Former Angel Darin Erstad thrives as a college coach with Nebraska

Darin Erstad settles in well as baseball coach at the University of Nebraska

Darin Erstad is back in college. As a coach, as a student.

The former Angels All-Star is a product of the University of Nebraska, where he was an All-American baseball player and punter on an undefeated football team.

He was not a graduate, however. So while he is in his fourth season as the Cornhuskers' baseball coach, he is also working on a business degree.

"You finish what you start," said Erstad, whose team was in Los Angeles this weekend for a three-game series at Loyola Marymount. "I made a promise to my mom that I'd get my degree and I'm going to fulfill it.

"If you're going to ask your kids to do it, I'm sure as heck going to do it."

Erstad, who helped the Angels win a World Series, is among only a handful of former big league players who are head coaches at the major college level.

"When I was offered the job, my wife and I were talking," he said. "And she flat-out just said, 'You are in a position to affect kids' lives in a positive way.' I still get goose bumps when I think about that.

"What better purpose in life than to be able to influence to kids' lives in a positive way?"

Players such as Erstad who achieved success at the professional level aren't always winners as coaches. Some struggle to understand why young players can't master the game that came so easily to them. Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky both were Hall of Fame athletes who had dismal records as coaches. Ted Williams' teams finished 101 games under .500 in his final three years as a big league manager.

Erstad was a .282 career hitter and a Gold Glove winner at three positions in 14 big league seasons, but he always played the game like a hard-nosed grinder fighting for the final spot on the roster.

His Nebraska teams have mirrored that grit, winning 40 games and advancing to the NCAA regionals last spring for the first time since 2008.

"He's been able to harness that passion and funnel it into being an incredible teacher and coach," said Mike Scioscia, who in 2000, his first season as a manager, watched Erstad set Angels single-season records with a .355 batting average, 240 hits and 366 total bases. "You know how much he loves the game. And he's been able to inject that into the program."

Erstad, 40, didn't return to Nebraska planning to coach, or even to study. As his playing career was winding down, he and wife Jessica, a Nebraska graduate who had worked in the school's athletic marketing department, began talking about where they'd like to settle down and raise a family. Lincoln was the choice.

Erstad couldn't stay away from baseball, though, so he quickly signed on as a volunteer assistant with the Cornhuskers. When Mike Anderson and his paid staff were fired after the 2011 season, Erstad was promoted, becoming the program's fifth head coach in 64 years.

"I've learned so much about baseball in the four years that I've been with him," senior infielder Blake Headley said of Erstad. "But I've learned even more about how to go about my everyday life.

"Just watching him and listening to him speak and the way he carries out his business, it's been a great ride."

Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.

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