Arkansas Sportsman of the Year:

Dave Van Horn a presence on, off diamond

By: Matt Jones
Published: Tuesday, December 25, 2018
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn listens to a question during a news conference Sunday, June 24, 2018, at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn listens to a question during a news conference Sunday, June 24, 2018, at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Professionally, 2018 will go down as one of Dave Van Horn's finest years.

The University of Arkansas baseball coach led the Razorbacks to a national runner-up finish, received a five-year contract extension and pay raise that makes him one of only a handful of $1 million-per-year college baseball coaches, and he was announced last week as a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

At a glance

• Past Sportsman of the Year winners:

2017 Blaise Taylor, ASU football

2016 Jeff Henderson, Olympic gold medalist

2015 Brandon Allen, UA football

2014 Fifth-year senior ASU football players

2013 Ken Duke, professional golfer

2012 Jeff Long, UA athletic director

2011 Louis Lee, amateur golfer

2010 Bobby Petrino, UA football coach

2009 Mark Martin, NASCAR driver

2008 Cliff Lee, MLB pitcher

2007 None

2006 Darren McFadden, UA football

2005 Jermain Taylor, professional boxer

But Van Horn, who in his 17th season has become the dean of major-sport coaches at Arkansas, also demonstrated some persuasiveness. A walk-through of player areas at Baum Stadium convinced his first-year boss, UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek, that there was a need for upgrades to the baseball facilities, and a 40,000-square-foot, $25 million operations building was approved by UA trustees. The building is set to open in 2021 and already has been instrumental in recruiting, with the Razorbacks gaining commitments from eight of the top 51 high school juniors, according to Perfect Game.

Van Horn also was key in persuading Yurachek to break from a decades-old policy of not scheduling in-state competition, and the Razorbacks will play their first-ever games against the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in April.

For his influence on and off the field, Van Horn was named Arkansas Sportsman of the Year by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"If you were going to go greatest sportsman ever at Arkansas," Tennessee Coach and former Arkansas assistant Tony Vitello said, "I think Dave Van Horn has to be in the conversation."

The season

In June 2017, national publications were pegging Arkansas as a College World Series favorite for 2018.

The Razorbacks returned several upperclassmen and made it through the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft relatively unscathed, notably retaining pitching ace Blaine Knight.

Arkansas burst onto the national scene in March with five convincing victories over Texas and Kentucky in five days. The Razorbacks outscored the Longhorns 20-9 in two games, and hit 13 home runs while outscoring Kentucky 39-15 in a three-game sweep. Arkansas finished the season with a school-record 98 home runs.

The victories established Arkansas as a dominant team at Baum Stadium, where it finished the season 34-4 and set school records for single-season home victories.

On the road was another story. Knight, who won a school-record 14 games and finished unbeaten in 18 starts, pitched the Razorbacks to victories in the openers of series at Florida, Ole Miss, LSU and Georgia, but Arkansas dropped all four series. Like the Razorbacks, Florida, Ole Miss and Georgia became top-eight national seeds in the NCAA postseason.

Mississippi State, which was a national semifinalist, was the only team to sweep the Razorbacks. It was a turning point in the season, with Arkansas winning nine of the next 11.

"The next day at practice, he was just the same DVH," said Carson Shaddy, an All-SEC second baseman. "He helped us not be afraid of bad things happening and to welcome adversity."

Arkansas cruised through the first two games of its home regional with 10-2 victories over Oral Roberts and Southern Mississippi. The Razorbacks won the regional with a 4-3 victory over Dallas Baptist.

In the super regional, Arkansas was paired with South Carolina, which had been the last visiting team to win in Fayetteville. Arkansas ran away with the decisive third game, 14-4, after scoring five runs in the first inning.

"The best moment of the year is when you win that game, and later that night you see your name come across the ticker that you've qualified for the World Series," Van Horn said. "That was a great night, a big relief."

The Razorbacks were the hottest team the first week of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., outscoring Texas, Texas Tech and Florida by a combined 23-11, and trailing for just one-half inning en route to the championship round.

"Both years that I've made it to Omaha, [Van Horn] has preached to us that there are teams that go to Omaha just to be there, and their season is made because of it," Shaddy said, "and then there are teams that want to win it.

"We came and we wanted to win the whole thing, and we took it to the last game of the season."

The first game of the championship series was postponed one day because of rain, which allowed a beleaguered Oregon State pitching staff to have an extra day of rest. The Beavers had played five games in Omaha prior to the finals.

It also created logistical problems for thousands of Arkansas fans who made the short trip north to Nebraska. Games 1 and 2 of the championship series were like home games for the Razorbacks, but the teams played in a much emptier, more neutral stadium for Game 3.

"For those first two games, if the venue sat 25,000, we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 17-and-half to 20,000 fans for both of those games," Yurachek said. "I think it would have been the same for that third game if not for the rain."

"I've been on the field coaching in Omaha now nine times ... and I've never seen anything like it," said Van Horn, who in 2001 took Nebraska to Omaha for the first time. "Our fans changed their vacation plans, and instead of going to Florida or Hawaii or wherever, they went to Omaha, Nebraska, and watched baseball and ate steak. I appreciate it so much because I know how expensive it was there, and the longer we were there, the more expensive it got."

Oregon State blanked Arkansas' offense for all but two innings in the series, but those big innings had the Razorbacks in position to win the championship. Behind a strong effort from Knight, Arkansas won Game 1, 4-1, and was ahead 3-2 going into the ninth inning of Game 2.

With two outs, Oregon State shortstop Cadyn Grenier hit a popup into foul ground on the first-base side. Shaddy, right fielder Eric Cole and first baseman Jared Gates converged on the ball for what would have been the clinching out, but it fell among them.

"When that ball left the bat, I was in the third-base dugout and I thought it was in the seats," Van Horn said. "The spin on the ball, the big foul territory ... the ball was probably second, third row in and all of a sudden it started coming back.

"I've only watched it one time, and that was by accident. I just happened to be by a TV, and I just stood and watched it, and you just kind of shake your head. On TV, it looks like an easier play than it was, but in person it was a brutally hard play."

Down to his final strike, Grenier singled to tie the game. Outfieder Trevor Larnach followed with a two-run home run to give the Beavers a stunning 5-3 victory. Oregon State won 5-0 the next day to win the championship, dogpiling as heartbroken Razorbacks looked on.

"I feel like I'm at peace with it some days," Van Horn said. "But I catch myself thinking about it every night, thinking what if I would have done this or pinch hit this guy, what kind of move could I have made that would have got us a run here or there. I think any coach who's trying to get better is always thinking about that. But I'm at peace with the effort the team gave us, and we probably played about as good as we could.

"For me, personally, to move on from it I've got to get to another one."

Offseason

In September, the Razorbacks released their 2019 schedule with two big surprises: UALR and UAPB.

Van Horn for years had lobbied unsuccessfully to play in-state schools to alleviate the difficulties of scheduling midweek nonconference games late in the season.

"Fayetteville is not close to a lot of other universities that want to leave their park and play in April," Van Horn said. "When you start talking about a Tuesday night in April, you talk about fighting to get teams to come in here and you have to pay them. It's been terrible. It's been hard."

The reasoning fell on deaf ears for Van Horn's first two UA bosses, Frank Broyles and Jeff Long. Yurachek, who said other coaches on campus had similar thoughts, was willing to listen. A compromise was made to allow in-state competition, but limit it to within the UA System.

"He was one of the coaches that definitively wanted to move in that direction," Yurachek said.

"It just made sense," Van Horn said.

In November, Van Horn's pitching coach, Wes Johnson, was hired away by the Minnesota Twins in an unprecedented move for an assistant. Van Horn hired Wake Forest pitching coach Matt Hobbs, a move widely praised considering the timing of the hire, less than three months before the start of the season.

"The fact that we've got a great fan base, play in the SEC, we're getting ready to build a new facility -- it just all added up for Matt or anybody that was coming here to maybe go through a little bit of a tough time as far as being away from their family or making this jump at this time," Van Horn said.

At 58, Van Horn said he doesn't think about retirement much and hopes to coach at his alma mater for several more years.

"I feel younger than that most days," Van Horn said. "I'll retire when I don't feel good or I feel like I'm not doing a good job.

"I think we have a really good culture around here. If we can keep that up and I'm enjoying it, I'd like to go five to seven more years, at a minimum."

Sports on 12/25/2018

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