When the Razorbacks take the field in Omaha on Saturday afternoon for the program's eighth appearance at the College World Series, it will be, as many know, coach Dave Van Horn's forth appearance at the event as Arkansas' coach and sixth total appearance.
The accomplishment has caused some to ask if we can declare Van Horn the best coach currently on Arkansas' campus. I'd go further. I believe it's time to start considering Van Horn's place among the all-time Razorback coaching greats.
It's often considered that reaching the College World Series is the equivalent of making the Final Four in basketball, clearly reaching that milestone four times (and in only 13 seasons) would put a coach on an elite level. The four appearances matches longtime Arkansas coach Norm DeBriyn, but was the coach for 33 seasons. That being said, like Van Horn, DeBriyn's four appearances were over a highly successful stretch from 1979-89. He wasn't able to keep up that pace in the '90s. Obviously, the book of Van Horn's career has yet to be written, but he's continued recruiting at a level that suggests he'll maintain his current status.
There are two things about Van Horn's success at Arkansas that stand out to me, and I feel set him apart from other Hog coaches not named John McDonnell.
The first is that all four of his College World Series teams have been basically completely different teams. By reaching Omaha in 2004, '09, '12, and '15, Van Horn has brought four completely different rosters to the game's ultimate goal. It's not a situation where essentially the same team made back-to-back trips to the Final Four in the mid-90's. That Van Horn has been able to rebuild and reload his roster that many times while maintaing that level of success is extremely impressive.
Secondly, they've almost all come as an underdog. Only in 2004 did Arkansas host a regional on their way to the College World Series. Every other time the Razorbacks had to go on the road and beat somebody else in their own park. The degree of difficulty for that is very high. If 16 teams host regionals in a 64-team field, that means all the regional hosts are basically the 1-4 seeds in the NCAA Tournament if it was bracketed like basketball. Arkansas has now reached the College World Series three times in the last seven seasons starting from outside that field. That seems fairly astonishing.
Of course, the flip side to that argument is, why have the Hogs only hosted one regional since 2008? While Van Horn has managed enough consistency to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament each year he's been in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks haven't been consistent enough throughout the regular season to turn Baum Stadium into a frequent host site. For instance, in 2015, there's no doubt that Arkansas' resume in April and May was host-worthy, but a terrible run in March in which the Hogs went 2-10 at one point kept them out of the hosting conversation.
This is obviously the only area where Van Horn's resume doesn't match up with Razorback greats like Nolan Richardson and Frank Broyles. Van Horn has brought the Hogs to the cusp of the mountaintop, but hasn't quite been able to get there. During Richardson's elite run in the early/mid-90s, in addition to the national championship, Arkansas was a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament in 1991 and 1994, and were no worse than a 4-seed from 1990-95. Broyles led the Razorbacks to a couple of 1-loss seasons in the '60s in addition to 1964 national title.
However, both Broyles and Richardson also had disappointing seasons in which the Hogs missed a bowl game or the NCAA Tournament (or made the NIT). So the question clearly becomes in comparing them to Van Horn, how much weight do we give winning a national title compared to a longer period of consistent success without quite reaching that pinnacle?
His consistency is what sets Van Horn apart from most other Arkansas coaches. The Razorbacks have made the NCAA Tournament each year under Van Horn's tenure and currently enjoy the SEC's longest active tournament appearance streak.
However, I would argue that the national championship still has to mean more. Look at the way Arkansas continues to celebrate 1994 and even still 1964. Fans still hunt for their memorabilia on the Internet and pack Fayetteville for their reunions. Those events have become an essential part of Razorback fandom, particularly if you were fortunate enough to be able to witness them as they happened. As special as making it to Omaha is (and we're extremely excited to be there again this year!), an appearance, even when the Hogs have won a few games there, isn't quite the same.
So I still have to put Richardson and Broyles above Van Horn...for now. If he's able to break through in Omaha and deliver a national championship to Arkansas, then Van Horn has an extremely strong case for that spot closest to McDonnell. It could happen in a few days, but even if not, it's a solid bet Van Horn will have more opportunities in the coming years.