Erstad's dance with Dodgers reaffirmed his love for Nebraska
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) A few days after Darin Erstad interviewed for the Los Angeles Dodgers manager's job, he was working with a few of his University of Nebraska players in the batting cage when he had an epiphany.
By all accounts, Erstad had impressed the Dodgers' brass and was a finalist. It was heady stuff being courted by one of baseball's most prestigious organizations, especially considering his experience following his 14-year major-league playing career was one season as a volunteer assistant and four seasons as head coach of the Cornhuskers.
There were family considerations, of course. He and his wife have three young children, and they love Lincoln. But it was during that November afternoon when he was teaching hitting to his charges that Erstad said he gained clarity. He called the Dodgers and pulled his name from consideration.
''I had that feeling of, `What am I doing?''' Erstad said, shaking his head and raising his voice during an interview in his office. ''I couldn't have felt any more strongly that this is where I needed to be. It made my love for this place even greater.''
Erstad is a Husker through and through. He was the punter on the unbeaten 1994 national championship football team. He set multiple school records in baseball and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 major league draft. He spent most of his career with the Los Angeles Angels, becoming a two-time All-Star and winning the 2002 World Series, and was a generous donor to his alma mater.
Erstad said he was surprised and honored when the Dodgers called, and even though he fared well in his interview, he had no idea whether the Dodgers would have ended up hiring him for the job that went to Dave Roberts.
''I felt it was very important to explore the opportunity, to go through the experience,'' he said. ''It really reaffirmed how important this place is to my family and what Nebraska means in the big scheme of things.''
The Huskers, who opened practice Friday, are 139-97 in four seasons under Erstad. The program went to the College World Series in 2001 and 2002 under Dave Van Horn and in 2005 under Mike Anderson, who was fired after the 2011 season.
Erstad was a volunteer on Anderson's staff in `11. His old football coach, then-athletic director Tom Osborne, made an outside-the-box hire in naming him head coach for Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten.
The Huskers entered with the best baseball facilities in the conference and were expected to dominate with Erstad coaching the aggressive style that was his identity as a player. But they've won no league titles and have gone to the NCAA Tournament only once. Last year, they dropped 12 of their last 17 games, finished eighth in the Big Ten and were not among the record five conference teams to make the national tournament.
Erstad pointed out that the Huskers were ninth in their final season in the powerful Big 12, and ''I think there was a perception that translates into first in the Big Ten.''
''I noticed it in the Big Ten right away (that) you have a lot of kids with chips on their shoulders who play hard and are blue-collar,'' he said. ''They wanted no part of us coming into the Big Ten and just winning it. We got everybody's best shot.''
The Huskers must replace their top two starting pitchers, closer and catcher and will try to move up in a conference much tougher than it was five years ago. Indiana went to the CWS in 2013 and last year Illinois earned the No. 6 national seed in the NCAA tourney, Maryland beat No. 1 seed UCLA and Iowa reached a regional final.
Under contract through June 2020, Erstad said he's committed to the Huskers for as long as they want to keep him.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia remains close with Erstad and said the 41-year-old would be a natural as a big-league manager, if he wants to be one someday.
''It will be on his timeline and will happen when it's right for him and his family,'' Scioscia said. ''I'm not surprised he wanted to stay at Nebraska. He's at a great program, and a lot of that's because of him. He has a burning desire to win, and right now he wants to win a championship at Nebraska.''
Erstad acknowledged his ego was stroked when the Dodgers approached him. He sought counsel from Osborne and Scioscia, and both said there was no right or wrong decision. His wife, Jessica, told him he should remember the positive influence he was having on college athletes.
Not long after that, he was in the batting cage with his players, enjoying the role of teacher and the camaraderie.
Everything felt right to him.
''I'm a college guy,'' he said. ''This is where I want to be.''