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.
'He gives his team strength by how he acts': Van Horn named SEC coach of the year by peers
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is shown during a game against Tennessee on Sunday, April 16, 2023, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — In some ways the 2023 season has proven to be one of the most challenging of Dave Van Horn’s 21-year tenure as baseball coach at Arkansas, but in others it hasn’t been so hard.
The challenges arose primarily from injuries to key players, including three front-line pitchers and a starting position player who suffered season-ending injuries. With a healthy roster Arkansas was predicted to finish third in the SEC West by coaches, but shorthanded the Razorbacks won the division and tied Florida for the league championship with a 20-10 conference record.
The team was made up of players who were easy to manage, Van Horn said last week during an interview on SiriusXM College Sports Radio.
“At the college level they call us coaches, but at the big league they call you manager,” Van Horn said. “I think in college you’re a manager. My job is to manage people — manage players, manage the coaches, manage the whole team. You just have to evaluate how you want to talk to your team or how you want to talk to certain individuals.
“I think with this year’s team I just have a real grasp on how to deal with them — when to leave them alone or when to talk to them.”
That understanding and the success of the Razorbacks’ 39-15 regular-season campaign led Van Horn to earn his third SEC coach of the year award Monday. He previously won the award, which is voted on by his peers, in 2004 and 2021 when Arkansas won SEC championships.
“He definitely deserves it for pushing the right buttons and everything, playing the right people,” Arkansas outfielder Jace Bohrofen said following the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt. “He’s an unbelievable coach. If he doesn’t deserve it, I don’t know who does.”
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin spoke highly of Van Horn during their series last week in Nashville, Tenn.
“He’s consistent,” said Corbin, who entered the league with Van Horn in 2003. “He never gets rattled. He gives his team strength by how he acts. I feel like he’s got good confidence in every single one of his players.”
Corbin pointed to the play of Arkansas second baseman Peyton Holt, who became a starter at the beginning of May after Peyton Stovall tore his labrum. Holt went 7 for 11 and Vanderbilt and is 13 for 21 since the start of a May 12-14 series against South Carolina.
“He put him in there and the next thing you know he’s hammering the ball,” Corbin said. “Dave has a way of taking players and making them believe that they’re good players. They’re consistent. They’ve had their share of injuries and we’ve had our share of injuries, but neither coach, until that moment right there, will talk about them. It’s just part of having a good program. Someone else has to step up into that role and help.”
The Razorbacks’ championship run was full of contributions from players who did not begin the year in primary roles.
“There's nobody who wants to win more than Van Horn, and it's almost like his grit forces these teams to to become better than probably even are,” said Brady Toops, Arkansas’ starting catcher in 2004 while he watched the team play last week in Nashville. “He's done it for a long time.”
Van Horn’s assistant coaches point to his ability to adapt in different areas. Speaking about the play of the Razorbacks’ infielders earlier this month, pitching coach Matt Hobbs said Van Horn trusts the work done by the team’s analysts, who suggest when and where to shift defenders against certain hitters.
“Sometimes you do all that work and that information just stops, right?” Hobbs said. “Like, we as coaches get nervous and don’t use it because it looks different and it might not be what we’ve done our whole careers. But that doesn’t happen on our staff at all. Coach Van Horn is just like, ‘Hey, these guys put in all this work, let’s trust them and then we’re going to see what we see.’”
The Razorbacks finished the regular season fielding .980, including an SEC-best .986 in conference games. Arkansas led the league in double plays turned with 51, including 30 in SEC play.
“He’s a genius with what he does with defensive positioning,” Hobbs said of Van Horn. “He’s got the ultimate gut feel for all this stuff, but he’s open to using any piece of information he can find to help us put the defensive players in the right position.”
During his SiriusXM interview, Van Horn indicated a key to this season has been how he has responded to the times the team did not play well.
“I’m not a big meeting guy,” Van Horn said. “For example, if you get beat and didn’t play real well, after the game as a coach you’re not happy, but you just talk about a couple of things. Some coaches just keep talking and talking, and the players, they’re not listening anymore; they just think you’re mad at them. Yeah, I’m uptight because we didn’t play good, but I just say a few things and I move on. I say, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ I’m like two- or three-minute meeting, win or lose. I try to be the same every day.”
The Razorbacks have shown resilience throughout the year.
“This team has been easy to manage, so to speak, because I don’t have to ask them to play,” Van Horn said. “I don’t have to rah-rah them around or meet with them….It’s a little bit about just handling what’s going on each day, each week, each injury, each situation. There’s always a problem whether it’s somebody’s girlfriend or they flunked a test or their car broke down and they couldn’t get to practice. It’s always something, so you just deal with them like human beings.
“At the end of the day if the players know you aren’t just ate up with winning every game at every cost, they appreciate that. They want to know you care about them, and if you can show them that most of the time, they’re going to play hard every day. I think that’s what our staff has done a really good job with those guys.”
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