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Looking Beyond Big Crowds
Anderson Sees Bigger Picture
Mike Anderson knows there could be record crowds this weekend for Nebraska’s Big 12 Conference showdown series against Texas A&M.
Nebraska’s head baseball coach envisions fans packing the house so full at Haymarket Park Friday, Saturday and Sunday that the grassy berm “seats” along the first and third-base lines and in left and right fields might be as crowded as they’d be for a super-regional series with a ticket to Omaha on the line.
For Nebraska, on weekends like this, the berm views are as popular as bleacher seats at Wrigley, and let’s just hope that Husker fans are as savvy as Cub fans when it comes to understanding that sometimes the big picture of baseball goes beyond merely winning and losing.
To jump from second to first in the Big 12 standings, the Huskers would have to sweep the red-hot Aggies, who have won 15 straight conference games and 24 of their last 26 games overall. Nebraska, which has won four straight league games and 12 of its last 14 games overall, faces a very tall order.
And Anderson, not surprisingly, doesn’t want to put any more inside the pressure cooker than what is already there.
A&M, 41-8, and ranked as high as fifth in at least one national poll, versus Nebraska, 36-8-1, and also ranked as high as fifth in at least one national poll. What we have here are two former Nebraska assistant baseball coaches who worked under Dave Van Horne – and who are still very close friends – going against each other as head coaches at schools that have built nationally prominent baseball programs in the shadows of their football heritage.
The difference between baseball and football, though, is dramatic. Whichever team emerges in the best shape from this series goes into overdrive on the way to the Big 12 Post-Season Tournament at the Brickyard in Oklahoma City and probably gets an inside super-regional edge for the NCAA Tournament.
IN 2005, LONGHORNS FLEW UNDER THE RADAR, THEN WON CWS
But guess what? That is not as a big a deal for the coaches and players as it is for the fans. Remember three years ago when Nebraska won the Big 12 regular-season baseball championship and the league’s post-season tournament? Texas flew under the radar all that season. The Longhorns entered the NCAA Tournament unseeded and promptly went to Omaha, where they won all five of their games in the College World Series.
Watching that helped Anderson adjust his thinking on expectations and accomplishments and why it’s so easy to miss the big picture when you’re so focused on the here and now.
“This series will be sold out with berms and everything else. It will be a packed house, and it will be fun,” Anderson said. “I can already see it with this team. If we win this series against A&M, my job is going to be keeping us from getting too high. If we lose, my job is keeping us from being discouraged. Can we be disappointed? You bet! But discouraged? No. This team has been extremely resilient all year long. We’ve lost eight games, and I can only count three where we weren’t in the game the whole game.”
In those three games, “We got smashed, and we got punched in the nose,” Anderson said, referring to three lopsided losses (17-7 at Stanford, 13-2 at Texas and 19-2 at Oklahoma State). “But every time that we lost badly, we’ve figured out a way to fight back. You can’t do that unless you have a team that’s together.”
That’s why Anderson refuses to put undue pressure on his team this weekend despite heightened interests and possible record crowds. “First and foremost, what a great opportunity we have this weekend,” he said. “This is the reason you play college baseball. But as great an opportunity as this is, it’s not the only opportunity for this team.”
Anderson realizes that some fans might think he’s rationalizing in advance should the Huskers lose the series at home. But he’s looking at the showdown strategically, understanding that whatever happens this weekend, the next four to five weeks are even more important.
“Psychologically, it’s my job to get this team ready to play,” he said. “And we’re going to play our tails off and do nothing but play to win. But at the same time, we need to understand that win or lose, we have many more great opportunities in front of us.”
The two head coaches “talk to each other all the time,” Anderson said. “It’s one of the best friendships I’ve ever had and will continue to have. We talk baseball because that’s our connection. But our conversations go way beyond that. It’s a lot more about families than baseball. We understand we have to play each other every year, and we both look forward to the opportunity, especially this year.”
Hawks Field will be amped for this high-powered series. “I tell recruits all the time that the stadium is a remarkable place, but it only becomes a great home-field advantage when you put the people in it.”
BOOSTER CLUB PRESIDENT: ‘WE’LL PROBABLY HAVE TO SHUT THE GATES’
And this Mothers’ Day weekend, Nebraska fans will be there in full force. “I think we’ll probably have to shut the gates for more than one game,” predicted Gene Eubanks, the president of the Huskers’ Home Run Club and the father of former five-time, letter-winning second baseman Kurt Eubanks (1981-82-83-84-85).
Nebraska baseball, Eubanks said, “is like every other sport at Nebraska. If the program wins, it’s fun and exciting and people will show up and support you. It’s been that way since Van Horn turned the program around. Getting to the College World Series three times hasn’t hurt us either. We were really proud last year to be a Northern school and rank among the top five nationally in average attendance.”
Nebraska would prefer not to shut down the gates like it had to do for a super-regional game against Miami two years ago. It happened again last month when the Huskers hosted Kansas the same afternoon as the spring football game. But when the crowd grows to nearly 9,000, it becomes a fire marshal issue, and decisions must be made.
The irony is enough to make Doyle Wolverton shake his head. He remembers coming to Nebraska baseball games in the early 1980s when a typical crowd, especially on a chilly day, numbered about 20 people, plus a few parents of players. “They were the same people every game,” he said. “Now, sometimes we have to turn people away because we have to cut it off at about 9,000.”
Wolverton, a retired Nebraska professor in animal sciences, also remembers going to a College World Series game in Omaha in 1960 when he could drive up from Iowa, get out of his car and buy just about any seat he wanted at Rosenblatt Stadium.
“College baseball has really gotten big, and Hawks Field is one of the best facilities in the country,” Wolverton said. “It fits the crowd, and it fits the program. It’s a very fan-friendly field, and the players love it, too. I grew up a baseball fan, and it’s still my favorite sport. I go to 60 or 70 college baseball games a year, and I would put Haymarket Park up there with just about anyone.”
Anderson does, too. “I’ve been here 14 years and seen the evolution of our fan base,” Nebraska’s head coach said. “People used to complain that our fans kept showing up in football jerseys and didn’t understand the game. I never thought that was true, and now, even though our numbers have increased dramatically, I can say that our fan base is extremely knowledgeable.”
ANDERSON: BIG RED FANS THE MOST DEEPLY APPRECIATIVE HE’S SEEN
So knowledgeable, in fact, that Nebraska baseball fans – just like Nebraska football fans – have been known to applaud great plays by opposing teams. “We have a fan base that has the deepest appreciation of any fan base that I’ve ever seen,” Anderson said. “Any knock on us now would be ridiculous. Our fans are classy and extremely loyal. They create a great home-field advantage.”
Whenever Big 12 coaches play in Lincoln, most of them tell Anderson: “Man, you have such a great environment up here. It’s just incredible.”
Almost every non-conference coach whose team plays at Haymarket Park says the same thing. “Until they got here, they just didn’t realize how special this place is,” Anderson said. “It’s special for everyone – players, coaches and fans.”