Steven M. Sipple: Van Horn merely made magic at Nebraska

2013-04-15T23:50:00Z 2013-05-02T20:49:05Z Steven M. Sipple: Van Horn merely made magic at Nebraska JournalStar.com

Nebraska baseball fans regard him as a bit of a magician. If they don't, they should.

Dave Van Horn somehow rescued Husker baseball from mind-numbing mediocrity almost as quickly as you can say Rosenblatt.

You can find all sorts of critical moments in Nebraska's startling rise under Van Horn. He chuckled Monday at the recollection of one such moment. It was a night in Hawaii his first season. The Huskers journeyed there for an early season tournament. The night before a game, a half-dozen players veered from Van Horn's rules for the trip. 

Long story short, they later that night spent time on a beach -- running. Running a lot. Running more than humans probably should run. Or so goes the story.

"That's a pretty good story, isn't it?" Van Horn said with a hearty laugh. "I'm not going to get into details, but we had some issues we had to get straightened out."

Van Horn even sent one player back to Lincoln.

"We were basically in the process of figuring out who wanted to play, who wanted to be in our program, and who wanted to move on," said Van Horn, Nebraska's coach from 1998-2002. "If they were serious, they needed to do it our way."

Van Horn's way worked well, and quickly. That's what I remember most about him. One minute, Nebraska was scuffling in front of a few hundred die-hard fans at old Buck Beltzer Stadium. Not many people cared much. The next minute, or so it seemed, the Huskers were winning 50 games (twice under Van Horn) and reaching the College World Series (ditto). Sounds so easy now.

Darin Erstad would tell you otherwise. The second-year Nebraska coach has guided his team to a 14-19 overall record (8-4 in the Big Ten) entering Tuesday's nonconference doubleheader against 12th-ranked Arkansas (25-12) at Haymarket Park. The Huskers stumbled through one of the nation's toughest nonconference schedules before righting themselves in the much more manageable Big Ten.

Meanwhile, Van Horn's Razorbacks arrived in Lincoln on Monday with an utterly ridiculous 1.72 ERA, which leads NCAA Division I. The pitching staff is "the deepest and best front-to-back" in the nation, NU assistant Will Bolt said. Van Horn, in his 11th season at Arkansas, has led the Razorbacks to 10 NCAA Tournaments and three CWS appearances.

Erstad said he has met Van Horn a couple times but doesn't know him well. Erstad, though, is aware of Van Horn's coaching reputation. If Erstad ever does get to know Van Horn, I'm guessing they would become fast friends. They're cut from the same cloth: Fiery. Hard-edged. Matter-of-fact. Uncompromising. Intelligent. Savvy.

"He has the ability to motivate his players," Erstad said. "They want to run through walls for him. It looks like he knows how to push the right buttons in a lot of game situations. His game management is off the charts. He's had success wherever he's gone.

"If he wants to hand over that blueprint to how it all works, I'd be more than happy to take it."

Nebraska fans can only hope Erstad orchestrates the sort of rapid rise Van Horn pulled off in Lincoln. Yeah, they can hope. But they shouldn't expect it. Building a program usually requires patience. Van Horn didn't need that part.

His second Husker team won the first of three straight Big 12 Tournament titles. His third team reached an NCAA super-regional. His fourth squad captured the program's first regular-season league crown in 51 years before becoming the first NU team to reach the CWS. He left for Arkansas, his alma mater, after the Huskers made a return trip to Omaha in 2002.

From a recruiting standpoint, Van Horn perhaps did it a tad differently than Erstad is doing it, at least initially. Of course, Van Horn went hard after the best in-state players -- as does Erstad.

"After that, we had to go anywhere we could," Van Horn said. "To compete in the Big 12, we had to go national."

Nebraska pulled Bolt from Texas. John Cole and Adam Stern from Canada. Thom Ott from the Bahamas. Matt Hopper from Colorado. Dan Johnson from Minnesota. Jeff Blevins from Oklahoma. Shane Komine from Hawaii. You get the idea.

Erstad took over at Nebraska in June 2011. So it would be unfair to make many meaningful judgments about his first class of players (who signed the following November). The 13-player group Erstad signed last November had an exclusively Midwest flavor, including four players from Minnesota and two apiece from Iowa and Colorado. Erstad, though, has said he won't hesitate to go to Texas or California or wherever to find players.

Opposing coaches always will point to Nebraska's cold weather in recruiting wars. Unlike Erstad, Van Horn could sell the Big 12. Van Horn also could sell winning. That was key, he said. He started winning in a big way in his second year. And it just kept getting better, almost as if by magic.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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About the writer

Steven M. Sipple | Lincoln Journal Star

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.


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