MORE: Ten best coaching jobs in 2011
On a late Thursday night in mid-April as the California Golden Bears were preparing for their three-game series against Pac-10 foe Arizona the next day, coach Dave Esquer received a phone call from a university official. His first thought had to be what now. After all, Esquer had spent the previous seven months wondering what exactly the future held for his program.
For all Esquer knew, the university official was calling to reiterate the fact the program was cut and would be playing its final season in 2011. Fortunately for him, the players, Cal alumni and college baseball in general, the phone call turned out to be one of the happiest days of Esquer’s life – his program finally was reinstated after donors raised nearly $10 million to bring it back.
It was a major win for the University of California. It was a win for college baseball.
“I knew I’d be able to tell them [the players] that we were reinstated after that phone call. I told the team we were going to have a scouting report meeting at 10 a.m. Friday morning before the night game,” he said. “I told the team the donors and people behind the program had been successful and we were being reinstated.”
“We were in the hotel lobby. I’m pretty sure people back in Berkeley could hear our players yelling.”
That moment culminated a tumultuous seven months where the Golden Bears weren’t sure what to expect. In addition to worrying about their academic futures during the months in limbo, they also had baseball to worry about.
Esquer and his players’ emotional roller coaster began September, 28, 2010, when university officials announced baseball and other sports were being cut to make room for a budget shortfall. That decision, of course, was made with the Golden Bears in the midst of a massive $321 million football renovation project.
Esquer was stunned. He remembers telling his team and seeing their stone faces, completely unsure of what the future might hold. He also remembers having to release all of his recruits to other schools, while dealing with some West Coast coaches seizing the opportunity and attempting to immediately lure his players away from the program.
In the back of his mind was his own job security. If there wasn’t a program at Cal, he didn’t have a job. The same scenario was true for his assistants.
“One of the challenges you face in a situation like that is you get worried about your future and you don’t perform well on the field,” he said. “Our guys were focused on winning and each other throughout the fall. That’s something we tried to sell on a daily basis.”
Though tension filled the air when the announcement was made, it wasn’t an emotional situation for long. As a matter of fact, the situation was relatively calm outside of some individual interviews Esquer and his staff had with some players during fall workouts.
“Emotionally, it really was an individual thing. There were times where we had six or seven individual meetings with guys, trying to counsel them about their future opportunities with other programs,” he said. “We were just trying to transform them from being anxious to feeling a little relaxed.”
Amazingly, once the initial shock of the decision wore off, the Golden Bears had a highly productive fall. Esquer said back in the fall his team had their best practice of the entire fall the day the announcement was made.
As the Bears departed for Christmas break, there were some concerns there might be a mass exodus of players. After all, the NCAA was granting players an immediate wavier to transfer without sitting out a year. Only talented freshman Eric Jaffe – now at UCLA – decided to leave the program while everyone else stayed put.
“We always told our players to commit to having the best season possible, and that’s something our assistants always preached to them, too,” Esquer said. “The message was loud and clear after the holiday break. This team was going to have its best year. In order to do that, all the little things would have to be done, including extra hard work and commitment.”
The Golden Bears entered the 2011 campaign with high hopes. They were ranked in the Perfect Game Top 25 and returned a solid weekend rotation with an adequate offensive lineup. Even in the incredibly tough Pac-10, this program was expected to take a step forward – even with program cuts at the forefront of their brains.
California played a tough non-conference schedule with contests against Coastal Carolina, N.C. State, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Connecticut and Rice. They entered Pac-10 play with high hopes. And though they struggled with consistency at times, they still finished the regular season with a .500 conference record, setting themselves up with a high RPI and postseason berth.
“I’m not really surprised at all our guys were so dialed in this past season. You could see them come together on the field and in the weight room during the fall,” he said. “They didn’t show any extreme panic about their futures. They didn’t really ever feel the toll because baseball hits you in the mouth sometimes regardless of how good you are or can be.”
The Golden Bears reached the NCAA postseason for the third time the last four years, and had the tough chore of getting through Rice and Baylor at the Houston Regional. The Bears dropped their first game of the tournament to Baylor before beating Alcorn State and Rice, and setting up a title game against Baylor. The Golden Bears defeated BU in the second meeting and used an unreal rally to win the third meeting and advance to the school’s first NCAA Super Regional.
California headed back home for the super regional round and defeated surprising Dallas Baptist with ease in a series that only went two games.
The program, after all it went through the last year, went to Omaha for the sixth time in school history, its first College World Series appearance since 1992.
“I felt early on we had as good of a chance as anyone to get to Omaha,” Esquer said. “We really put ourselves in good position. I figured we’d compete well and would be tough to beat.”
Though the Golden Bears fell short of a national title, the season they put together was something special, something that could someday turn into a Hollywood film.
Still, with the program staying put, the Golden Bears have some tough work to do moving forward. Since they were forced to release all of their recruits last fall, Cal is back to square one from a recruiting standpoint. So, while reaching the CWS was a step forward, there’s little time for celebration.
“We’ve got some mending to do in the short term, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “I think the message [getting to Omaha] it sends is that we’re an ascending program. This program is a part of a new era in Cal baseball. It shows we can get to Omaha.”
Getting to Omaha under the circumstances they endured is the reason Esquer is the 2011 Perfect Game National Coach of the Year.
Esquer was the true essence of a coach and leader in 2011. Others should take note.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org