ve excerpted pieces of Eric Olson’s game story and Tom Shatel’s column from that victorious Sunday. They show a program on the rise. They show what it looks like when Nebraska hires the right coach and everything breaks just right. They show how much fun it is to win when nobody saw it coming.
* * *
>> Anybody who knows me — or follows me on Twitter — knows I don’t root for Tiger Woods. But I have a strong urge to knock out his adversary today. Sergio Garcia has always been annoying. But he crossed the line last night, showing his true colors. Fried chicken? Seriously? (Tiger is justifiably ticked).
Garcia will never be looked at the same, especially in the U.S. That’s sad for golf. But Sergio has nobody to blame but himself. At some point, I will pity him for all the talent he wasted. But right now, I just want to see somebody wipe that grin off his face. If it’s Tiger in a dark parking lot, that’d be even better.
>> Why do I get the feeling I’ve already seen the best of the NBA playoffs? Spurs-Grizzlies may go six or seven games, but the entertainment value is much, much lower than Spurs-Warriors or Warriors-Nuggets. When you’ve had Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, it’s hard to move on to Zach Randolph and Paul George. I’ll still be watching — especially the Eastern Conference on TNT — but I’m afraid the NBA will go out this summer with a whimper.
>> Some years the No. 1 pick means everything. Some years it means almost nothing. Cleveland chooses first in June’s draft and will likely select Nerlens Noel. But you might just as easily find this year’s best player at No. 5 or 10 or 20. For the record, the chances of LeBron returning to Cleveland in the summer of 2014 increased just a bit last night. James, I believe, will always be bothered by Cleveland’s hate for him. His career won’t feel whole unless he fixes it.
>> I don’t promote athlete idolatry. But I did give my 3-year-old a Kevin Durant jersey for Christmas; he wears it almost every day. And the more I see of Durant, the more I like that purchase. His $1 million donation to Oklahoma recovery efforts is just the latest example. He didn’t call a press conference. He didn’t attach conditions to it (for instance: “I’ll donate $1,000 for every 3-pointer I hit”). He just did it.
>> The Royals won! The Royals won! Of course, rallying to beat Houston in front of about 243 people won’t be much of a confidence booster. But losing to Houston in front of 243 people for the second consecutive night — after getting swept in Oakland — might have doomed KC. Still, frustration is the primary emotion in the fan base again these days. Here are two excellent pieces illustrating it. The first from Royals Review is a home run. The second from Grantland addresses KC’s inability to develop prospects.
>> Johnny Manziel and Braxton Miller are your preseason Heisman frontrunners for 2013. I think that’s about right. The name on this list I like, though, is Jadeveon Clowney. His odds should be better than 14-1. I also like Teddy Bridgewater at 12-1, who wants no part of a Heisman campaign.
Taylor Martinez is 18-1. I expect him to put up huge numbers in 2013. But if Nebraska doesn’t go 13-0 or 12-1, Taylor has no shot. Unless you’re doing things nobody ever has — like RG3 or Johnny Football — you better be on a top-5 team.
>> The annual Feldman’s Freaks, college football’s list of 20 craziest athletes. It wouldn’t hurt if Nebraska had a guy on this list someday.
>> Pennsylvania columnist David Jones says the Joe Paterno defenders may end up driving Bill O’Brien out of town.
>> The ESPN blog addresses how the Big Ten performed in the BCS era. There isn’t much to brag about.
>> Paul Finebaum is moving to Charlotte and taking his show national. It will be fascinating to see how (or if) he transitions from SEC homer.
>> From Grantland, the 20 types of depressed fans. Funny stuff.
>> Daily Oklahoman Berry Tramel on the tornado that ripped apart his home state. Beautiful work.
>> Back to Husker baseball, 1999. Here’s the lede of Eric Olson’s gamer, followed by Shatel’s column:
Nebraska wrote another chapter in one of college baseball’s great success stories of recent years, defeating Baylor 4-3 Sunday to win the Big 12 tournament championship.
With left fielder John Cole’s leaping catch of a drive off the bat of Eric Nelson for the game’s final out, the 24th-ranked Huskers claimed the school’s first baseball championship since 1950, when Nebraska won the Big Seven.
Along with Sunday’s victory comes an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, which starts with regional play this week. The Huskers, who had been picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 by two publications, now await this afternoon’s announcement of their regional destination.
It will be the Huskers’ first regional bid since 1985 and another milestone for a program that has an all-time, school-best record of 41-16. Sunday’s win was their 10th straight. Two years ago, they were 27-35 in the final season under John Sanders. They were 24-20 last season in Dave Van Horn’s first year.
“We know what has happened here in the past with this team not really having that much talent,” said first baseman Ken Harvey, one of three Huskers to make the all-tournament team. “It’s nice to be the first team to pretty much turn this program around and have a chance to come to the Big 12 tournament and actually win it.”…
As was the case in Saturday’s 8-7 win over Texas A&M, which saw the Aggies down to their last strike four times in the ninth inning before Shane Komine finished them off, Sunday’s victory also had plenty of drama in the ninth.
“I’ve gotten a lot of gray hair,” Van Horn said. “But that’s fine. We’ve been winning close all year.”
Chad Wiles, who one-hit Oklahoma State on Wednesday, got the left handed-batting Nelson to line out to Cole and end the game after seeing two Baylor batters reach base with two out.
“He did an outstanding job of timing his jump, ” Van Horn said. “Any time the ball is hit at you from an opposite side hitter, it’s kind of a tough read. I think he has a 38- or 39-inch vertical leap, and he needed every bit of it to make that catch.”
From Shatel’s column:
They laughed at him when he said he was going to play ball in the great white north. They told him he was a fool, taking a job at Nebraska, where football scrimmaging is the number one spring sport. They said career-killer, Dave, for trying to win in the Big 12, where all the weather and facilities and players live south of Wichita.
Good thing Dave Van Horn believed in himself, and not the naysayers.
And now all of Nebraska believes, too.
The proof was everywhere on a late Oklahoma Sunday, when the last out landed safely in left-fielder John Cole’s extended glove and 25 bulldogs in red and white made a dog-pile in center field. Would you believe Big 12 baseball champs, the first NU baseball league title since the Big Seven title in 1950? Would you believe a sweep of Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Baylor, the latter two ranked in the top 10?
Would you believe 41 wins? A No. 2 seed in the school’s first NCAA regional since 1985?
Maybe the only guy who wouldn’t believe it isn’t here anymore.
“The biggest difference between Coach (John) Sanders and Coach Van Horn is that Coach Van Horn is a motivator, ” NU first baseman Ken Harvey said. “From day one, he’s been telling us we could win. You start to believe it.”
Can we get a recount? The Dallas Morning News recently voted Baylor Coach Steve Smith the Big 12 coach of the year. And it’s likely Smith will get the nod again Tuesday when the Big 12 announces its team. Well, on behalf of The Omaha World-Herald, I’d like to name Dave Van Horn The World-Herald’s Big 12 coach of the year.
He took a team picked to finish eighth and led it through rain, sleet and snow to 41 wins and a fifth-place finish. His team started seven new regulars, including true freshmen Cole, Will Bolt and Shane Komine. He mixed junior-college players with some of the best Nebraska American Legion ball has to offer. He brought in speed and won with stolen bases, bunts and kitchen sinks. He kept Mike Anderson from the Sanders’ staff and brought with him Pitching Coach Russ Childers, who did wonders with a staff of Nebraskans that the Sanders regime didn’t want.
He taught them all to believe baseball could work in Nebraska.
“I did think we could do this, from the first day I met Coach Van Horn, ” Anderson said. “I could just tell, the type of person he is. He really wants to win. His expectations are so much higher than what they’ve had here. I’ve never understood losing.”
You gotta believe. Van Horn has put Nebraska baseball on the map, most importantly at home. Let the bandwagon begin. The team will gather at Lincoln’s Old Chicago today for the 2 p.m. NCAA announcement, and the place should be crawling with fans, new ones, old ones, folks who never wanted to be part of Husker baseball before.
“People are talking about us,” Van Horn said. “They’ve got talk radio shows, and I’ll be flipping the dial on the way home from practice or somewhere and people are talking about our program. It puts a smile on your face.”
“Sometimes you’re going, ‘Wow. This happened pretty quick,’” Van Horn said. “We’re surprised we’ve gone this far. We knew we had a chance to win 35 games, but to get up to 40 in these last few weeks and then win the tournament with all these top-ranked teams, that’s an awesome feeling for myself, the other coaches and the players.”
Nobody knew Van Horn when he showed up at that first press conference in January 1998. He wasn’t the hot coach in the country. He wasn’t coming from a College World Series program. He’d won a couple of Southland Conference titles. But you looked at his record, and he’d won everywhere he’d been, at every level.
Now Nebraska knows. Now everyone, south, east and west, knows. The man is a winner.
“For me, personally, I made the right move,” Van Horn said. “I had people telling me, ‘You might be crazy going up there.’ I said, ‘Hey, they want to win, and we can do it.’”
On an Oklahoma Sunday to remember, it was easy to believe.