Like most, John Grose was caught by surprise on a Monday evening.

After eight seasons at the helm, Darin Erstad was stepping down as Nebraska baseball coach.

"I'm a huge supporter of Darin and I think he did a lot of great things for the program," Grose said.

Grose didn't hesitate. He went to his phone and fired a text to Will Bolt, his former Husker teammate and college roommate.

"He was the first call I made," said Grose, who played catcher at NU and now lives in Omaha. "I said, 'You're the right guy. Get your booty up here,' so to speak.

"Without hesitation, he said, 'I'm very interested.'"

The two stayed in contact during Nebraska's search for a new coach. It came to a close Friday when NU announced Bolt as its next skipper.

Needless to say, Grose, and several other former teammates, were stoked by Bill Moos' latest hire.

"It's a good combination of a guy who is rooted in Nebraska tradition, but at the same time, who is driven to bring our program back into national championship relevance," Grose said.

Talk to some of those who played with him at Nebraska during its memorable rise, and they're happy to tell you why Bolt is ready to lead a Power Five program.

They point to his competitive nature (he even hated to lose at ping-pong). His grittiness. His knowledge of the game. His awareness of the game. His ability to relate to players. His laser focus, says former Husker pitcher Jamie Rodrigue.

The physical and mental tools and the intangibles that made Bolt a two-time captain at Nebraska also paved his path as a coach.

"There's certain guys, they think like a coach, they're smart baseball players, they know where to go with the ball and are good leaders," said Jeff Leise, who played with Bolt for three seasons. "Will is ultra-competitive and just knows the game. He really has all the qualities of a good head coach."

Daniel Bruce was a freshman out of Millard West when Bolt was a senior. Asked if he could see then a guy capable of being a head coach someday, Bruce said absolutely.

"Those guys (the seniors), they're doing as much teaching as anybody else, holding everyone accountable," Bruce said. "He's got a unique mix of being able to lead a team and have camaraderie with the guys. The way he goes about things is second to none. I experience that as a freshman, and that was a special team."

That 2002 team went 47-21 and made a second consecutive trip to the College World Series. Bolt, a four-year starter, hit .319 and started 65 times that season.

"They called us the Mighty Mites," Groce said. "We were under 6-feet tall, but we were gritty and had a chip on our shoulder. Will (standing at 5-foot-9) was the tip of the spear, so to speak. We carried that persona on, and we didn't care who we were playing."

The man pulling the strings to the Huskers' magical run at the time was Dave Van Horn. Helping lead the rise was a group of tough-nosed players that included Shane Komine, Matt Hopper, Jed Morris, Jeff Leise, Justin Seely, Aaron Marsden, Phil Shirek, Jeff Blevins, Bruce and Bolt.

"Even in fall ball season, we had to face each other and it was tough getting Will out," said Rodrigue, who was a junior pitcher on the 2002 team. "He was gritty, and he took that to the game.

"He was a tough out, and he was making things happen. That's why I think our pitching staff did well because we had guys like Will that we had to compete against every single day. It made us better."

How hard Bolt played the game is what stood out to Brandon Eymann.

"He never took a day off, he never took a play off," Eymann said. "Even though he's from Texas, I think he embodies the culture of what the program wants to be, which is hard-nosed, grind it out, work your butt off every day.

"I think that's what will make him successful here."

Bolt, Eymann, Liese and Groce were roommates at Nebraska. And this baseball house had its share of "fierce competitions," Groce says.

"A lot of ping-pong," Eymann adds. And Bolt, "doesn't like to lose at anything, whether it's ping-pong, cards, recruiting."

That leads to comparisons to Van Horn. No, not in the sense of wins, CWS appearances and an established coaching résumé , but rather the common traits they share.

"I definitely see that," Rodrigue said. "Coach Van Horn always had the fiery look in his eyes, and you could just tell he was focused with every detail. And Will follows right into that. You just know something is going on upstairs as far as thinking about the next play."

Added Eymann, "Will is the ultimate competitor. The comparisons to Coach Van Horn are pretty hard to miss."

Eymann was one of those to reach out to Bolt, a groomsman in Eymann's wedding, on Friday to congratulate him on the new job.

Others followed, including Groce, who said Bolt remained in tune with Nebraska through and through, even while residing in College Station, Texas, where Bolt served as an assistant at Texas A&M. Groce recalls Bolt's excitement when Scott Frost and Fred Hoiberg were hired.

"He's still very much a fan," Groce said. "I know for a fact that he's got a lot of pride and wants to give back to an organization and athletic department that gave him a lot."

With Bolt back in Nebraska, he'll be near some of the guys that helped turn NU's baseball program into a special story. His former teammates are glad to see him back.

"When he said he's coming back home, that's not just a pitch, that's not on overstatement," Bruce said. "That's the real deal."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsGrell.


Sports editor

Clark Grell is sports editor.

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