Van Horn assistants in high demand

By: Matt Jones
Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn, left, and pitching coach Wes Johnson watch from the dugout during an NCAA Tournament game against Southern Miss on Saturday, June 2, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn, left, and pitching coach Wes Johnson watch from the dugout during an NCAA Tournament game against Southern Miss on Saturday, June 2, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— For five seasons at Nebraska and for his first 11 seasons at Arkansas, Dave Van Horn had little trouble retaining his assistant coaches.

His Cornhuskers full-time staff never changed in five seasons from 1998-2002. In his first decade at Arkansas, Van Horn had to make only one new hire, replacing hitting coach Matt Deggs with Todd Butler following the 2005 season when Deggs left for an assistant job at Texas A&M.

But since 2013 the two full-time assistant jobs at Arkansas have seemed like revolving doors. Butler was hired as head coach at Wichita State in 2013 and replaced by Tony Vitello, who was hired as head coach at Tennessee in 2017.

Longtime Van Horn pitching coach Dave Jorn retired from college baseball in 2016 and was replaced by Wes Johnson, who was hired two weeks ago as the pitching coach for the Minnesota Twins.

"I just feel like we’ve had some quality coaches come here and it’s kind of what happens," Van Horn said Wednesday during a news conference to introduce Johnson's replacement, former Wake Forest pitching coach Matt Hobbs. "I’m proud of those guys and where they’re at and what they’re doing now. But for me, personally, you start to build a relationship and you trust guys more, and if you lose them it’s tough, but it’s kind of how it is these days, just a sign of the times."

The Razorbacks' recent run of success - four College World Series appearances, a national runner-up finish, a national player of the year and multiple first-round draft picks in the past decade, among the accomplishments - have made people in baseball circles take notice of every aspect of the program, including its coaching personnel.

"I think it’s going to be that way for a lot of big programs, the ones that are doing well," Van Horn said, "because ADs or coaches when they have an opening, who are they going to look to? They’re going to look at these programs and coaches that have done a good job, and we’ve been fortunate to have those guys in here."

Arkansas has been a strong stepping stone job for several Van Horn assistants, even for volunteers. The Razorbacks' past two volunteer assistants, Josh Elander and Craig Parry, went on to become a full-time assistants elsewhere after one season in Fayetteville - Elander at Tennessee and Parry at Abilene Christian. Chris Curry, another former Arkansas volunteer, is now head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock.

Van Horn has six former assistants - Butler, Vitello, Curry, Deggs (Sam Houston State), Rob Childress (Texas A&M) and Lane Burroughs (Louisiana Tech) - who are now head coaches, and according to Baseball America, Johnson was the first college coach to go directly to an MLB dugout in 38 years.

"I want the coaches that I hire to want to either be a head coach or for us to be at the highest level, the cutting edge to compete for championships," Van Horn said. "We’ve done that, so I know I’m going to lose guys. But if we can keep them for two years and we have a good two years with them, three years, whatever, then hey, that’s the way it is and we’ll get the next guy."

The next guy for Arkansas is Hobbs, who has spent the past four seasons at Wake Forest and the four seasons before that at Missouri. Hobbs received recommendations for the job from Johnson, Vitello and former Missouri coach Tim Jamieson. Like Johnson, Hobbs is thought to be at the forefront of using technology and analytics in teaching college pitching.

Hobbs called Arkansas a "destination job" that he first dreamed of obtaining while an assistant at Missouri in 2012, prior to the Tigers joining the Southeastern Conference.

"We played a midweek down here when I was at Missouri and I saw what it was like on a Tuesday and it was amazing," Hobbs said, "and I could only imagine what it would be like on a weekend.

"It’s a place I’ve always looked at as a place I would want to coach, so that made (the decision) a little bit easier."

For Van Horn, the hire was made easier by having a strong network in place that includes several former assistants who now have programs of their own.

With successful, 30-something assistants like Hobbs and hitting coach Nate Thompson, it is likely only a matter of time before Van Horn has to tap into that network again.

"It makes me happy for these guys, proud of these guys," Van Horn said, "and you go out and get another guy and make it work."

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