University of Arkansas baseball has never been hotter than it is right now.
Large crowds show up on a regular basis in Fayetteville for games at Baum Stadium.
People in all 75 counties talk about the diamond Hogs.
Fans drive in from central Arkansas, east Arkansas and south Arkansas for weekend series.
A statewide radio network allows Arkansans in every corner of the state to keep up with the team.
In researching an article on Razorback baseball that will run in the May edition of Arkansas Life magazine, I came to realize just how far the program has come.
When Norm DeBriyn agreed to take charge of the Razorback baseball program in December 1969, few people other than the players paid attention. The stadium was at the old Washington County Fairgrounds. There were rocks in the infield, holes in the outfield and broken boards in the fence.
The team didn’t even have a full-time coach.
DeBriyn moved his squad from that cow pasture to George Cole Field in 1975. With financial assistance from former star players Kevin McReynolds, Johnny Ray and Tim Lollar, lights were added in 1985, making it possible to host the Southwest Conference Tournament for the first time.
The Razorbacks were 567-142-2 at George Cole Field.
With the construction of Baum Stadium in time for the 1996 season, Razorback baseball advanced to the next level. Without Baum Stadium, it’s doubtful that Dave Van Horn would have left his job as head coach at Nebraska to replace DeBriyn at Arkansas.
Baum, considered by many baseball experts to be the finest college stadium in the country, is a key. It was a key to getting Van Horn, and it’s a key to recruiting the current players in the program.
Razorback fans everywhere have Norm DeBriyn, Charlie and Nadine Baum, and Pat and Willard Walker to thank.
Charlie Baum and Willard Walker were among Sam Walton’s first store managers and became investors when Wal-Mart Stores went public. The Baum and Walker families, among the many so-called Wal-Mart millionaires in northwest Arkansas, became close to DeBriyn through the years.
DeBriyn, working with then-athletic director Frank Broyles, convinced the two couples to help fund Baum Stadium.
The stadium was designed by the nationally known firm HOK. It has room for more than 10,000 spectators with amenities that are better than those found at most minor league professional ballparks.
In 1998, Baum was named by Baseball America as the nation’s top college facility.
Five years later, it ranked second.
“Since its construction, Arkansas officials have received numerous solicitations by coaches and administrators from across the country for blueprints and tours … in an attempt to capture some of its charm,” the university’s baseball media guide states. “Even though Baum Stadium has been replicated to some degree, no other place in the country has the atmosphere that Baum Stadium brings to college baseball, which is why it has been host to five NCAA regionals and an NCAA super regional. Baum Stadium was one of the nation’s best facilities when it was constructed, but since then has undergone three renovations, making it the envy of visiting teams.”
Yes, that sounds like public relations hype.
But those who attend big games at Baum will tell you the atmosphere at the corner of Razorback Road and 15th Street is unlike anything else in college baseball. With Van Horn’s arrival following DeBriyn’s 2002 retirement, upgrades to what was still a relatively new stadium began as interest in the program continued to increase.
Prior to the 2003 season, hitting and pitching cages were enclosed and 2,600 chair-back seats were added.
Prior to the 2004 season, the university added 12 luxury boxes, coaches’ offices and a scoreboard with a video screen and message center. The original turf was torn out and replaced with rye grass. That, in turn, was replaced by hybrid Bermuda grass prior to the 2005 season. Arkansas now has one of the best playing surfaces in the country.
Prior to the 2007 season, another 20 luxury boxes were built, restrooms were added, 1,000 more chair-back seats were put in, the picnic area was expanded and new lights were erected. Capacity went up to 10,737 seats with 8,237 of those being of the chair-back variety.
In 2007, the Razorbacks became the first team in NCAA history to average more than 8,000 tickets sold per game. The actual attendance average was 6,007 per game, a school record.
No. 1 Arizona State came calling in April 2009 for a two-game midweek series. In the second game, 11,014 people were in attendance with 11,434 tickets sold. Both numbers set stadium records.
“It’s an incredible facility,” DeBriyn says. “There’s not one like it anywhere in the country. There’s no way to describe the excitement our players and coaches have when they take the field.”
“It’s a family atmosphere,” Van Horn adds. “It’s so nice to walk onto the field and see all of that red. It’s also nice to know people are now coming from all over the state to see Razorback baseball games.”
That rocky field at the fairgrounds DeBriyn inherited 42 years ago has become a distant memory.
DeBriyn had come to Arkansas in 1969 from Colorado State College (now the University of Northern Colorado) to teach first aid, driver’s education and other courses in the College of Education.
As a first aid specialist, he was on the sideline at Razorback Stadium when the Arkansas football team fell to Texas, 15-14, in the Big Shootout in December 1969.
“The football program was first class all the way, but none of the other sports at Arkansas measured up to what we had back in Colorado even though it was a smaller school,” DeBriyn says.
Wayne Robbins, who had played baseball at Mississippi State in the 1950s and later played in the Baltimore Orioles organization, coached the Razorback baseball team on a part-time basis from 1966-69 while pursuing his doctorate and serving as an associate to the dean of arts and sciences.
In December 1969, Robbins announced that he had accepted the position of press secretary for U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
“I knew I wanted to coach,” DeBriyn says. “I had coached the freshman baseball team for one year at Northern Colorado and had five years of high school experience. I applied for the baseball job when Wayne left. They gave the job to somebody else, and he quit after one day.
“George Cole called me in and gave me the job. He said, ‘Here’s the baseball file.’ Everything was in one file folder. That’s how important baseball was back then.”
Cole, a Bauxite native who had starred in football at Arkansas in the 1920s, was about to replace the legendary John Barnhill as athletic director.
The school had fielded its first baseball team in 1897, but the sport was discontinued from 1930-46.
Deke Brackett was the coach for three seasons once baseball resumed in 1947. Athletic trainer Bill Ferrell took the job in 1950 and compiled a 139-149 record in 16 seasons.
Robbins was 50-51 in his four seasons as the Razorback baseball coach.
DeBriyn, a fiery native of Ashland, Wis., took over a program that long had competed as an independent. Due to the lack of an adequate travel budget and the lack of interest in baseball, the school hadn’t been a part of the Southwest Conference in baseball since 1926.
DeBriyn’s first team went 19-13 in 1970. During the next three seasons, the Razorbacks were 23-18-1, 16-16 and 23-7-1 with the 1973 team earning an NCAA tournament bid as an independent. Arkansas lost two consecutive games at the regional tournament in Arlington, Texas, but it was obvious DeBriyn was building something that soon would be more than an afterthought in Fayetteville.
By the 1974 season, DeBriyn had accomplished one of his major goals: Returning Arkansas to the Southwest Conference in baseball. The Razorbacks were 22-21 overall and 9-15 in the SWC that spring.
Arkansas had another losing record in conference play as the Hogs went 8-14 in the league in 1975. They were 12-12 in SWC play a year later.
The 1977 Razorback team improved to 33-18 overall and 14-10 in the conference, the start of 14 consecutive seasons with winning conference records for DeBriyn.
Razorback baseball had begun attracting a fan base in northwest Arkansas while earning statewide media attention for the first time.
Arkansas made its first trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., in 1979. The Hogs had records of 49-15 overall and 19-5 in the SWC as they finished as the national runner-up to Cal State-Fullerton.
The Razorbacks won four games at the NCAA East Regional in Tallahassee, Fla., to earn their way to the CWS.
Arkansas posted three more wins in Omaha in what at the time was a double elimination event. Fullerton, which already had a World Series loss, beat the Hogs, 13-10. Fullerton won the second game between the two teams, 2-1.
Still, it was clear that Arkansas baseball had arrived.
Another landmark moment in the program’s history came in 1985 when Arkansas hosted the Southwest Conference Tournament and took home the trophy with three consecutive victories. A win over Baylor was followed with back-to-back wins over traditional national power Texas.
Arkansas made the College World Series that season and finished third. The Hogs ended the 1985 season with a 51-15 record.
In 1987, Arkansas won the Southwest Conference, finished fifth in the College World Series and ended the spring with a 51-16-1 record.
In 1989, Arkansas won another conference championship and found itself in the College World Series for the third time in five seasons. The Razorbacks finished fifth in the CWS and concluded the ’89 season with a 51-16 record.
Van Horn had played at Arkansas for one season in 1981. In his lone season as a Razorback, he earned All-SWC honors and was the conference’s newcomer of the year.
After three years as a player in the Atlanta Braves organization, Van Horn joined DeBriyn’s staff as a graduate assistant. The Razorbacks were 184-71-1 in the four years Van Horn coached with DeBriyn, making it to the College World Series twice.
“I had talked to Norm in the spring of 2001 and really felt he was ready to step down,” says Van Horn, who was at Nebraska at the time. “If they wanted me as the head coach at Arkansas, I was willing to go at that point. Norm called me while we were at the Big 12 Tournament in 2001 and said he was going to coach another year.”
Nebraska went to the College World Series in 2001, the school gave Van Horn a lucrative contract extension, a new stadium opened in March 2002 and Nebraska returned to the CWS later that year.
“Suddenly, it became a lot harder to move,” Van Horn says.
DeBriyn says Van Horn “was going to be my recommendation whenever I decided to retire. I made that known to Coach Broyles, and Coach Broyles had begun to follow his career closely after Dave went to Nebraska. … In retrospect, things have worked out.”
Van Horn accepted Broyles’ offer. Almost a decade into the Van Horn era, college baseball has never been hotter at Arkansas.
DeBriyn, now a vice president of the Razorback Foundation, must smile these days when he thinks about where things stood at the start of 1970 and how far they’ve come.