Dave Van Horn

Former Nebraska baseball coach Dave Van Horn knows a thing or two about changing around a program.

It doesn't take much to fire up Dave Van Horn. I've always enjoyed that side of him.

He got fired up Sunday as we discussed his extremely successful tenure as Nebraska's baseball coach (1998-2002). I never tire of listening to proven coaches share their philosophies behind winning.

Van Horn is a winner, pure and simple. His work in Lincoln was magnificent.

"I think people liked the toughness of our teams and their attitude," he said.

It became a take-no-prisoners attitude. Perhaps Fred Hoiberg can have a similarly profound effect on the Nebraska men's basketball program. It feels ready to take off.

If you're a Husker baseball fan, you may remember Van Horn for the manner in which he quickly flipped the program's culture and mentality. He inherited a program in 1998 that had made just three NCAA Tournament appearances in its history and none during the previous 12 years. During Van Horn's five seasons, NU went to four NCAA Tournaments and two College World Series.

Oh, the stories he can tell.

I'm guessing most Nebraska hoops fans will show a proper level of patience with Hoiberg. There's a sweet spot in that regard. But fans obviously expect that such a high-profile hire eventually will pay dividends in the Big Dance, where the program's never won. Yeah, his situation and Van Horn's back in the day have glaring differences. Different sports, different circumstances. But there are aspects that apply to both cases.

To wit: As was the case with Van Horn, Hoiberg can find time-worn excuses if the program struggles. Van Horn's approach at NU? Don't let history hold you back. Don't make excuses. Or at least be careful about who's around if you are making excuses.

"First and foremost, it was the attitude of our coaching staff back then -- just driving into the players that we're going to win," said Van Horn, who now is winning big as Arkansas' 17th-year head coach. "We were positive about it and we weren't making excuses about anything, at least not in front of the players.

"If there were problems, or we thought, 'We don't have this or we don't have that,' you could talk about that behind closed doors away from the players. But, really, just don't ever complain about why you're not winning. If that's the way you feel, then you probably ought to go somewhere else."

Hoiberg will complete his coaching staff in coming days. The collective mindset will be critical.

"You have to have your coaches and staff feel the same way as you do, that there's no doubt whatsoever that you can win," said Van Horn, who last season guided Arkansas to a runner-up finish in the CWS. "Your staff has to be on the same page as you, or you have no shot. And then you have to try to convince the players they can win big, and obviously you've got to win a few games and then the kids go, 'Wow, we can compete at this level.'"

Tim Miles did enough in seven seasons as Nebraska's hoops coach to make folks believe the program can win in the Big Dance. 

On the other hand, Van Horn inherited a program at NU that was 28-54 in conference play from 1995-97. Unlike the situation Hoiberg inherits, the Husker baseball team wasn't even sniffing the NCAA Tournament late in John Sanders' tenure.

"The culture at the time was like, hey, you could say you were on an athletic team at the University of Nebraska," Van Horn said. "It was about the party a little bit. In our third week (in 1998), we went to Hawaii to play some games. One of my rules is I don't care if you're a 27-year-old military veteran that's come back to finish a degree and you have playing eligibility. You don't drink on the road. This is business.

"On the second day of the trip, at 10:30 at night, we catch about six of our players drinking beer, and our (assistant) strength coach was with them. The next day, one of our seniors got sent home. We suspended all those guys and made them watch games from the stands. But that was the culture at the time. It was about just going and having fun."

That changed under Van Horn. Nebraska got good in a hurry.

"You've got to get a player or two," he said. "We got Shane Komine. We got John Cole. We got some real dudes."

By 2000, Nebraska was in an NCAA Super Regional, losing at Stanford. The Huskers broke through in 2001 with two Super Regional wins against Rice at Buck Beltzer Stadium in Lincoln, reaching the CWS for the first time. It almost seemed surreal.

"I had a photo blown up of Stanford dog-piling after they beat us (in 2000)," Van Horn recalled. "I put it in our locker room. Every day, when our guys took the field, they had to look at that poster. After we beat Rice, I was the last one off the field. Everybody was gone. I walked into our locker room and the first thing I see is that poster on the floor, and it was shredded. Torn up in pieces.

"It was the greatest thing I had ever seen. I might've cried."

Making history can be emotional. It requires vision, the right blueprint, hard work, talented athletes, chemistry and, yes, coaches who don't make excuses -- at least not in earshot of the players. LOL.

"The Big Ten is an incredible basketball league. That's an uphill battle," Van Horn said. "But, you know, coach Hoiberg will do what he has to do, and hopefully it works."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

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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