LINCOLN — After he caught the final out of the final game at the old stadium, Will Bolt was at the bottom of the biggest dogpile Nebraska baseball had ever seen. The Huskers had just secured their first trip to the College World Series and Bolt wasn’t just a key middle infielder — he was in the middle of everything.
Four-year starter. Two-year captain. Two-time participant in the CWS. The gritty role player who best epitomized the personality and approach of his coach, Dave Van Horn, now gets a chance to chase Van Horn’s success at Nebraska.
Bolt is back as NU’s new head coach, taking over for another former Husker, Darin Erstad, who resigned after eight seasons to spend more time with his family. Bolt served as Erstad’s associate head coach from 2012 to 2014 before taking a job as a Texas A&M assistant, where he’s been since Friday, when he officially took the top Nebraska job offered by Husker Athletic Director Bill Moos.
“The opportunity to come back home to Nebraska and lead the Husker baseball program is such a blessing and honor for my family and me,” said Bolt, who has a five-year contract worth $300,000 per year. That’s more than any Husker baseball has ever made, including Erstad, who took a below-market salary — $224,952 this season — because of the money he’d made as a player in Major League Baseball.
Moos had said frequently during the spring that Erstad’s job was never in jeopardy — Nebraska had just made its fourth NCAA regional in eight years — and said he preferred to find a replacement with Nebraska ties and, if possible, previous head coaching experience.
Bolt has that — four years at Texarkana College. His ties to the golden decade of Nebraska baseball, though, are more prominent. Bolt was either a player or volunteer coach on all three of NU’s CWS teams and all four of its Super Regional teams. The fact did not escape Moos’ attention.
“Will was a part of the most successful teams in the history of our baseball program, and he knows what it takes to win here,” Moos said.
Moos said Bolt is proven recruiter at every stop and “understands the appeal of Nebraska.” A call to the last known phone number Erstad used as NU head coach prompted the message the number had changed or been disconnected.
In an interview Thursday, Van Horn — in his sixth CWS with Arkansas — said Bolt and another former Husker/ex-Texas A&M assistant, Justin Seely, understand what it takes to win in Lincoln.
“I like the fact that they’ve both been on the road recruiting — a lot — for 10-plus years,” Van Horn said. “They both have a good demeanor. They could do a great job. Either of them know what they’re getting into weather-wise, practicing inside. There’s a lot that goes into it, going up Midwest, North. You can call it Midwest, but you can call it North, too, because it’s cold. You’ve got to develop players indoors.”
And, Van Horn said, Nebraska has to land the best players in its own state. SEC schools — including Arkansas — have taken notice of the quality players who can be found in the Midwest. Prospect showcases hosted by Perfect Game allow those prospects to see southern schools, as well. NU’s financial commitment, Van Horn said, has to match the nation’s best programs when it can.
“If you invest in your program, it doesn’t matter what league you come from if it’s a Power Five conference,” Van Horn said. “If you’re paying coaches, and you have facilities. If you travel correct — take charter planes every now and then, let players rest — it’s been huge. We miss less school, players are less tired, and we play better.”
A&M, an SEC school, also has a significant commitment to baseball. According to the Texas Tribune, Bolt made $185,000 in 2018. So did Seely. Their boss — former Nebraska pitching coach Rob Childress — had a total compensation package of around $800,000 in 2018. Childress was believed to be one of the top targets of Moos during the hiring process, but his yearly pay more than doubles what Bolt will make at NU. Bolt’s salary ranks in the top quartile of the Big Ten but it’s not No. 1. That’s Michigan’s Eric Bakich, who led the Wolverines to the CWS this week. Ohio State’s Greg Beals also made more than $300,000 in 2018.
Bolt will inherit a team that overachieved — according to preseason predictions — in 2019, finishing in a tie for third in the Big Ten and qualifying for the NCAA regional. NU was one half-inning away from winning its first two games at the regional, but a Oklahoma State three-run homer dashed the Huskers’ chances. When the season ended the following day in a lopsided loss to Connecticut, Erstad told reporters his team didn’t have any business getting as far as it did. One day later, after a bus ride home, he resigned, tearily telling players how difficult the decision had been.
Erstad wore emotions on his sleeve, and Bolt has the same reputation. Van Horn even knew it seventeen years ago before he coached Nebraska to its second CWS appearance and Bolt, NU’s captain, was in his final season. So did Bolt.
“We’re both little guys who like to get after it,” Bolt said then. “I’m honored by the comparison. Just look at what he’s done. Everywhere he goes, it’s like gold. He wins at every level.”
Van Horn cast a big shadow. Bolt will attempt to cast his own.