OMAHA, Neb. -- The locals have long supported Dave Van Horn-coached teams at the College World Series, no matter the shade of red.
Van Horn will coach for a national championship this week in Omaha, 60 miles northeast of Lincoln, where he spent five seasons as head coach of Nebraska from 1998-2002. Van Horn led the Cornhuskers to the College World Series for the first time in 2001 and returned to the CWS the following year.
He resigned at Nebraska five days after the 2002 season ended to replace Norm DeBriyn, the outgoing Arkansas coach who recruited Van Horn to play for him in the early 1980s. Two years into his Arkansas tenure, Van Horn returned to Omaha with Arkansas.
"When we came here [Omaha] in '04, I didn't know what to expect," Van Horn said. "I didn't know if they were still mad at me for leaving or what because it was just a couple years out.
"They've been tremendous to me and my family. I've said it many a time, the five years I spent here were huge. I mean, we took that program from basically last place in the Big 12 and everybody kind of thought, 'Hey, you're just a football school,' to very respectable, and then at the end we were the best team the last couple of years," Van Horn said. And it was really hard to leave ... just because of all the success. And there was only one place I would go, and that was Arkansas. So I'm thankful that they've been so kind."
Van Horn is remembered fondly in Nebraska, a state similar to Arkansas with no major professional sports and with only one college team that competes in a power conference. College baseball typically has not been strong at Nebraska or Creighton, the private school located in downtown Omaha, but the sport is well-liked in the state, in large part because of the College World Series.
No Nebraska university had played in the College World Series until Creighton's surprise appearance in 1991. That put the pressure on the Cornhuskers to do the same.
"I remember going to some games that year and saying, 'Man, if Nebraska ever makes it, what's it going to be like?' said Lance Grush, a lifelong Cornhuskers fan from Omaha who said fans never really expected Nebraska to make the College World Series prior to Van Horn's arrival.
"It was like, 'Oh, the College World Series is for those good teams in baseball' and we were never that," Grush said. "At best, you'd hope to upset somebody in the Big Eight or the Big 12. You just hoped to maybe beat somebody that was a top 20 team two out of three if you got lucky, but there was never actually any hope of winning a conference....or to get beyond a regional."
Bill Byrne, the former Nebraska athletics director, fired 20-year coach John Sanders in 1997. His interview process took him to a coaches convention in California and "to various other locales" where he interviewed more than a half-dozen candidates.
Van Horn, then coach at Northwestern (La.) State in Natchitoches, reached out about the job, but told Byrne he could not travel to interview because his wife, Karen, had just given birth to their youngest daughter. Byrne flew to an airfield in Natchitoches, where the Van Horns had reserved an upstairs room to give a presentation.
"They had it decorated in Nebraska red and had all kinds of stuff about the success of the Northwestern baseball program," Byrne said, "and they had cookbooks from Louisiana for us."
Unknown to Van Horn, Byrne was an avid cook. But it was another book he passed out that day that won him over with his soon-to-be boss.
Van Horn gave Byrne and members of his search team pamphlets that detailed his success at Northwestern State and what he would do to turn around Nebraska, in particular through recruiting and scheduling.
"He just absolutely wowed us," Byrne said. "We wanted to take him back on the plane with us that evening.
"He had us in stitches in one minute and fired up and ready to play the next. I haven't been that sold on a coach that quickly I think ever in my career."
Because he was hired one month before the season, Van Horn did not get to go through a fall practice with his first Nebraska team. But the Cornhuskers improved from the 1997 season and finished 24-20. Van Horn received some encouragement from legendary Texas Coach Augie Garrido that year.
"I'll be honest with you, that first year at Nebraska some of the coaches in the league, they weren't real friendly with us," Van Horn said. "It was probably the middle of the season, and he told me that ... we were doing a good job and that he watched us practice a little bit and he knew we were going to be good by the way we practiced, and I told him I appreciated it."
Garrido was right. The Cornhuskers were 42-18 and won the Big 12 the next season, and went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1985 and only the sixth time in program history. In July that year Nebraska announced it would replace Buck Beltzer Field with a $32.6 million facility that it would share with an independent minor league team in Lincoln.
Buck Beltzer Field, built in 1979, doubled as a practice field for the Nebraska football team. It had a turf infield and a grass outfield that was often torn up because of the football cleats. Former Van Horn assistant Mike Anderson once said it wasn't uncommon to find football mouthpieces in the outfield.
The student newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan, once wrote it had the charm of a junkyard in Beirut.
"It was absolutely awful," Byrne said. "How many major college baseball programs have a goal post in their outfield?
"We had snow and wind in Nebraska and we had a snow fence in the outfield. I was watching a game one night and it may have been Darrin Erstad, who is the coach at Nebraska now, but he was chasing after a ball, slid and went underneath the snow fence, got caught in it and the kid hit an inside-the-park home run because he couldn't get the ball back.
"We didn't have bathrooms for the players, so you would be in using the facilities and half the visiting team would come in and use the facilities with you. If you wanted to change clothes, you could use the concession stand storage room. It was unbelievable.
"So we built Dave a new baseball facility and, boy, did we get good in a hurry."
The Cornhuskers finished one game shy of the College World Series in 2000, going 51-17 but losing a super regional finale to Stanford. The Cornhuskers won 50 games in 2001, and in the final game at Buck Beltzer Field scored three runs in the top of the 10th inning to defeat Rice and go to the College World Series for the first time.
"It was huge," Grush said. "To have the Huskers in the College World Series, it wasn't even in your wheelhouse, a thought that didn't exist before Van Horn came."
During its inaugural season at Haymarket Park in 2002, Nebraska averaged more than 4,100 fans per game, up from an average of about 500 at Buck Beltzer Field the year Van Horn was hired. The Cornhuskers won 47 games in 2002 and returned to Omaha with a super regional win over Richmond.
Arkansas lost to Clemson in the super regional that year and DeBriyn announced his intention to retire.
Questions about the Arkansas job dogged Van Horn throughout the week of the College World Series. Reporters were staked outside his Lincoln home and radio stations listed his email address, which led to more than 400 emails encouraging him to stay in Nebraska.
Ultimately, Van Horn left for Arkansas, where he had gone to college and met his wife. Nebraska countered Arkansas' offer, but Van Horn said he left a manila envelope that contained the offer unopened in Lincoln.
"That was really hard," Byrne said. "We offered more money to keep him, but it was just momma calling him home. Frank [Broyles] did a nice job of getting him back to Fayetteville."
Van Horn-coached teams have come to Nebraska several times in the years since he left, for regular-season games at Nebraska and Creighton, and five times for the College World Series. He said each time has been better than the one before and he has had the opportunity to talk with many appreciative Cornhusker fans who were understanding of his decision to return home, a decision that Grush said made even more sense of in light of Nebraska hiring Scott Frost, a former starting quarterback, away from Central Florida last December after an undefeated season.
Many Arkansas fans will make the short trek north to Nebraska this week in hopes of seeing the Razorbacks win their first national championship. Many others will be there in red to support the man they once cheered fervently.
"He's just kind of got this iconic position for Nebraska fans, kind of like Bob Devaney" in football, Grush said.
"In Omaha, there are obviously a lot of people who come to support their team, but there are also a lot of Omahans that go to the College World Series each year. A lot of times they pick an underdog, but I know that when Van Horn comes here, a lot of people cheer for him because of that place he holds in our hearts and what he did."
Sports on 06/26/2018
Print Headline: Nebraska fans still cheer for Van Horn