Randy York’s N-Sider
When Tom Osborne named Darin Erstad Nebraska’s head baseball coach two years ago, there were more questions than answers, more skeptics than believers, more perception than reality. Yes, Erstad had a long, illustrious career as a Major League Baseball player, but could he coach a whiffle ball game, let alone his alma mater? Nebraska is, after all, a school with a coach, team and fans who yearn to drive east on I-80 again, so they can compete in the College World Series, the only championship event in any NCAA sport that has remained in the same city forever. As much as Husker fans across the state and around the country trust Osborne’s intuition, the Erstad “doubters” weren’t all cynical disbelievers. Some were prominent parts of Nebraska’s inner sanctum, and if you want to be really honest, one was the new head coach himself. More than once Erstad said that he had no proof he could be an effective head coach, but if he failed, he was going to die trying.
Well, here we are near the end of Erstad's second regular season at the helm, and Nebraska has a decent chance to win the Big Ten Conference championship or share that title. If the Huskers take care of business in a three-game home series against Michigan Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they can at least be one of two teams to get a first-round bye in the conference tournament. So at the risk of sounding like Mel Allen’s long forgotten baseball voice, how about that? “How about that?” asked Greg Sharpe, the Nebraska baseball radio play-by-play man who huddled up with chief sidekick Lane Grindle Wednesday, so the N-Sider could get perspective on a season that started shaky, moved to wobbly and somehow, through an Erstad-like collective will, made a sharp turn off Rocky Road and onto Championship Drive.
The Question: How Effective Will Darin Erstad Be?
“I think everybody was asking the same question two years ago – How effective will Darin Erstad be as a head coach at the collegiate level?” Sharpe said. “I certainly didn’t know the answer.” Grindle, who joins Sharpe on Husker Sports Network baseball broadcasts, says: “I think the natural perception from lots of people two years ago was: ‘Is this some kind of experiment? Is this just a thing that feels good and feels right for Nebraska? Or is this something that’s designed to go long term?’”
My apologies for delivering the punch line before all the evidence is in, but win or lose this weekend, even win or lose in next week’s Big Ten Baseball Tournament in Minneapolis, the “Erstad Experiment” already has a significant body of proof. The only thing that can send it straight to the finish line in the eyes of Big Red baseball fans is a sweep of the Wolverines. So could a surge in the conference tournament, giving Nebraska a chance to use its No. 30 RPI that was built on a high-powered schedule and designed to compete with teams owning far better records in the NCAA Tournament.
But let’s take this discussion beyond wins and losses. Let’s look at the Erstad Experiment in terms of theory, hypothesis and conclusion. From his first press conference on, Erstad said he wasn’t becoming a head coach to curry favor with fans, friends or foes. He accepted his football coach’s job offer to take Nebraska to the only place both wanted to go – the College World Series, and not only that, once Nebraska climbs that summit again, Erstad will only be satisfied if the Huskers win the national championship and bring a trophy to Lincoln so it can become a part of Nebraska's rich athletic lore.
Erstad: Big Ten Baseball Model Had to Change
To dream the dream, Erstad thought the Big Ten baseball model had to change dramatically. The oldest and most financially prosperous conference in America had to do something about its lackluster national baseball image. The sport had to mean more to every school in the league that plays. Just because teams are located in colder Northern climates, they had to quit making excuses and cease playing cupcake schedules to pad their records. They had to replace those cupcakes with schools that win and play championship-caliber college baseball. The Erstad Experiment became the Erstad Era the minute he started telling his fellow Big Ten baseball coaches his version of the truth.
I’m only guessing here, but I would be willing to bet that Erstad, the ultra-honest North Dakota native, wasn’t the most popular guy after he would leave a Chicago conference room, even though he would never ridicule, condemn or torpedo anyone in particular. He just wants to shoot straight with his colleagues and encourage them to look at their records in a different way because they don't mean anything unless they’re playing national caliber teams. Erstad wanted the league to pull together and do everything possible to make baseball fun, competitive and enjoyable for everyone.
Well, guess what? A body of proof has emerged from the Erstad Era, and it blends with theory, supports hypothesis, holds up the experiment and keeps building points of proof all around the league, bit by bit, piece by piece and coach by coach. How do you explain what’s happened in Erstad’s two years as head coach? The Big Ten has gone from the nation’s 12th toughest league in terms of RPI to the fifth toughest league. Does anyone really think that's just coincidence since Erstad came into the league? What about Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue announcing they will build new baseball stadiums? Coincidence? Let’s not forget where the 2014 Big Ten Conference Baseball Tournament will be played – in the beautiful confines of TDAmeritrade Park in Omaha.
Big Ten Baseball Constantly Redefining Itself
For those who thought I was minimizing the importance of winning and losing earlier, I could rest my case, but will proceed. The Erstad Experiment goes way, way beyond over-padded baseball records. It goes right to the core of a Big Ten baseball culture that constantly redefines itself. Want more proof? Nebraska’s 24-26 record hasn't reached .500, but its RPI is still high enough to warrant strong NCAA Tournament consideration, especially if the Huskers take care of business every day and in every way from here on out.
The N-Sider extols more than just the merits of a rugged non-conference schedule. We credit a coach whose team has won all four of its conference road series this season, and we see the full benefits of Haymarket Park elevating every player coached by Erstad and his hand-picked staff. Every Husker player knows this weekend is an absolutely golden opportunity. “I think we’ll play really well at home because this team knows what’s out there to go get,” Sharpe said. “They’ll be highly motivated to battle Michigan.”
“Darin has steadied the ship,” Grindle said. “This team doesn’t play all up and down. They understand they can’t worry and get caught up in stuff. They have to take care of business Thursday night and then get right back up the next morning and do it again.”
Announcers Agree: Erstad Influence Far-Reaching
Let the record show that both Sharpe and Grindle believe Erstad has had a profound impact not only on his own team, but also among Big Ten member schools. “I hope we can get some big crowds in here for this series, and I think it’s a real key for us to win,” Sharpe said. “The weather is supposed to be great. No one has the cold weather excuse, so let’s get out there and cheer this team on. I’d like to see a full house.”
Grindle says it’s important for Michigan to see the support Nebraska fans bring, and the championship atmosphere they create. “Some of these schools just haven’t played in places like Lincoln,” he said. “Haymarket Park is a big home-field advantage for Nebraska. It really shows how much love there is for baseball and this program, and it shows everyone what college baseball can be from an atmospheric standpoint.”
He's Everything They Thought He’d Be and More
I ask “The Voice” if Erstad is everything he thought he’d be or more? “He’s more,” Sharpe said. “He has really surprised me with how locked in he is about his burning desire to make Nebraska a national power. That makes Lane's and my job a lot of fun because we know how much a series like this means to him. For anyone who wondered how effective Darin would be when Coach Osborne picked him to be head coach, I can tell you the answer right now. He is ALL IN!!”
Grindle agrees. “Darin is every bit the guy he is as Nebraska’s coach as he was a Nebraska player, and he was the No. 1 player in America his senior year,” Grindle said. “I’m talking about the intensity he brings to the table every day. I mean, he absolutely hates to lose. He believes there’s a way to win, and there are things you have to do every single day if you want to win.
“To him, there is no other way to do it, and the same thing comes through every coach on his staff,” Grindle pointed out. “If this team had not bought into Darin’s style and the schedule he put in front of them, combined with the start they had, it would have crippled the program. What it did instead was make them all stronger. They’ve put themselves in position to win a league title this weekend. That’s a strong statement about the mindset Darin's instilled into the entire program.”
Big Red Fans Can Continue to Influence Big Ten
Because the coaches and players are doing everything possible to win, “There’s a chance to hang a banner this weekend,” Sharpe said. "We might need some help in that Ohio State-Indiana series, and we definitely need some help from our fans. I hope they know how important they can be."
“In my opinion, we’ve been a good influence to the league,” Grindle said. “I think we’re forcing other schools to really step it up. They see the attention we pay to college baseball and the emphasis we put on it, and they’re trying to do the same thing, not only with their facilities, but with their coaching staffs. It takes a lot of commitment, and I think this entire league understands that now. I also think the coaches probably look at Darin a little differently now than they did when he first came into the league.”
Could the base for that last statement be the ultimate body of proof for the Erstad Era? For anyone who investigates this case, momentum appears to be growing with no signs of stopping until every third-base coach in the league tries to wave their own teams to Omaha, where most, after all, will be playing just one year from now.
How about that?
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