Decade of Dave ends in Omaha

Dave Van Horn has his alma mater back in the College World Series for the third time in nine years. Getting back to Arkansas was a long journey.

Editor's Note: This story ran in our 2012 baseball preview

OMAHA, Neb. - Ten years ago, Dave Van Horn proved you can go home.

Ten years later, he's still more than happy coaching baseball in the Ozarks.

But getting back to his alma mater was challenging. After working his way through the coaching ranks, Van Horn's future looked to be set at Nebraska a decade ago.

Having taken over for the Cornhuskers in 1998, Van Horn quickly built the dormant program into a powerhouse. Nebraska won 190 games in his final four years, following up its first College World Series trip in 2001 with one the following year.

As a result, the school made several investments in its program, most notably building the spacious Haymarket Park in 2002.

"Fifteen years ago, I knew this is where I wanted to be," Van Horn said from his office overlooking Baum Stadium. "But I was coming off two world series at Nebraska, so it made it harder to leave at the time.

"Once I was here, it took me about a year-and-a-half to get comfortable. I was feeling really guilty, to be honest, about leaving Nebraska."

It took an unexpected run through the Southeastern Conference and the school's first appearance at the College World Series in 15 years to solidify Van Horn's feeling that Arkansas is where he needed to be.

The Razorbacks won the SEC in 2004 after being picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams. Brady Toops' two-out, ninth-inning grand slam in an elimination game of the regionals that year still ranks at the top of Van Horn's memories at the school.

"That was by-far the biggest moment in our first five or six years here," Van Horn said. "We really didn't have any stars that year - no all-SEC selections - and here's a team that ends up winning the SEC and going to Omaha."

But it wasn't the only one.

Arkansas returned to Omaha in 2009 and is back again this year. The Razorbacks are one of only a handful of programs to win at least 40 games each of the last four seasons - 164 in all.

Those who know Van Horn have known he would be successful wherever the coaching profession took him. Norm DeBriyn was his head coach at Arkansas and saw leadership characteristics in Van Horn's first of three stops in Fayetteville.

"We had a big first baseman who came in and he was about 6-foot-5," DeBriyn said. "This guy had a tendency to stay in the training room while the rest of the guys were out stretching for practice. One day, and I'll never forget this, he walks out of the training room later than everyone else and Van Horn leaves his stretch line, and gets up in this guy's face. Remember he's not tall and real thin, and he says, 'I'm here to win and we start at 2:30. You get your butt here at 2:30 like everybody else.'

"He was just a coach on the field. I mean he was a leader, he was feisty and he was the kind of guy that if the game was on the line, you wanted him to be hitting."

That competitiveness has been the hallmark of Van Horn's baseball life, not just in coaching. He was lightly recruited out of high school in Grandview, Mo., and wound up in junior college.

After an all-American campaign as an infielder at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, Van Horn was a must-have recruit for several schools. After Arkansas offered, he accepted and became the Southwest Conference's newcomer of the year.

"We missed on him in high school," DeBriyn said. "We should have recruited him and we did not.

"We got him because of his love for the Razorbacks."

Van Horn's second stint in Fayetteville was as a graduate assistant coach, beginning in 1985. DeBriyn encouraged him to finish his degree during a time when schools were able to assist GAs with books and tuition.

Today, Van Horn's diploma hangs on a wall just left of his desk back in Fayetteville.

While he was getting his education, he taught the players - and even the coaches - a thing or two about baseball. Van Horn switched Ellis Roby from short stop to second base in 1985, allowing Derrick Richardson to start and form college baseball's best middle infield.

The Razorbacks made it to the College World Series that season and again in Van Horn's third year as a graduate assistant in 1987. In all, this year marks the fifth time Van Horn has been with the Razorbacks to Omaha.

"He was real committed," said Dave Jorn, Arkansas' pitching coach from 1983-88, who has spent the last 10 years coaching for Van Horn. "He was hungry to make a mark in the coaching world and he's done that.

"He's like Norm in that both are intense, both are very competitive and very good teachers. I think you pick up bits and pieces from a lot of different people throughout your career, but both are good guys who know the game."

Van Horn took his first risk in the coaching business by leaving Arkansas for Richland College in 1988.

"They had no scholarships, no nothing," DeBriyn said. "He had to do everything - water the field, rake the field and whatever it took to get it ready. It was tough, but he's the kind of guy that will roll up his sleeves and get after it."

You won't see Richland show up on Van Horn's bio, however, because he never coached a game there. He was hired by Texarkana Community College in December 1988 and spent five years there.

He followed that up with a job at Central Missouri State, where he won the Division-II national championship in 1994.

By that time he was ready to move to the Division-I level. He would go on to win 106 games at Northwestern State in Louisiana before getting an interview at Nebraska.

DeBriyn recalled a conversation with former Nebraska and current Texas A&M athletics director Bill Byrne.

"Dave really wanted that job," DeBriyn said. "Bill had already made up his mind on what they were going to do, but he told the search committee, 'I've promised this guy in Louisiana that I would interview him. I know it's just kind of token, but I've promised to meet him at the airport in Shreveport and I'm going to follow through.'

"Van Horn just blew them away. He came in with all Nebraska clothes and in 20 minutes, Bill had learned more about Nebraska than he already knew. On the flight home, Bill had a feeling he had just found the guy, and then Dave did really great things there."

The success at a school known for sports other than baseball made Van Horn the logical first choice to replace DeBriyn when he announced his retirement following the 2002 season.

"I told Frank Broyles, 'A phone call from you is going to be real important to him,' but he's good," DeBriyn said. "Frank looks over the information I've given him and the next day comes in and says in that southern accent, 'Well, he's won wherever he's gone!'

"That registered and then Van Horn is suddenly back in Omaha. From that point, he was the guy."

Following DeBriyn was no easy task. The former skipper spent 33 years at Arkansas, winning 1,161 games and taking the Razorbacks to the College World Series four times.

Van Horn quickly put his own fingerprints on the program, though. After hiring his own coaching staff, he implemented his own philosophy in recruiting.

"I basically said, 'We're going to get high school guys and we're going to live with them. We're going to have good enough players in the program that we're not going to have to depend on incoming junior college transfers to win in the SEC.'"

It has paid off to the tune of 403 wins. Also paying dividends is little turnover within the coaching staff. Todd Butler was the last full-time assistant coach hired prior to the 2006 season.

"The staff compliments each other and it's a great staff," DeBriyn said.

"Dave Jorn is so intuitive. I remember sitting by him in the dugout when we were playing Stanford in Omaha one time, and he says, 'Pitch out.' I pitch out and the runner is going, and we throw him out. The next inning, he says it again and we do it again. Even before he got here, Butler, in my opinion, was as good of a recruiter as anybody."

The coaching tandem will likely be at Arkansas as long it wants. Van Horn was given a contract extension last spring that will keep him at the school through at least 2020.

Van Horn won his 900th game as a head coach in 2010 and is only 12 shy of 1,000 as his team prepares to face Kent State on Saturday.

Still, like with many of his peers, there is a win that has eluded Van Horn in multiple trips to the College World Series.

He wants very badly to hoist a national championship trophy this week for his alma mater.

"I think we're close," Van Horn said. "Realistically, every year going into the season there might be 20 teams with a chance, and I feel like we're one of them. Why not us? It's time.

"This is where I want to win the national championship. If I was at Nebraska, it would have been great. But to win it here, I don't think anything could be better, having been a coach, student, player, graduate assistant here. I fought through the baseball world to get here and gave up a great situation to get here, so it would just mean a lot."

Unlike football, where a coach often wins a national championship within a few years at a school, baseball coaches usually take longer to reach the top.

Ray Tanner, who Van Horn considers his best friend among the SEC coaching community, spent 13 successful years with the Gamecocks before winning the national championship in 2010. South Carolina repeated last year and is back in Omaha again this week.

His is a story retold in several coaches' own experiences. In baseball, patience truly is a virtue.

"Ray will tell you his last two teams weren't his best two teams talent-wise," Van Horn said. "But those might have been his two best teams because they gelled and they liked each other. "Sometimes it does take time and if you win it early, you're probably lucky. It comes and goes. If you get there, you've got a chance, and we feel like we can get there."

Until then, Van Horn wants to continue building what has become a valuable commodity in the state. The Razorbacks annually draw one of the nation's top attendances to Baum Stadium - it was second nationally this season - and have sold-out North Little Rock's Dickey-Stephens Park in stops there each of the last three years.

Chuck Barrett has watched the phenomenon unfold from his chair as the Razorbacks' play-by-play radio announcer for the last two decades.

"Five years ago you couldn't get an AM radio station to carry 30 games," said Barrett, who is entering his 21st year behind the mic. "Now you have 100,000-watt stations in Fort Smith and Little Rock carrying the majority of the games. Those are also sports talk radio stations, so the baseball team has become part of the every day conversation among Razorback fans in the spring."

Baum Stadium has received several upgrades since Van Horn's arrival with the addition of suites down each foul line bringing the total at the park to 34. Expanded seating has also brought the park's listed capacity to 10,737, though several attendances have been higher.

More seats, suites and improvements to the stadium's concourse are on-deck as part of the athletic department's master plan for facilities.

"It's been fun watching it grow and develop as far as the fan base, which is as good as any in the country right now, especially for our population in our state," Van Horn said. "We've grown the facilities and we're not the same program we were when I got here. I think we're viewed different nationally, that we're a top 10 to 15 program every year if we can keep the kids we signed."

It is the byproduct of a decade worth of dreams come true. Even more could be realized in Van Horn's latest trip to Omaha.

"We wanted to win at a national level, and then Dave took over, and they did," DeBriyn said. "He has been so consistent, and it's just a tribute to he and his staff.

"He had a vision and he had a plan, and he's done a great job."

DAVE VAN HORN: BY THE NUMBERS

988 - Career wins, third most among active SEC coaches

.682 - Career winning percentage

403 - Wins at Arkansas, second-most at the school

44.1 - Average number of wins per season since 1999

5 - College World Series appearances, one of four coaches to take multiple schools since 2001

3 - SEC West championships, 2004, 2007, 2011

1 - SEC championship, 2004

YEAR-BY-YEAR AT ARKANSAS

2003

Record: 35-22

Postseason: NCAA Austin Regional

About: After a surprising run to the NCAA super regional the year before, Arkansas struggled in conference play during Van Horn's first year at the school. The Razorbacks lost a pair of games to Lamar in the regional.

2004

Record: 45-24

Postseason: NCAA Fayetteville Regional, NCAA Fayetteville Super Regional, College World Series

About: Picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams, Arkansas won the league. The Razorbacks used a ninth inning rally, punctuated by Brady Toops' famous grand slam, to stay alive in the regional final against Wichita State. Arkansas hosted its first super regional, beating Florida State, before losing both of its games at the College World Series.

2005

Record: 39-22

Postseason: NCAA Austin Regional

About: Arkansas started the season with a 20-2 record, but three players were dismissed from the team during the conference season. The Razorbacks struggled to rebound. After opening the regional by upsetting Texas, Arkansas lost back-to-back games to the Longhorns to finish the season.

2006

Record: 39-21

Postseason: NCAA Fayetteville Regional

About: Despite losing both games at the SEC Tournament and finishing second in its division, Arkansas hosted an NCAA regional as a No. 2 seed. After Arkansas was upset by Oral Roberts in extra innings to open the regional, No. 1 seed Oklahoma State eliminated the Razorbacks.

2007

Record: 43-21

Postseason: NCAA Fayetteville Regional

About: With one of the nation's best starting pitching rotations, Arkansas earned a national seed. But a pair of losses to Oklahoma State ended the Razorbacks' season in the regional round, closing the book on what is likely the school's best team not to advance to Omaha.

2008

Record: 34-24

Postseason: NCAA Palo Alto Regional

About: With a fourth-place finish in the SEC West, Arkansas didn't qualify for the 8-team SEC Tournament, but still made the NCAA regionals as an at-large. After a long trip to north California, the Razorbacks lost consecutive games to Pepperdine and Stanford to end the year.

2009

Record: 41-24

Postseason: NCAA Norman Regional, NCAA Tallahassee Super Regional, College World Series

About: After being ranked No. 1 by one publication midway through the season, Arkansas struggled to a 14-15 finish in the SEC. After inserting several freshmen into the lineup, the Razorbacks won six straight games to start the postseason, however, sweeping through the regional and super regional rounds. Van Horn won his first game in seven tries at the College World Series with a first day win over Cal State Fullerton. Thanks to a ninth inning Brett Eibner home run, the Razorbacks won again four days later over Virginia in an elimination game. A loss to eventual national champion LSU in the CWS semifinals eliminated the Razorbacks.

2010

Record: 43-21

Postseason: NCAA Fayetteville Regional, NCAA Tempe Super Regional

About: Arkansas set a school record with 92 home runs, but struggled with consistency because of injuries to star players throughout the season. Arkansas beat Washington State in the regional final before losing a pair of 12-inning thrillers to Arizona State in the super regional.

2011

Record: 40-22 (SEC Western Division champion)

Postseason: NCAA Tempe Regional

About: In what was considered a rebuilding year, Arkansas won its first division title in four years by beating Ole Miss twice on the final day of the regular season. The Razorbacks narrowly missed out on hosting a regional for the second straight year and were eliminated for the second straight year by Arizona State in the postseason.

2012

Record: 44-20

Postseason: NCAA Houston Regional, NCAA Waco Super Regional, College World Series

About: Ranked No. 4 in the preseason, Arkansas began 22-3 but struggled down the stretch, going 17-16 in the 33 games prior to the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks swept through the Houston Regional with a pair of wins over Sam Houston State and a 1-0 win over the host school, Rice. After losing the first game of the super regional at Baylor, Arkansas responded with a pair of wins to advance to Omaha, including a 1-0 win over the host school in the deciding game.

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