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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Frank Solich-ing the Husker Baseball Program

It might be a little early to start making comparisons, but it's starting to feel like Mike Anderson is 'Frank Solich-ing' the Husker baseball program. Yes, I know the Huskers have never finished outside of the top 4 in Big 12 play with Anderson at the helm. Yes, I know he is the only coach in Husker history to win a game at the College World Series. Yes, I know Mike Anderson has won the Big 12 regular season twice and the conference tourney once. Yes, that 2005 season was one for the history books with 57 wins, a Husker record likely never to be equaled. Yes, the guy has an all-time record of 255-116-1 as of this year (why does 255 wins sound so familiar?). Yes, we've made the NCAA tourney every year but once in Anderson's tenure.

After all of those accolades, I'm still putting Mike Anderson on the Frank Solich watch. Why you ask?

No one has to be reminded of Frank's rapid demise after playing Miami for the National Title after the '01 season. We quickly digressed in the '02 "Seagram's" season going 7&7, sealing Solich's fate. Although there are several reasons for the demise, recruiting is chief among them. Frank's 1999 recruiting class is a good example of signing a group that, in retrospect, brought in too few contributors on the field. Now, let's get back to the baseball program.

First of all, Dave Van Horn put this program on the map. If Ford and GM instantly turn a profit in 2009, that turnaround would pale in comparison to what Van Horn did at Nebraska. He inherited a program that went 7-23 in Big 12 play in 1997 and within 2 years won the Big 12 tournament an amazing 3 consecutive years. We are well aware of the 2 consecutive CWS appearances by the Huskers in '01 and '02 and the construction of one of college baseball's best venues in Haymarket Park that followed this success.

Since then the program has become a model of consistency in the Big 12, having made the NCAA's 5 of the past 6 years. So why call out Mike Anderson now? I see this program declining in the past few years. Expectations aren't to make the CWS every year, which would be unrealistic for the northernmost team in the Big 12. But consecutive losses to Manhattan and San Francisco as a #6 national seed in 2006 is unacceptable.

The problem in the past few years for Anderson is the lack consistent hitting. Since the Huskers hit .310 as a team in '06, the overall batting average has sunk to .288 in '07 and .276 last year. By comparison, Van Horn's teams went .338, .325, .334, and .314 in his final four years. If you can't hit .300 as a team, history is not on your side. If Anderson can't get guys to hit, it could be a long wait for another Big 12 title. This year's group looks poised for another sub-.300 season, with little early indications of a team that has the ability to make the NCAAs.

In the '05 season, the team barely hit over .300, but posted an insane 2.69 team ERA, the first sub-3.00 ERA in at least a decade which lead to a 57 win season. Joba Chamberlain, Johnny Dorn, and Brian Duensing lead that team with their arms and had Alex Gordon hitting .372. I can only hope we can lean on home grown Nebraska talent like that in the future, although that could be a once in a generation phenomenon. But since then, the team ERA has ballooned to over 4.00, not a bad number if you have some big bats, a luxury the Husker team has not had since the Van Horn days.

I get that it's always going to be hard to get guys to come play in Lincoln. At best you are hoping for about 6 months a year you can even play outdoors and for pitchers throwing in Lincoln anytime before April, you have injury risks. That said, look at the field and the fan support. Rivals ranks Hawks Field as one of the top 10 venues in college baseball, along with powerhouses Texas, Rice, Florida State, and Arkansas. Nebraska should own recruiting in this region with no competition from bordering states such as Iowa and Colorado and a Big 10 conference that's worse than the Sun Belt in the sport. This is where Anderson has followed Solich's lead of poor results in recent recruiting efforts.

Recruiting in college baseball is tricky with the future plans of top players dependent upon the MLB draft, but still, we have to get some better talent. Last year's group was ranked an abysmal 91st by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, behind powerhouses like Manhattan and San Francisco. Iowa was ranked ahead of us. Anyone know what the average attendance is at Iowa baseball games? I'm guessing 275 a game. We had 3,300 come out for a Wednesday game in late February against North Dakota. Last May, over 7,600 showed for a May series with A&M. How can you not recruit with that kind of fan support? Recruiting matters in more than just football.

As of March 1, Anderson and the Huskers are sitting at 5-3-1 on the season. Not so impressive when you consider wins against Louisiana-Lafayette, North Dakota, Missouri State, and Sam Houston State as well as losses to St. Mary's, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Missouri State. After being predicted to finish 7th out of 10 teams in the Big 12 this season, it is definitely going to be an uphill battle to even make it into the NCAA postseason. Ouch. So, yes it's early, but I'm going out on a limb and predicting Mike Anderson will be coaching at a MAC school near you by 2012. Does Ohio U. have a baseball baseball program? Yep.