Erstad looks to improve Nebraska
Cornhuskers’ last appearance in World Series was 2005
LINCOLN, Neb. -- New Nebraska coach Darin Erstad loves when people say he can’t do something.
Erstad said he knows some in college baseball don’t think he’s qualified for the job after working one year as a volunteer assistant. While he said his 14 years in the major leagues should count for something, he simply plans to prove them wrong without lashing out.
“Maybe they’re right,” Erstad said. “Maybe I’m not experienced enough for it. Time will tell. I know baseball. I know kids. I know the University of Nebraska. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and we’ll see what happens.”
His job starts in earnest Friday when Nebraska and other Division I teams begin practice. The season starts Feb. 17.
Erstad takes a program that underachieved in the Big 12 after three College World Series appearances between 2001-05.
The Cornhuskers are beginning their first season in the Big Ten, and they should contend immediately in a cold-weather conference whose baseball has been all but irrelevant nationally. No Big Ten team has won the national title since 1966 or reached the CWS since 1984.
While winning the Big Ten is the priority, Erstad believes Nebraska has the facilities and resources to compete for more.
“I want to be part of Nebraska’s first national title team,” he said. “We’ve been [to the CWS] three times the last 11 years, and people say it’s not possible? Well, it is possible. We’ve proven that it is possible.”
Erstad, 37, always has been up for a challenge.
He grew up hearing that a kid from a small town in North Dakota (Jamestown) shouldn’t dare to dream of playing in the major leagues; never mind that Roger Maris and others made it. When he was in the minors, people supposedly in the know told him he didn’t throw well enough to play outfield in the bigs, that his stride was too long when he was batting.
“Just little comments like that, maybe they were making them to motivate me,” Erstad said. “I just feed off that stuff. It’s powerful.”
Erstad became a two-time All-Star, the first player to win Gold Gloves at three different positions and he batted .355 in 2000 to set a Los Angeles Angels record. He had a .282 career average and won a world championship with the 2002 Angels.
Erstad was an All-America outfielder for the Huskers in 1995 and the punter on the 1994 national championship football team. He was the first player picked in the 1995 draft.
His passion for Nebraska never waned while he was away. He and his wife, fellow NU graduate Jessica Erstad, donated $1 million to a football-stadium improvement project in 2004, and he stayed in touch with his old football coach, Tom Osborne.
Erstad’s playing days ended in 2009, and he accepted Mike Anderson’s invitation to join the Huskers’ staff as volunteer batting coach in 2011. The Huskers failed to make the Big 12 tournament for the third consecutive year. Osborne, now the athletic director, fired Anderson on May 22 and picked Erstad as head coach 11 days later.
Osborne said he interviewed head and assistant coaches from across the nation and was impressed by the level of interest in the job.
Erstad won out, Osborne said, because of his dedication to Nebraska and his work ethic.
There was some resentment in college baseball circles because Erstad was hired over experienced candidates who were proven recruiters. Erstad couldn’t recruit as a volunteer assistant.
Erstad said he learned how to run a team from some of the best minds in the game, such as Angels manager Mike Scioscia and former Angels bench coach and current Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Erstad was known around the majors for his hard edge and drive to succeed. He said the Houston Astros signed him in 2008 specifically to mentor young outfielders Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence.
“In a weird sort of way, I started my coaching career when I was playing,” he said. “As you’re sitting there watching 162 games waiting to pinch hit, you start seeing things. Your mind starts gravitating toward what a manager might be doing or how a bench is working or how they work a bullpen. I learned on the job as I was still playing, and the transition was a good one.”
Erstad acknowledged he doesn’t have all the answers about coaching at the college level, and that’s why he hired respected assistants Will Bolt and Ted Silva.
Bolt was an infielder on Nebraska’s 2001-02 CWS team and a volunteer assistant on the 2005 CWS squad. He was an assistant at Texas A&M for two years and spent the last four as head coach of the successful Texarkana College junior college program. Silva, the pitching coach, has had successful runs at Fresno State, UC Irvine and Loyola Marymount.
Erstad is being paid $160,000 a year -- less than half the $330,000 Anderson earned in his final season. As of Tuesday, no contract for Erstad was on file in the athletic business office.
The Huskers return eight everyday players and eight pitchers. Erstad said he’ll implement an aggressive style, the kind he learned under Scioscia and Maddon and a perfect fit for a college game that has become less offensive with the toned-down bats of recent years.
The hit-and-run, bunts and base stealing will be staples for a team whose top returning home-run hitter went deep five times last season.
“They’ve got to trust their instincts, press the issue and dictate the pace of the game,” Erstad said. “This is what I grew up with, what I know, and it was very effective for the teams I played on that didn’t have superstar players.”
Senior outfielder Kale Kiser said he and his teammates grew up watching Erstad, the player, which gives Erstad, the coach, instant credibility.
“He really wears his heart on his sleeve, and he shoots you straight and tells you how it is,” Kiser said. “Him being in the big leagues for 14 years, he brings the right attitude to the field every day, and that rubs off on the players.”