June 16, 2002
Dad is his No. 1 fan
BY ERIC OLSON
Joe Van Horn, dressed in red and white, would pass for your typical Nebraska baseball fan at the College World Series. But he's not your average Joe. The man the coaches' kids call "Papa Joe" is considered family in the Husker program. To be sure, Joe is all about family.
As a single parent, Joe raised Nebraska Coach Dave Van Horn, his adopted son, along with two younger daughters.
The fact that the Huskers' second straight visit to the CWS coincides with Father's Day weekend is not lost on Joe. Dave's success in his professional and personal life, Joe said, is the greatest gift he could receive.
"It brings tears to my eyes, some of the things he does now," he said. "Dave didn't have it easy. He didn't look at it as being rough. He knew there were the country club families. And then there was us."
Dave said he learned many of life's lessons from Joe during his blue-collar upbringing in Kansas City, Mo.
"He taught me about discipline and working hard," Dave said. "There were good days and bad days, of course, when you grow up without a mom from age 10 on."
Sports kept Dave out of trouble. Joe, though never much of an athlete himself, volunteered to coach many of Dave's teams. He was always there.
"When I divorced Dave's mom, I told the kids that we're all bachelors," Joe said. "Everybody helped everybody, whether we were doing laundry or fixing meals. There were a lot of things I did wrong, but we tried the best we could."
Dave, now 41, was about 6 months old when Joe met his mother. They had two daughters after they were married. Dave also has an older sister.
Joe said he never thought twice about what to do when Dave's mother told Joe that she had grown tired of the family life and wanted to leave.
"I don't look at it as anything special," Joe said. "It was just responsibility. Something had to be done, so I did it. Many a single mother has raised children. Being a father rather than a mother was the only difference. You still had to raise them. The gender was just different."
Dave said he speaks to his mother once in a while and visits her twice a year at her home near the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. He said she called last week to congratulate him on the Huskers' CWS berth.
Karen Van Horn, Dave's wife, said Joe's willingness to raise the son of another man is testament to his generous nature. "It makes him that much more of a special man," she said.
Joe, 60, is a plumber by trade, but he also is a partner in a bail bond business and dabbles in bounty hunting.
Joe's penchant for locating hard-to-find people enabled Dave to locate his biological father in California last year. Dave had questions about his medical history and visited the man for a couple of hours. He probably will never see him again.
Joe, after all, is Dad.
Joe, who still lives in Kansas City, makes it to just about every home game and to many on the road.
Regulars at Nebraska games know Joe by name. He's friends with the players and their parents. Those who meet him are touched by his kindness.
Each season, Joe buys several dozen baseballs stamped with a Husker logo and passes them out to kids. He passes out candy and other gifts to the coaches' children.
Once, someone asked first-base Coach Mike Anderson to give a foul ball to a disabled child who was in a wheelchair along the right-field line. Joe overheard the request and took it upon himself to give the child a ball signed by pitcher Shane Komine along with a Hawaiian lei.
Joe also serves as a quasi handyman. This spring he heard the coaches complaining that there wasn't enough water pressure in their shower. So Joe changed out the showerhead.
"He's always around, always supportive," said NU Pitching Coach Rob Childress. "He might show up in California or down in Texas just out of the blue. He loves baseball."
Most of all, he loves Dave Van Horn.
June 17, 2002
Tom Shatel: If it's over, Van Horn deserves applause
BY TOM SHATEL
As he left, quite possibly for good, Dave Van Horn followed Nebraska official Butch Hug, briskly winding through traffic and well-wishers on his way out the door of the College World Series.
It was quite a scene, late Sunday afternoon, as the man in the white Nebraska uniform with "Van Horn" on the back in red walked to the team bus through the madness. Some patted him on the back. Some waved. Some yelled. Some cried.
"Great season, Dave!"
And then the man who took Nebraska to the CWS left the CWS, heading up 13th Street to the signs for "Lincoln."
Or is it Fayetteville, Ark.?
Did we see Van Horn's last game at Nebraska on a sun-splashed Sunday at Rosenblatt Stadium? In all probability, yes. He's gone. Gone to Arkansas, to the warmer weather, to the Southeastern Conference, to the place that feels more like home.
It's not done yet. There are more than enough wild and crazy surprises and U-turns in the mad, mad, mad world of college coaching. Van Horn could call a press conference this week, stand up and pull on a Nebraska cap and say, "SURPRISE!"
But that doesn't appear likely. All the signs, all the gossip, all the so-called insider knowledge, all the body language, all the veiled comments and not-so-subtle jabs, they all point toward Van Horn becoming the Head Hog very soon.
That was the black cloud of dread that hung over Husker Nation, the story line of the day that overshadowed Nebraska's disappointing 10-8 loss to South Carolina and second straight trip to the CWS BBQ stand after two games.
Van Horn to Arkansas? The more you spoke to Husker athletic officials, fans and CWS baseball coaches and officials, the more it looked like the worst kept secret in college baseball.
And then the man himself spoke up late Sunday, and he wasn't exactly holding a fire extinguisher when the question of the day raged his way.
"Right now we're at Nebraska," Van Horn said. "We're going to check out (of the hotel) a bunch of sad kids, then get organized. I'm the Nebraska baseball coach right now. That's what I'm going to be until I'm not. We'll have to wait and see."
That, ladies and germs, is the classic language of a lame duck coach. You've got to love Van Horn's honesty. But in this case couldn't he have said, "No comment?" If he were staying, wouldn't he have said, "I love Arkansas, but I'm staying"? What exactly doesn't he know about the job at his alma mater to leave us with "Maybe I will, maybe I won't?"
If that quote didn't stir the fears of Husker Nation, then Van Horn's barb at the Big Red crowd on Sunday should have done the job. On a day when his pitching staff did little to rally the fans, Van Horn chastised the Husker fans for being "passive" and "quiet."
Again, that's Van Horn, especially after a loss. He's mad. He says things. He doesn't hold back. After Friday night's loss, he hung first baseman Brandon Eymann a little out to dry. Now, he takes on the Husker fans.
An innocent faux pas by an emotional man who means well? Or a coach taking shots on his way out the door?
Don't ask Athletic Director Bill Byrne, who refused comment before sharing a quick "Nice season" with his brilliant coach afterward. Don't ask the players, including Jeff Blevins, who said, "I really have no idea. That's his problem. Whatever he decides to do, I'll have no bad feelings against him. I would hope nobody would."
The fans won't. They can't. They'll know what this incredible coach has meant, how he worked the greatest Nebraska miracle this side of Bob Devaney. That doesn't mean they agree on every move he's made.
In fact, after Sunday's loss, Van Horn was the main course on most postgame tailgate grills. Why did he take out Brian Duensing so fast? Why lift Aaron Marsden so fast? Why the quick hooks on his whole staff? Why pitch to South Carolina bopper Yaron Peters?
Van Horn said NU reliever Jeremy Becker was told to pitch outside to Peters but got the ninth-inning offering in too close. But why roll the dice? Because that's baseball. That's what got him here. Van Horn has had the bones go his way more than a few times on the Road to Omaha.
You could say his quick hooks don't breed much confidence in a pitching staff. You could say that the breakdowns of the weekend, such as catcher John Grose failing to see a "take" sign on a squeeze play, is a sign that the coach lost his magic touch when it came to getting his players to execute.
And you might be right.
But remember, too: This is a team that lost power hitter Matt Hopper last week, just when he was getting warmed up. This is a team that had no bullpen, as was evident when ace Shane Komine had to close out the super regional, and whose starting rotation turned into a pumpkin after negotiating its way through the Big 12.
This was a team that, when you look at it, was not a great team, a team with flaws, a team that probably shouldn't have been a CWS team, a team that couldn't have beaten the 2000 group that fell one win short of Omaha. It was a team that executed well, made the most of its talent, found ways to win, got hot at the end of the season and received favorable postseason matchups from the NCAA.
Mostly, it was a team that was a mirror of its head coach. Van Horn led the Huskers to back-to-back CWS berths, and in the case of this season, that was literally true. The coach willed, prodded, coaxed his team here. If this was Van Horn's last dance, it was the ultimate parting gift for Husker Baseball.
If he stays, there's rebuilding to be done. The program's in great shape. But Komines don't come along every year. How strong is the pitching going to be next year? Won't it always be hard to recruit pitching to Nebraska's long winters? Won't this, in so many ways, always be a hard job?
The Huskers should be good every year. But now the fans are spoiled. Knowing when to leave 'em happy is always the key to a long coaching career.
If he leaves, he leaves the right way. Yes, it would have been nice to win a CWS game. It would have been nice to win the last game, for that matter. But there's something to be said, too, for squeezing all the juice out of the lemon, for walking away proud of the kids and being able to sleep with the effort.
"Nebraska is going to win the national championship one day," Van Horn said. "It may be five years from now, 10 years. It will happen. But these guys can pat themselves on the back then that they were the ones who got it going, who got them thinking here that they could win in the north."
He sounded like he may have been saying goodbye, or talking about himself, too. Or, as senior Will Bolt said, "Whatever he decides to do, he'll always be the one who put Nebraska baseball on the map."
Don't look now, but that may be a map of Arkansas.