State of the Hogs: Respected Coach

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There are few specialists more paranoid than those in baseball turf management. They want no one standing on their grass unless they are playing in the game.

As far as college baseball, I'll give them credit for growing nice turf during the tough part of the year, early spring. As far as Baum Stadium, no college park could be prettier. The grass is emerald green.

It wasn't so pretty at Hawks Field at Haymarket Park in Lincoln, Neb., for this week's Arkansas-Nebraska baseball games. They had grass, all right. Some of it was yellow. No doubt, they've had a little snow cover there over the past few weeks.

But it still seemed a little silly when a turf management guru (the groundskeeper) provided a gruff request to Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn after Tuesday's game in front of the visitor's dugout. Van Horn was doing his post-game interviews after a 6-1 loss and the former Nebraska coach had a big crowd around him. After all, this was his first game in Lincoln since leaving as NU coach in 2002.

"Stay off the grass," the man told Van Horn. Van Horn, not in a good mood after a third straight loss, looked down and his feet were half on the warning track in front of the dugout and half on the grass. Perhaps two inches of his heels were on the grass. Van Horn turned his head to see where the words were coming from, half expecting it to be an old friend with a smile. It wasn't. The man was dead serious and Van Horn scooted up three inches.

None of that was lost on Van Horn the next day when he greeted the same media throng after a 9-4 Arkansas victory. This time, a smiling Van Horn said, "Guys, you better stay off the grass." He looked around for the same man, but he was somewhere else, presumably moving Nebraska players or coaches off of his grass.

That was about the only sour experience Van Horn had in his three days back in Lincoln. The irony there was that he is probably the reason Haymarket Park was built. The Cornhuskers went 212-92 in Van Horn's five seasons, twice making it to the College World Series in nearby Omaha.

The Cornhuskers moved into Haymarket Stadium — a jointly financed facility between the city, university and private business — in Van Horn's last season. It features 4,419 chair-back seats and grass berms down both foul lines and in the outfield that will accommodate another 4,000. The other feature, the first in a baseball-only facility, that needs to be noted is the Sub-Air system, the heating and cooling system under Hawks Field. The turf management team can either heat or cool the grass depending on the season.

Perhaps that system will turn the grass green in another few weeks, but it was something less than that this week. It was mostly brown. It was a good reminder that we were in Big 12 country and not in the SEC.

Aside from the groundskeeper — and we probably can give him a break since he isn't so much different from his cousins at other baseball parks around the country — there was nothing but smiles for Van Horn. He even accepted Nebraska coach Mike Anderson's invitation to dinner at his house on Tuesday night.

If you were wearing anything Arkansas at the park, you were sure to hear plenty of praise for Van Horn at concession lines or just in your seat from neighbors.

"I can't say anything but great things for what he did here," said the older man at the front gate. "You got a good coach," said another.

"He put us on the map," a lady said. "His boys did everything right and they represented our state well. Good luck to him — except for today. I know if we (Cornhuskers) win either of these games, it will mean something because his teams are going to be good."

Another said, "The thing that makes you feel good is that he still cares enough about us to bring his Arkansas team up here. No other SEC team is going to come here in March. That's why I still root for his team to win anytime we don't play Arkansas."

And, the young fan with his grandfather said, "I was told about (Van Horn) all the way to the park today. My grandpa thinks he is the best baseball coach anywhere. I don't remember him, but my grandpa sure does."

On Tuesday after an Arkansas infielder committed an error, he was taunted just a little before the end of the inning. A Cornhusker fan displayed true knowledge of Van Horn when he said, "Your coach isn't going to be nice to you when you get to the dugout. He doesn't like errors and you are in trouble."

There were few hecklers, perhaps because it was spring break on the Lincoln campus. The season ticket holders didn't get after Van Horn or the Hogs much except for one twenty-something fan who had enough of the six-run UA outburst Wednesday. He yelled, "Hey, Hogs, this is as close as you will get to Omaha this year."

But after the game when Van Horn let his team go after his post-game speech in the outfield, they trotted to the dugout to respectful applause from Nebraska fans still seated along the first base line. "Good game, Arkansas, and good luck," someone yelled.

There was even respect from the Nebraska players after the Arkansas victory. Center fielder Bryce Nimmo was a little bit in awe of the Wednesday power display from the Hogs, three home runs, three doubles and a triple.

"I was watching them in batting practice hit balls out and they swing big," Nimmo said. "They kinda live and die by it. We kept them off balance most of the game, then at the end they got the barrel of the bat on it and we weren't there anymore."

Of those seven extra-base hits by the Hogs, six were either over or off the wall. That was good news for the Nebraska turf man. The Hogs kept the big blows off his yellow grass.

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