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By Randy York
Darin Erstad admits he’s a simple person. He grew up in North Dakota, spent four years at Nebraska, lasted 14 years in the major leagues and, at 37, is in his first season as NU’s head baseball coach. Friday night at 6:35, his Huskers will play their first-ever Big Ten Conference baseball game against Illinois at Hawks Field, so Wednesday morning we asked Erstad about his role as a catalyst for change in the nation’s oldest conference.
For those who might not know, the highly populated Big Ten regions operate in college baseball’s shadows while the sport thrives in the South, the Southeast, the Southwest and the Western part of the country. The Big Ten and the College World Series connect about once in a blue moon. The league’s RPI is abysmal, and on the same day that NU Athletic Director Tom Osborne announced that the punter on his first national championship football team is now his first-year head baseball coach, Erstad did what he always does – fails to back down from something he strongly believes in. “I refuse to believe that something cannot be improved or that something can’t be done,” he said Wednesday, referring to the Big Ten’s weak non-conference schedules. “It just motivates us even more to get the conference as a whole to where they want to be.”
The “they” Erstad refers to officially will become “we” once the Huskers play their first Big Ten game against Illinois, which returns10 letter winners from a team that won the Big Ten Post-Season Tournament and reached a regional final last year. Earlier this month, Illinois upset No. 18 Oregon. The Illini were picked to finish sixth in the league’s 2012 preseason coaches’ poll, and Nebraska was picked to finish fourth behind Michigan State, Purdue and Minnesota.
Erstad inherited this year’s schedule, but he’s vowed to take it to another level in future years. He wants to play the best of the best and is encouraging his new Big Ten brethren to do the same thing and help raise the flag for Big Ten baseball for all the right reasons.
“The changing of the conference is exciting,” Erstad said. “Friday is a new page in Husker history. We’re excited to join a new conference and excited to help change the culture of an entire conference. I was hired to do the right thing, and upgrading the schedule is the right thing to do. I’m not going anywhere. If I get fired, I’m going to raise my family in Lincoln, Nebraska. I believe in this university, this city and this state. This is where I want all my kids to be raised. Regardless of what happens here, I’m not going anywhere.”
Right now, Erstad has his hands full. “We gotta a long way to go,” he said, “and I mean a long, long way to go.”
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