October 18, 2010


Erstad joins Huskers in their journey north

Nebraska coaches focused on growing team into contender amidst distractions


By Allen Kha



Nebraska baseball was hit with a bombshell in early June when its athletic department announced that the Huskers would be moving to the Big Ten conference in 2012.


For a team with past prestige – three College World Series trips in the past decade – and rising expectations in one of the nation’s premier baseball conferences, the conference move was a heavily anticipated, yet dispiriting curveball.


Nebraska coach Mike Anderson understands that the change in conference affiliation was ultimately driven by football and the lure of Big Ten television money, but he has mixed feelings about how the move to a Northern conference will affect his team.


“There are obviously benefits playing baseball in the [Big XII] and the South, playing with elite teams like Texas, who are a benchmark of college baseball programs,” Anderson said.


“But we’re committed to the Big Ten and are ready for our new challenge. As Nebraska’s coach, I have to be ready. We can help the Big Ten and Northern baseball become better and not regress.”


Considering the Big Ten hasn’t had a representative at the College World Series since Michigan represented the conference in 1984, Anderson knows his program is not a panacea for Big Ten baseball.


“If Northern schools aren’t competitive, then the RPI that factors into tournament selection will always be biased toward Southern schools, which will affect us,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot to change this, perhaps a change in the way the selection process works. But it will first take a commitment from us and the Big Ten programs to get better.”


Anderson noted that if Northern programs commit themselves to better out-of-conference scheduling and infrastructural improvement – much like Louisville and Connecticut have done in recent seasons – current stigmas of underdevelopment and inadequacy eventually will fade away.


“But ultimately, all our team can do now right now is play the way we can play and work hard. We have a talented team ready to improve on last year’s [27-27] record and compete this year in the Big XII,” Anderson said.


To help the team do this, Anderson called on one of Nebraska’s own, Darin Erstad. A month after Nebraska announced its move to the Big Ten, Erstad joined the Nebraska coaching staff as the team’s hitting coach.


The former two-sport star at Nebraska said the opportunity to return to his alma mater and begin his coaching career at the place where he bloomed into a No. 1 overall draft pick was an easy choice.


“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be part of the university, my home essentially, in a coaching role. It is a great opportunity to help a great group of young kids develop into men,” Erstad said.


“It feels weird but great to be called ‘Coach Erstad,’ but I’m a retired baseball player and the least I can do is give back. What better place [to give back] than Nebraska?”


Anderson suggested Erstad’s determination, encouraging nature and credibility brought from his collegiate and professional successes made him an ideal addition to the coaching staff. But Anderson and Erstad both assert that the first two characteristics are the traits they want their players to notice.


“Even though [Erstad’s] success in the Major Leagues will be the first thing that people see, his strongest assert is certainly his ability to communicate his wealth and depth of knowledge of the game,” Anderson said. “Coaching is about serving others and helping our players become better people, and Darin can do that.”


Erstad will stress the importance of fundamentals and playing with passion when he works with his players. The distractions that stem from Nebraska’s conference affiliation switch, he added, is something that the players shouldn’t worry about.


“My philosophy is that we lay it on the line every time you are on the field. There is only one right way to play the game of baseball, and that is to play hard, respect the game and respect your opponent,” Erstad said.


“Ultimately, while I had a good professional career that rooted itself here in Lincoln, that’s not what college baseball is about. It’s about enjoying college, developing as a person and student and then developing as an athlete. That’s one big difference between college baseball and the minor leagues.”


Erstad said student-athletes playing college baseball should enjoy growing as a student and an athlete. The rigors of the minor leagues and professional life are something that is more appreciated after college.


This considered, he slightly bemoans the circumstances surrounding the NCAA-mandated wood-like bats that will be used starting next season.


“I hope the bats aren’t a distraction or any more reason for players in general to think about pro ball, though,” Erstad said.


Ultimately, Erstad hopes to help revitalize a program that he helped push into notoriety. He said motivation is what makes a college baseball job more desirable to him than a coaching job in minor league baseball.


After being asked to compare his coaching route to that of Iowa Cubs manager Ryne Sandburg, Erstad said: “Ryne’s doing well for himself, but I’m glad to be coaching here in Lincoln. I don’t think I have much to contribute football-wise anymore, but it’s a special feeling being able to return here – home – to help build something special.”