Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Van Horn, Tadlock cut coaching teeth far from bright lights of Omaha
Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock swings a bat during practice Sunday, June 16, 2019, at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
OMAHA, Neb. The eight head coaches at this week's College World Series have their own unique stories about making it to the pinnacle of NCAA Division I baseball.
For Florida State's Mike Martin, the NCAA's all-time wins leader, it all began as a basketball coach at a junior college in Florida.
Vanderbilt's Tim Corbin, Louisville's Dan McDonnell, Michigan's Erik Bakich, Auburn's Butch Thompson and Mississippi State's Chris Lemonis got their big breaks after serving as Division I assistant coaches for a number of years.
And then there are Arkansas' Dave Van Horn and Texas Tech's Tim Tadlock, who cut their teeth in the junior college ranks of Texas - Van Horn as a head coach for five seasons at Texarkana College; Tadlock as an assistant coach at Hill College for four seasons and as a head coach at Grayson College for nine seasons.
Van Horn and Tadlock both knew the JUCO life well before they began their coaching careers. Each played two seasons of JUCO baseball in central Texas - Van Horn at McLennan Community College in Waco and Tadlock at Hill College about 35 miles north in Hillsboro.
Van Horn transferred to Arkansas and Tadlock transferred to Texas Tech.
They were never in opposing dugouts as JUCO coaches, but their paths crossed on the recruiting trail. The men, whose teams will meet Monday at 1 p.m. in an elimination game at TD Ameritrade Park, are more than eager to share their stories about JUCO baseball and how it helped mold them into two of the game's most successful coaches today.
"It taught me that if you wanted the field to look right, you had to drag it yourself," Van Horn said. "You're going to recruit in your own car. You're going to spend your own money, and you're working to get where we're sitting now, and that's where it started. I think it made me a better coach, and I think you just - you either sink or swim because you don't have a lot of help."
Van Horn's biggest help in Texarkana came in the form of Rob Childress, now the head coach at Texas A&M.
In 1991, Childress was just out of college and looking to get his feet wet in coaching. He interviewed with Van Horn and his wife Karen at the Catfish King restaurant in Texarkana.
"We didn't even have a paid assistant," Van Horn said. "I'm asking guys to volunteer and help me out that are 22 years old just out of college, and what can you pay them, nothing. You get it on your resume, you can say you worked at the junior college. It teaches you how to beat the bushes, contact people, talk to people, talk to scouts and kids and parents, and it gets you ready for your next job, if that's what you want to do, if you have enough success."
For Tadlock, the JUCO life was longer lasting and more successful. He won back-to-back national JUCO championships at Grayson College in 1999 and 2000, and coached in three other NJCAA World Series.
"You know, it was the time of my life, quite honestly," Tadlock said. "It teaches you a lot of things. Probably the biggest thing, though, is right off the bat you've got to go look people in the eye and get them to come play for you because you've got a baseball field and you're going to ask them to drag the field, you're going to ask them to mow the field. You're going to ask them to help you along the way.
"You're filling water coolers before you leave at 6 in the morning. You're driving the van. You're getting everybody out of bed if you need to.
"You know, you live in a dorm, you raise your kids in a dorm, and you're coaching about 300 yards from there. It's pretty cool, until your wife has had enough of it."
Tadlock recalled playing a tripleheader one Saturday in Burnham, Texas, about 320 miles away from Grayson. The team left at 4 o'clock on a Saturday morning, played three games, then completed the roughly 11-hour round trip that night.
"I told them we'd come down there if we could play three in one day because we couldn't afford to stay at night," Tadlock said.
"It probably more than anything teaches you to not shy away from going and getting good players, wherever you are. We had really good players, whether I was at Hill Junior College or Grayson County Junior College."
Tadlock's reputation as a coach and as a recruiter helped him land a coveted assistant coaching gig on Sonny Golloway's Oklahoma staff from 2006-11. He returned to Texas Tech as an assistant coach in 2012, then was promoted to head coach the following season.
He has led the Red Raiders to four of the past six College World Series. He said he has heard from numerous players the past week who played for him 20 years ago.
"Those relationships go a long way," Tadlock said.
Van Horn got out of junior college coaching to become a Division II head coach at Central Missouri State, where he won the 1994 national championship in his only season with the program. He leveraged that title into his first Division I job at Northwestern State and has climbed the ladder since.
Van Horn is at his eighth College World Series as a head coach this week, and sixth with Arkansas.
Neither coach has lost that blue-collar approach that was honed in Texas. Earlier this year, players from an opposing team remarked about seeing Van Horn sweep the dugout steps and rake the field after a rain storm had passed through - characteristics that were no doubt perfected living the life of a JUCO head coach.
"I wouldn't trade those five years coaching junior college for any of them," Van Horn said. "It made me a better coach and probably a little bit better person."
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