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Say this about Darin Erstad. He is fearless. He is factual, and he’s fun. Nebraska’s second-year head baseball coach was the punter on Tom Osborne’s first national championship football team, and on Wednesday, he unloaded nearly two decades of self-confessed annoyance within five yards of the head coach he played for and the athletic director who hired him … none other than Osborne, the Hall-of-Fame coach and soon-to-be-retired AD.
“I begged Coach to put me on the football team, but I guess I was just a little baseball player,” Erstad said when he stepped up to the microphone at Nebraska’s All-Staff Holiday Luncheon in the West Stadium. Erstad then shared a story that set the stage for his determined defense of all the “little baseball players” in Nebraska and across the country.
Nineteen years ago, Paul Meyers, then an assistant Nebraska baseball coach and now NU’s associate athletic director for the Huskers Athletic Fund, was sitting in Memorial Stadium’s stands at the 50-yard line. He was watching Erstad boom one 50-yard punt after another. An All-America baseball player at Nebraska himself, Meyers understood what almost every athlete knows – just the thought of playing football at Nebraska widens a kid’s eyes and stokes his imagination.
On that day, Meyers told Erstad he would introduce him to Osborne, so he could at least entertain the idea of switching his scholarship from baseball to football, so he could become the punter and compete for the placekicker job.
Erstad Was the One Who Broke the Ice
Erstad never will forget being called over to Osborne’s office in the South Stadium after he showcased his strong leg. “I walked over to his office and sat there for 10 minutes, and he (Osborne) didn’t say a word,” Erstad told his fellow NU Athletic Department employees. “Finally, I decided I’m going to meet him anyway.”
And finally, Osborne got around to asking the paramount question: “Do you want to play football?”
“Yeh,” Erstad remembers replying.
“You want to play football for Nebraska?” Osborne then asked.
“Absolutely!” Erstad said.
That casual conversation annoyed Erstad because no action was taken that year. But it’s not what really stuck in his craw, so Wednesday seemed like the right time to remind Osborne about what he said after that simple introduction.
Tom’s Stubborn Mindset Upset Erstad
“We talked a little about how we would have to change my scholarship over from baseball to football to make that happen, but Coach made it very clear to me that baseball players are NOT athletes!” Erstad recalled.
Sharing that story with the Athletic Department, Erstad was straightforward, yet irritated enough that he screamed the “NOT athletes” so loudly into the microphone that everyone in the West Stadium banquet room laughed and laughed hard. Sensing he was taking over the room, Erstad didn’t blink an eye. He kept his jaw jutted, his lips neutral and his focus intense. When the laughter subsided, Erstad went into military mode. “I decided,” he told 230 Athletic Department employees, “what better time than now to let my frustrations out?”
With that, one of the Huskers’ most hard-nosed coaches in any sport pulled out a cascading paper that had what Erstad called a big list of athletes who played other sports besides baseball. “Bo Jackson, Dion Sanders, Dave Winfield!” Erstad said, looking Osborne squarely in the eye with an ultra-intense measure of truth, honor and justice.
“Garth Brooks!” Erstad added. “Michael Jordan … a career .202 hitter in Double-A.” Erstad made sure he enunciated like a professional broadcaster. “What about those NON-athletes who played baseball, Coach? I asked Coach when he might put a NON-athlete on the team so he could win a national title. We went back and forth and back and forth.”
Did Bypassing Darin Cost NU a National Title?
Osborne declined putting Erstad on scholarship his junior season. “That (rejection) probably cost us a national championship in 1993,” Osborne told me when he reflected on his decision. “Darin had a huge game the next year when we beat Miami for the national championship in the Orange Bowl.”
A prep all-stater in football, baseball, hockey and track in Jamestown, N.D., Erstad punted seven times for a 41.1-yard average in that national championship game. To this day, several knowledgeable Husker fans consider Erstad’s performance MVP worthy because he repeatedly kept Miami backed up and, at the same time, dramatically enhanced Nebraska’s field position.
Wednesday, in full public view, Erstad released a lot of the negative energy he’s held back for so long.
“I did some research, and apparently Nebraska has had a lot of ‘NON-athletes’ play both football and baseball,” Erstad said, looking down at Osborne’s head table. “I don’t have time to go through the whole list, but I’m going to read a few names.”
Gill, Solich, Fiala, Churchich, Damkroger Played
Erstad articulated each name as if it he were graduating from Harvard.
“Turner Gill! Frank Solich! Adrian Fiala!” Erstad shouted. “Bob Churchich! Maury Damkroger! Mark Mauer! Bobby Reynolds! Tom Novak! Harry Tolley! Don Purcell! Elmer Dohrman! Those are all people who played both sports at Nebraska! I mean, I could go on and on. What about Carl Crawford and Bubba Starling? Are they NON-athletes? (Crawford and Starling are multimillionaire superstars who chose Major League Baseball over Nebraska football).
By now, Erstad has everyone in the room in the palm of his hand, including Osborne, who was smiling from ear-to-ear and enjoying the strong argument from the defense team as much as anyone else. Knowing he won the floor battle with his spirited discourse, Erstad immediately shifted into his dry sense of humor to win the war. He roasted Osborne’s low-key, matter-of-fact coaching style and connected it with the monster results it delivered.
Erstad cited two core beliefs that carry him into his second year of coaching. “First, do not let your most non-athletic guy win the first day of your conditioning drills in football practice,” said Erstad, who achieved that as a senior at Nebraska. “Apparently, it wasn’t a very good first impression, so when that NON-athlete (Erstad himself) won that competition, we had to run it again.”
Erstad Put the Audience in the Palm of His Hand
It was fun watching a popular head coach take on an iconic figure within two weeks of his retirement. And make no mistake. An engaged audience multiplies the opportunity for humor because a full room listens to every word.
“The second thing I learned,” Erstad said, “is at the most critical time of the year when a team is getting ready to experience its biggest moment, make sure you give your most boring, dullest pregame speech you can possibly give!”
Again, laughter erupts because everyone on the third floor of the West Stadium knows Erstad is referring to Tom Osborne because he’s dialed straight into Osborne’s eyes. When the laughter subsides, Erstad delivers the punch line. “And right after that boring, dull speech,” he said. “you find people willing to run right through the wall for you!”
‘Non-Athlete’ Big Factor in Osborne’s First Title
Erstad thought Wednesday was the right time to ask that boring speaker, who views kickers as NON-athletes, an important question? “Coach,” Erstad said, looking squarely at Osborne, “do you now realize that a complete NON-athlete helped you win your first national championship?”
No laugh track needed here. The room has reached a Comedy Central kind of pitch. Everyone’s laughing so loud and so long, it’s time for the aggressor, who has made his point, to take his foot off the pedal. So Darin Erstad shifts from a sizzling funny gear to poignantly sincere.
“I remember one thing about being offered my head coaching job from Coach Osborne,” Erstad said in a reverent tone of voice. “It was a big decision, and I didn’t know if I could spend that much time away from my family. Then my wife asked me a question: ‘Do you know what Coach Osborne has done for people just like you his whole life? He’s sacrificed and affected kids’ lives in a positive way for more than 50 years. Darin, do you realize that because of him, you’re in a position to do positive things for kids, too?’
“That’s pretty powerful stuff,” Erstad said, clearing his throat and sharpening his focus. “That’s when a light bulb went off in my head. I thought to myself, Yes, I might be in a similar position to do some of the same things. I can affect kids in a positive way myself.”
After 14 years in the majors, playing 1,654 games, getting 1,697 hits and grinding out a .282 career batting average, Erstad is still standing. He was a star on a World Series Championship team, played in two All-Star Games and won three Gold Gloves. He’s healthy and feels fortunate to learn from one of the world’s best mentors. “You can stand here and try to say every word you can think of to describe Coach,” Erstad said. “I mean, it’s possible to do it, but the only way I want to do it is to say, on behalf of the Nebraska baseball coaching staff and my family and all of Husker Nation, Thanks, Coach!”
Erstad’s Gig a Grand Slam for Nebraska Baseball
Erstad hit a grand slam, and everyone in the audience was circling the bases with him when he sat down. We should point out, however, that later, in the first 90 seconds of his own speech on this special December afternoon, Osborne made sure to set the record straight.
“Regarding Darin, I did not say he was a non-athlete,” Osborne said. “I said kickers are non-athletes.” It was good to hear the room erupt in laughter for the target at the same level it responded to for the perpetrator, who truly was one of the greatest, if not the greatest all-around athlete in North Dakota history.
Osborne went on to explain that on some
days, kickers practice between 10 to 15 minutes and might even drink
coffee or hot chocolate during practice. But why debate semantics?
Erstad is way too intense to fit that stereotype, and that probably
factored into Osborne’s decision to hand Erstad the keys to the baseball
program even though it was his first official coaching job.
We know the big dream that lives inside Erstad’s head every day. If Nebraska ever qualifies for the College World Series in Omaha with Erstad calling the shots, no one will be prouder than Tom Osborne. Who knows? If that happens, maybe Erstad will invite the most boring, dullest speaker he knows to help fire up his team.
Wouldn’t that be something?
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Voices from Husker Nation
Just read the Darin Erstad story from the Athletic Department luncheon. I absolutely loved it! I spent 10 minutes chatting with him at a gathering a couple of months back and never did he start scanning the room. He stayed into our conversation. What a superb human being. He's another reason why it’s a great day to be a Husker. John Strope, Lincoln, Nebraska
I loved the stories on the Athletic Dept Holiday banquet in honor of T.O. and especially enjoyed the one on Darin Erstad. Thanks for your great writing and passion for everything Nebraska. John O’Reilly, Carlsbad, California
Really enjoyed the story on Darin Erstad and the great detail in your description of his roasting and toasting of Osborne. It makes me want to see the video. Steve Sinclair, Omaha, Nebraska