For Hobbs, timing was toughest part of Arkansas move

By: Matt Jones
Published: Wednesday, December 12, 2018
Newly hired Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs (left) speaks Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, alongside coach Dave Van Horn during a press conference to announce his hire at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Newly hired Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs (left) speaks Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, alongside coach Dave Van Horn during a press conference to announce his hire at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

— For Matt Hobbs, the decision to join Arkansas’ baseball staff less than three months before the 2019 season was both difficult and a no-brainer.

It was easy because Hobbs saw the Razorbacks as a destination program. Hobbs was introduced five months following Arkansas’ national runner-up finish at the College World Series and on the heels of an awesome run in recruiting.

In addition to the facilities that are already in the upper echelon of college baseball, the Razorbacks are in the midst of a $25 million upgrade to Baum Stadium that will add new offices, training areas, locker rooms, etc., and Hobbs will get to be on the ground floor of the project, offering input into its design and amenities.

And then there is the fact that Dave Van Horn’s past several assistant coaches have all left for better jobs. Hobbs’ predecessor, Wes Johnson, just went directly to Major League Baseball and Van Horn has six former assistants who now are head coaches. Others who are close to taking that step.

If this were the summer, Hobbs, who has spent the past four seasons at Wake Forest, likely would have had no qualms taking the Arkansas job. But because of the unique timing, “it was an incredibly difficult decision,” he said, “because you have some roots where you’re at, and usually if things are going well at your school, there’s not a real urge to leave because you have those relationships with those players and coaches on staff, and your family is happy where they’re at.

“A place like Arkansas makes that decision a little easier because it’s a destination job for a lot of people, including myself. It’s a place I’ve always looked at as a place I would want to coach, so that made it a little bit easier. But the relationships with the players and the relationship with the staff are the things I’ll miss the most about Wake and why it was a tough decision.”

Van Horn thinks it is a dilemma more college coaches will face in the future. As he sees it, MLB is going to dip into the college game more and more for coaching hires “because our coaches do a great job and they can teach, maybe better than some of of the professionals.”

Like the regular seasons, the hiring seasons could not be more different between the college and professional games. College coaches typically job hop in June and July around or after the completion of the College World Series, which runs from mid-to-late June. In MLB, hiring season is in the fall, typically the months of October and November.

Johnson was hired away by the Twins in mid-November, one day after the beginning of the early signing period for high school baseball players. The Razorbacks and Twins had planned to keep the move quiet for a while longer, but an enterprising reporter in Minnesota got wind of the hire and broke the story. It caused Van Horn to hurriedly call a team meeting to inform his players, some of whom had already found out via social media.

It was the second time Johnson has left a college program after the completion of fall practice. In late October 2015, he was hired away from Dallas Baptist by Mississippi State. The Bulldogs needed a pitching coach because Butch Thompson had taken the head coaching job at Auburn following the off-season firing of Sunny Golloway.

“I’m a man of faith and I go places and do things more than the world or the average person thinks I should do or shouldn’t do,” Johnson told me in May, shortly before the Razorbacks played Dallas Baptist in the NCAA Regional, offering an inadvertent insight into his decision to leave Arkansas at an inopportune time.

Van Horn is sympathetic to moves that seem untimely. He twice has taken a job shortly before the season began. Prior to the 1994 season, he left a junior college in Texarkana for Central Missouri, a Division II program.

“I can honestly say the first month, I was asking myself if I made the right move,” Van Horn said.

It turns out he did. The Mules won a national championship in Van Horn’s only season at Central Missouri. He left there for Northwestern State in Louisiana, but in January 1998, he was hired away by Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers were 24-20 in Van Horn’s first season when he was unable to put the team through fall practice, then Nebraska set the college baseball world on fire by making three Super Regionals and two College World Series in his final three years. But it took a leap of faith to get to that point.

“It’s hard on the family, it’s hard on everybody,” Van Horn said. “You’ve recruited those kids and you bring them in and you’re asking them to trust you and then you leave them, it’s pretty tough. So I sympathize with what he (Hobbs) is going through.”

This story originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated

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