LINCOLN — Darin Erstad could be in the Arizona sun right now. He could be shaking Clayton Kershaw's left hand.

He could be bleeding Dodger blue.

Well, no, he couldn't.

When it comes to bleeding, Erstad doesn't even do red.

He bleeds scarlet.

It comes pumping from a huge heart that longed to be in Nebraska, watching the sun set in his backyard as his kids played tag on a sweet summer night.

Maybe if Erstad, in a scruffy beard, took the neighborhood nine down to the sandlot to organize a game between kids and dads, then this Nebraska Rockwell painting would be complete.

Now, look. We don't know if Erstad would have gotten the Dodgers job last November. It may have gone to Padres bench coach Dave Roberts anyway. Erstad may have been a Plan B or C the Dodgers front office was too intrigued with to cross off.

Sometimes when coaches find out they aren't getting the job, they pull their name out for image sake at home — so it looks like it was their idea.

But that's not what happened here with Erstad. He did it for love of the school, players, state and the lifestyle.

And those of us who ever wished we could be in the backyard watching the sunset instead of on a rental car bus, well, we knew exactly what he was talking about.

Is it possible for Erstad to be more Husker than he was before? Is it possible for Nebraskans to feel closer to a Husker hero than they were? What's the next level after man crush?

Does turning down an opportunity for this kind of opportunity mean Erstad now has a lifetime contract in the Haymarket dugout?

These are all good questions. And here's another: Can Erstad coax these Huskers to the Big Ten tournament this May in downtown Omaha?

The team Erstad couldn't leave is not among contenders for the CWS. It's not even picked to make that Big Ten tourney.

That sort of scenario might be good reason for some coaches to take the first train out of town.

"I always think great things are going to happen," Erstad said. "It's the 'N.' That 'N' means something to me.

"I honestly didn't think about it, or look at our team and say, 'Oh, we might be good, we might be bad.' It's about the 'N.' That thing just does it for me."

Erstad's love for the "N" is established. Now, can Erstad translate that passion to the Big Ten standings?

How far can he take this program?

These are the issues Erstad "came back" to tackle.

The Dodgers obviously saw something in Erstad. Leader. Clubhouse chemistry builder. Talent evaluator. Motivator of egos. All that.

For Erstad, the challenge has been doing it at the Big Ten level. The results have been mixed. He had to build a culture. He made the NCAA tournament in his third season.

Then last year, season four, his team stumbled down the stretch to miss the tourney. The Huskers didn't play with discipline or focus. One step forward, one step back.

Behind Iowa? What's made it harder to evaluate Erstad as a head coach is the ever-changing Big Ten. Nebraska expected an easy transition from the Big 12. But Indiana made the CWS in 2013. Last year, Illinois was a No. 6 national seed, new addition Maryland beat No. 1 UCLA and Iowa made a regional final.

"I think he's done a pretty darned good job," said Kyle Peterson, the ESPN college baseball analyst and Omaha native. "The thing that gets overlooked a little bit is how good the league is.

"The Big Ten was as good as the Big 12 last year and might have been better. I know some Nebraska fans assumed the Huskers were going to barnstorm through the Big Ten, but it's gotten better."

Peterson said it's not just the Big Ten that has made it harder on programs who used to make the CWS.

"In the last 15 years, the Big Ten has improved," Peterson said. "TCU and Virginia hadn't been to the College World Series in 2001. The landscape is so different. Last week, Alabama opened a $42 million baseball stadium. Athletic directors are investing in baseball. Everyone is."

None of that has doused the expectations of Nebraska baseball fans. While the CWS is no longer a topic of spring conversation, Husker fans see no reason why Haymarket Park should sit empty in the first two weeks of June.

"I get that," Erstad says. "My expectations are higher than that."

Haymarket Park is a no-excuse zone. But here's the reality: The Big Ten got better while Erstad has learned how to be a head coach the last four years.

He's forgotten more about baseball and hitting and competing than most of us ever knew. But getting young men to do it is a trick that some legends can teach and others can't.

Larry Bird once admitted frustration because he couldn't teach players to do what he did. He couldn't teach others how to be Larry Bird.

Is Erstad going through some of that?

As we see Erstad taking on the hitting coach duties, spending more individual time with hitters, trying to listen more to what they're saying, it's an interesting topic.

As a player, Erstad was talented, smart, a hard worker and relentless competitor. Can he get that to rub off on his team?

"Generally, the best coaches are guys who made the most out of their talent," Peterson said. "Darin was a No. 1 (draft) pick. So there's talent, obviously.

"But throughout his career at Nebraska and with the Angels, he was known as a guy who made the most out of his ability. Through hard work. Through attention to detail.

"And I think he's a guy that young players respect, because he's done it."

Heading into his fifth year as a coach, Erstad has a new secret weapon: youth. He's got talent coming up, the kind of talent that puts a smile on his intense mug.

Also, the kind of talent that is pushing the veterans on this team.

"We have possibilities," Erstad said. "We have 'stuff' there. I always say 'stuff,' as in, we have stuff to compete at the elite level.

"It starts on the mound. You got to have dudes out there to compete against those guys. We have some raw stuff, but the stuff is there. It's exciting."

As a Nebraska sunset? "I'm where I want to be," Erstad said. "I don't have a crystal ball for the future. Let's just say putting on the Husker gear every day is just right."

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