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Darin Erstad's dream is Nebraska winning an NCAA Super Regional and then celebrating a College World Series Championship in Omaha. In his first year as Nebraska’s head baseball coach, Erstad’s Huskers made meaningful progress as a program, but did not qualify for a regional. Last week, we caught up with Erstad and asked him to rewind his first-year experience and to share what he sees as critical to the Huskers getting back on that magical road to Omaha. In a nutshell, the answers are better pitching, improved defense and playing a much tougher schedule like all Big Ten teams should do to change their RPI-deficient league overall. Erstad says he’s much more eager to put his team “in a ring of fire” against tougher opponents than he is in softening a schedule to pad his record. Please join our conversation from Erstad’s office above the left-field bleachers at Hawks Field inside Haymarket Park:
Q: Nebraska baseball fans that I know all say they’ve seen a definitive culture change in your first season as head baseball coach at Nebraska. Did you see that change, too?
A: I think it’s still a work in progress. The foundation I believe in is respecting this game and playing hard, regardless of the score or regardless of the circumstances. Whether it applies to your opponent, venue, crowd, whatever, it doesn’t matter because you play a certain way every time, and I think our guys grasped that. That’s the foundation of the type of playing culture we’re going to have here.
Q: In your first year as head coach, what was the greatest experience and what caused you the greatest pain?
A: For me, the greatest experience is seeing how the guys execute on the field and buy into what we’ve been helping them work on and coach ‘em up on. When it translates into success on the field, you see that look in their eye when they have that moment that it works, and that means something to me. We saw that happen plenty of times. As far as pain goes, I’m numb to it. I’ve tilted so many times in this game, I just never allow myself to get too high or too low. That’s just comes through a lot of years of experience of playing. It’s just part of the deal. Nothing pains me anymore.
Q: I’m going to get right to what I think is the biggest issue in Big Ten baseball. Whatever you seem to see or read or hear, the Big Ten seems to have accepted its Northern climate disadvantages and its overall lack of national success and respect. I know you’re not in that camp, but can you elaborate on where the Big Ten is now and where you want to see this conference go in terms of baseball?
A: Well, again, I think we’re in the infant stages of learning the ins and the outs of the league. I think there are a lot of very good people in our league. I think there are a lot of very good players in our league. I think one word that would probably sum up what I’ve seen so far is frustration, and I think that’s on many levels, ranging from the institutional support that maybe some coaches feel they should have to the ability to travel more or the opportunity to oversize the recruiting to protect yourself against the supplemental draft. I feel like these are the things the coaches have talked about and fought for, but have had very little success in getting changed. I think they’re frustrated, and I think they’re at the end of their patience. You can see the drafts of some of the things being talked about, and I think many of them feel like this is their last chance to do something. My mind doesn’t work that way. I continue to talk to them and hopefully we can set a nice model for them.
Q: I was listening to Greg Sharpe and Lane Grindle describe on the radio how you were politely disagreeing with umpires who declared the field ready to play in the first game of the conference tournament when it really wasn’t. They were praising you for taking that situation into your own hands and making sure the field was right for play.
A: Whatever’s been allowed to happen, I’ve heard a lot of complaints from coaches about the tournament, yet when it comes time to sit in front of people that matter, there’s nothing said. Well, I’m not going to sit back. There are very good people that I’ve met and had an opportunity to work with, but at the end of the day, there are things that are overlooked and when the attention to detail and the respect and the integrity of the game are involved, I’m going to say something. Little things become big things when they’re overlooked. For me, you can have all the administrative bureaucracy or the mumble jumble outside the white lines, but when you start talking about what happens between the white lines on that field, that is sacred to me. When you are watering a non-dragged infield or when you are not watering or dragging before the first game of a conference tournament, those are things that just can’t happen. It hurts the integrity of the game. I walked on the field. The dirt’s dry, and there are huge footmarks and clumps of dirt that are, quite frankly, very dangerous. A groundball to the shortstop can not only hit you in the face and hurt you, but also can affect the outcome of the game. These kids have worked hard to get to that conference tournament, and it’s a beautiful field, and they deserve to play on a nicely groomed field.
Q: When you took this job, you put your heart and soul into hiring hard-driven, loyal assistant coaches. Can you share your thoughts about how your staff has grown together and how you’re moving forward after year one?
A: I had an idea of what I wanted to do from a staff standpoint, and I got lucky. I couldn’t even have imagined that it would have come together any better than it did and how everybody got along as well as we did and still have all the pieces covered. We’re all just doing what we love to do. I just can’t be any happier about how hard this staff has worked and come together.
Q: In your first year as a head coach, did you ever find yourself modeling Mike Scioscia, your manager with the California Angels, and use whatever you might have learned from him?
A: There’s not any one incidence I can think of where I would ask: ‘What would Sosh do?’ It’s safe to say that our lives are shaped by all the people we encounter and all those we’re around, so you just take bits and pieces you learn from them and make it part of your own life. Sosh was definitely a big part of that for me.
Q: You played for Coach Osborne on a national championship football team. Now that he’s your boss, you met with him and analyzed this first season. What part of that conversation do you feel comfortable sharing?
A: Coach Osborne is always there for you whenever you need to bounce something off of him or get his advice or his opinion. He’s a great listener. He allows you to talk and then he breaks it down and comes up with a possible solution or some pointers that help you. He’s there for you, but he lets you do your job. It’s that balance you want to have, just like I have with my assistant coaches. You want them to coach, but at the same time, you want to be there for ‘em. That’s the way Coach Osborne is.
Q: I was talking to Coach Osborne about the prospects of playing fall baseball, but he says the reality is good teams don’t want to do that. So we’re back to the spring. What are you doing to optimize your team's potential in the spring? What ideas have you come up with to help Northern schools?
A: The system is what it is, and you have to find a way to make it work. First and foremost, we just have to play tougher teams. Everybody has to play a tougher non-conference schedule. Until we get our strength of schedule as a conference stronger, I don’t think anybody will even give us the time of day. Is there a disadvantage of going down South to play different teams? Well, Big Ten teams aren’t the only ones in the North. Who’s to say that we can’t go grab Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Stony Brook, Maine, St. John’s ... why can’t we go play them in warm weather. Why can’t we have our own tournament and include teams that haven’t been outside? I would consider that fair because those are pretty good teams, so let’s do that. Let’s make up our own tournament down there. Let’s all go play right there in Arizona. Teams go there for spring training because they have gorgeous fields, gorgeous weather and easy flights. If some of the Eastern schools want to go down to Florida, they can go. The Big East and Big Ten do their baseball challenge every year, but we need to incorporate the Pac-12 or incorporate anyone else we can. At the end of the day, you just have to find teams that will play you. There are Missouri Valley teams that have to go down South. Everybody has to go down there, so why don’t we schedule each other? Who says when you go down South that you have to play all Southern teams? These aren’t things that haven’t been thought of before. We just need to play stronger teams, so let’s get together and do that.
Q: Who’s getting all this going? Nebraska?
A: We can’t do things for other people, but I know what we’re doing. We’ve already started some of what I just talked about. We have to wait until everything’s final and can be announced, but next year is going to be an extremely aggressive schedule. Do we have a chance of only winning 30 games? Absolutely, but we also have a chance of winning 35 or 36 games and having an at-large bid to the NCAA. Those are the types of things I’m never going to stop trying to do.
Q: Competition is more important to you than anything else, is it not?
A: Absolutely! All you have to do is look at Michigan State. The No. 5 team in the Big Ten got an at-large bid to the NCAA. They’re the No. 5 seed in the conference, okay? They played Texas A&M on a weekend and got swept. On that same trip, on a Tuesday, they beat Baylor, which got an at-large bid and had 37 wins. That’s all. They didn’t go play crazy stuff, but they made an effort to put some tough teams on their schedule, and they were rewarded. With that type of model, you take a chance and a risk of winning only 26 games in a season ... maybe ... but you give yourself an opportunity to earn an at-large bid. Some coaches aren’t going to do that because they want to save their jobs. If you only win that many games, you’re going to lose your job. If I lose my job, it’s going to be because of that. I am not going to back down and play a soft schedule. You know, if you get to regionals and you’ve played a soft schedule and haven’t prepared for any of these quality opponents, how are you going to beat them when you get the chance? So I’m going to put our guys into a ring of fire. Are we going to lose big because of that? Probably, but they’re going to be ready in the long run.
Q: After three straight years of not qualifying for a conference tournament, you’ve had a long, demanding and successful season. You hit the horsehide off the ball, but struggled on the mound. Can you tell us how that’s influencing recruiting and what your plan is?
A: The foundation of winning consistently is based on pitching and defense. Obviously we hit the ball well, but that overshadowed and put band-aides on some scars we have. We just have to get better on the mound. We did not do a good job of pitching or handling adversity, and you can see we gave others straight and open competition. We looked for anybody to step up, and it took a while to find that. Our fielding percentage was solid, but we need to work harder and play catch better. We need to be able to turn double plays and execute the simplest of plays. Those are the things we will continue to work on.
Q: Nebraska fans kept coming through the turnstiles this season. There was a dramatic increase in attendance because fans believe in you, and you believe in them and appreciate their support. The Big Ten has no baseball fan base like Nebraska’s. How important is seeing those fans in their seats, even on a rainy or a cold night?
A: Quite honestly, there’s a pressure element to that, and we like being in the top 15 in the country in attendance. To be in the top 15 is mind-boggling, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t surprise me. There’s a reason we moved our family to Lincoln. There’s a reason we fell in love with and are proud to be living in Husker Nation because that’s what our fans do. They’re so supportive, not just in Lincoln, but across the country. It’s so humbling to be a part of it. You know, the 70-degree temperatures in March didn’t hurt at all, but the fan part is so fantastic, it makes you want to work even harder to give ‘em a great product.”
Q: Can you tell us how tough it is not to be in an NCAA regional and how you’ll mark your time when eight teams come to Omaha this weekend for another College World Series just 50 miles down the road?
A: You feel like a complete failure because teams in the same division you’re in will be playing in Nebraska and we won’t. You see all these teams on TV still playing, and you aren’t anymore. We’re just not good enough. That failure has always driven me to work that much harder and to push that much more. The feeling is no different than losing ever was. It’s always been a huge motivator for me in baseball. Failure better be a motivator or you’re in trouble because there’s a lot of failure.
Q: Everyone knows how fiercely determined you are, and I’ve heard that your wife shares that competitive trait. People tell me how much energy you’ve put into this job. You can’t give any more than you’ve given. Where will you go when you get a well-deserved vacation?
A: We’re going to watch baseball. It never stops. I mean, I don’t want it to stop. There’s good balance. There’s time for family, and there’s time for work. I’m just fortunate I have great family support. I have a wife who believes in this university, in this community and in the importance of developing young kids. I couldn’t do this without her support, and it’s just a good balance we have. Our kids love to play baseball, and they love to watch it.
Q: Will you go to the College World Series?
A: I will not go to the College World Series, but I will be watching it, that’s for sure.
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Voices from Husker Nation
I live in LA and in 2002 I watched Darin Erstad and the Los Angeles Angels win an impossible World Series Championship. On Monday night, I watched an improbable win by the 8th-seeded Los Angeles Kings as they won the Stanley Cup after a 45-year drought. Events such as these, and your article about Darin Erstad's expectations for the future of baseball at NU, remind me of how people felt in the 1960s when Bob Devaney took over the football program. No one ever expected a National Championship for the Cornhuskers until, he and Tom Osborne took over. I was at the Homecoming game in 1968 that we lost to Kansas State but then, only two years later, I went to that Orange Bowl game against LSU when we earned our first football national championship. I wish some of these negative, critical fans could experience what some of us older people have.....coming out of nowhere to win it all. What a thrill it was then, and could be again in all of our sports. Who knows? Maybe this will be Bo Pelini's year. And if Darin Erstad can instill that, "WE CAN DO IT ATTITUDE", the Huskers should be in for a home run to the College World Series! Suppose Coach Miles, who ofoten exhibits that same "No Quit" attitude, is able to model this for his players so well that March Madness appearances won't be unusual. But even more importantly, how well could our athletic teams perform if we fans adopted the same attitude? Our encouragement is an essential part of our sport teams' successes. We, too, must listen to Darin Erstad. Our support may be just what helps put Nebraska on top. Carol Edmonds, Downey, California
As a college coach, Darin Erstad is a breath of fresh air, regardless of what sport you want to name. He puts his players, coaches and the integrity of the game above everything else. He has great respect for the school he represents and the fans that follow his team. He's been around long enough to speak his mind and mince no words. Really enjoyed reading the season review and the high expectations he has for the future. Love his attitude about strengthening the schedule instead of worrying about the record. Every Big Ten coach should read this and follow his lead. He's right on. Tom Johnson, Arlington, Texas
Great talk with Coach Erstad. We were at the first three games in Peoria, Arizona, this season. It was great to see the number of Husker fans in attendance. Even with the outcome of the games it seems that the fans of Big Red increased each game. We hope to see the Huskers in Arizona again next year. We will be in Pasadena on Sept. 8 for UCLA game! GO BIG RED. Barry Rubin, Mesa, Arizona