LINCOLN — After he caught the final out of the final game at old Buck Beltzer 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 his coach, Dave Van Horn, now gets a chance to chase Van Horn’s success at Nebraska.
Bolt is back as Nebraska’s new head coach and he’s not shy about the key trait he wants his team to embrace.
“Toughness,” Bolt said Friday on the “Sports Nightly” radio program. “Just having the grit, the tenacity, the toughness that’s required in this game where you’re going to fail, you’re going to get knocked down, you’re probably going to get hit in the chin multiple times in one game. But being able to have that toughness, to persevere, to know you can get it done when the stakes are the highest — have that dirtbag, blue-collar mentality, like you’re going to play every game like it’s your last.”
Bolt begins Monday and takes over for another former NU player, 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 coached until 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, the Conroe, Texas native who has a five-year contract worth $300,000 per year. That’s more than any Husker baseball coach 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, a Texas junior 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,” said Moos, who did not return World-Herald messages for comment beyond the statements in NU’s press release.
Moos said Bolt is a 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.
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Bolt confirmed that he had the recommendation of Erstad, who served as Bolt’s boss for three seasons.
“I’m glad to have him in my corner,” Bolt said. “He’s such a great human and great ambassador for Nebraska. He ended up doing a lot of great things for Husker baseball.”
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.
“We’re going to work our hardest to make sure the best kids in the state of Nebraska want to play for the Huskers,” Bolt said. “It starts there and the surrounding states of the Midwest.”
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 Erik Bakich, who led the Wolverines to the CWS this week. Ohio State’s Greg Beals also made more in 2018 than $300,000.
Bolt will inherit a team that exceeded preseason predictions in 2019, finishing in a tie for third in the Big Ten and qualifying for an NCAA regional. NU was one half-inning away from winning its first two games at the regional, but an Oklahoma State three-run homer dashed the Huskers’ chances.
“I was watching it on my phone,” Bolt said. “I couldn’t look away and I was just really hoping they were going to hold on.”
Nebraska’s current players have scattered since busing back from Stillwater, leaving for home or summer ball or staying in Lincoln. Most have stayed quiet on social media as they learn about their new coach, though reliever and senior-to-be Robbie Palkert told The World-Herald there’s a consensus of optimism.
“I don’t know much about Coach Bolt and I’m sure Coach Bolt doesn’t know much about me, either,” Palkert said. “But I think as a group, we’re all just excited to get back to work. There’s been a lot of uncertainty the last couple weeks, but I’m glad that that’s all shored up now so we can start playing some ball again.”
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. Bolt joked that he’d just returned home from A&M’s own regional loss and kissed his wife before he started receiving texts about Erstad’s resignation. The last two weeks, Bolt said, have been “a whirlwind.”
He has his two top assistants “pretty much set,” though he wouldn’t talk about them specifically. Other media reports and World-Herald confirmations reveal the assistants to be Texas A&M volunteer assistant Jeff Christy — a former Husker catcher who will shift to a full-time role — and Lance Harvell, who spent the last six seasons at Sam Houston State as an assistant and recruiting coordinator. Harvell held the same roles at Texarkana College when Bolt was the head coach there in 2010 and 2011.
“He seems like a throwback,” Bolt said. “In fact, I told him that in our conversations. I think he appreciated that, and he sees himself that way, too.”
Bolt has the same reputation as a throwback. Tough. Aggressive. Gritty. Van Horn even knew it 17 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.