For Nebraska's Darin Erstad
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

For Nebraska’s Darin Erstad, It Was Always Family First

June 04, 2019

The signature on the baseball is in red ink: “Darin Erstad.”

The side opposite the signature says: “OFFICIAL BALL BIG EIGHT CONFERENCE.” It is a Diamond D1 baseball, with red stitching, and meets “approved N.C.A.A. specifications.”

Red ink fades more quickly than black or blue ink. So I keep the ball in a case in a corner of the basement, away from sunlight. The signature is still legible, almost like the day it was signed.

I don’t use my access to athletes as a sports writer to collect autographs. The story is this. I was at a Nebraska baseball practice in the spring of 1995, near the end of my time at the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal and Star, talking to Husker Coach John Sanders, who was talking about how Erstad could be the first player taken in the Major League Draft.

“Get me a baseball,” Sanders told a student assistant.

Then he called over Erstad.

“Sign this for Mike,” said Sanders.

Erstad did. Sanders handed me the ball.

I recount this by way of admitting to bias in the matter of Erstad and his surprise resignation as Nebraska’s baseball coach. The announcement came late Monday afternoon.

According to a university release, his decision to step away was based on a desire to watch his three kids grow up. I was afraid that might happen. I really was.

From what I know, it’s always been family first for Erstad. I’m drawing a connection here from when he played at Nebraska—football as well as baseball. His mom sent me a letter following a story I wrote about him, thanking me for what I said. Or maybe it was a phone call. 

My memory fails me here. But I know she contacted me. That’s not something one forgets.

Family was important.

OK, there’s been criticism, intensified in the wake of the hiring of Fred Hoiberg as Nebraska basketball coach, and before that the hiring of Scott Frost. Baseball was bound to be next, though Athletic Director Bill Moos has indicated he didn’t see a need to replace Erstad.

I’ve been wrong before, many times. In this case, however, I don’t think there’s a rest of the story. Erstad wouldn’t give in to such pressure—unless it affected his family.

And Moos has proven he knows what he’s doing.

Maybe Erstad’s commitment to family has influenced recruiting by limiting his time on the road evaluating players. That’s a possibility, and only speculation on my part.

But what he has brought to the program is an understanding of what it takes to be a student-athlete at the highest level. He knows the demands on students, as well as on athletes.

Like Frost. And like Hoiberg. 

Such understanding is first and foremost for a coach: treat players as people. I saw that dealing with Tom Osborne for the majority of his 25 seasons as a head coach.

Some folks are pleased that Erstad is stepping aside. But this is not meant as a discussion of why or why not that’s good or bad. My opinion? It’s not good for the program.

It is good for his family, though. And that’s the bottom line.

I’ve been at this a long time, and it’s never gotten easier when coaches step aside or get fired. I’m more on the periphery these days, watching from “afar” as Bill Callahan might have said, as young, more energetic (and probably insightful) writers cover the Husker beats and get to know the coaches.

I was saddened when Callahan was fired, by the way, not because I didn’t understand why but rather because he was criticized personally in print by some of those who had praised him two years earlier. He must have been perplexed by the change.

Anyway, in Erstad’s case it’s a resignation, not a firing. He’s leaving on his own terms. And, as I said, I understand. But that doesn’t make it any easier. 

I’m glad Sanders—whom I hated to see fired—got me that baseball nearly 25 years ago. It represents, again, something important in life: family first.

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