Rebuilding the Hawkeyes

May 25, 2005 note: The following was written by Andy Hamilton and first appeared in May 25, 2005 editions of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

On the eve of his introduction as Iowa’s baseball coach, Jack Dahm sat in his hotel room with a pen and a notebook, scribbling down the various thoughts that entered his mind. And as the night turned into early morning and the pages filled with ink, Dahm’s ideas developed into a blueprint for building from the ground floor of the Big Ten.

Somewhere amid his thoughts about changing the perception of a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 1996, Dahm jotted down the Big Ten tournament as a mile marker on the lengthy journey to where he wants to take the Hawkeyes — back to where he came from.

Omaha, Neb.

“I don’t want to make it sound like we’re sitting here talking about going to the College World Series every year. I know how hard it is to do, but if you don’t talk about it and dream about it and work every day to become the premier program in the country, it’s not going to happen. I’ve had enough people tell me you can’t do this or you can’t do that, and (those) people are right if you believe them.”
UI Baseball Coach Jack Dahm

Dahm, a 38-year-old visionary who isn’t afraid to talk about his aspirations of taking Iowa to the College World Series, has driven the Hawkeyes to their first stopping point along the way.

Today, they play in the Big Ten tournament for the second time since 1990. Picked to finish at the bottom of the conference, Iowa wound up one game from claiming the regular-season conference championship, marking the school’s best finish in 15 years.

It’s one step, one goal crossed off Dahm’s list. Something to feel good about, but no reason to hold a parade, the second-year coach says.

“I don’t think making the Big Ten tournament or finishing third is anything to celebrate too much about,” he said. “If we get too excited about that or become satisfied with that, we’re going to go backward in a hurry. You can never become satisfied.

“I don’t want to make it sound like we’re sitting here talking about going to the College World Series every year. I know how hard it is to do, but if you don’t talk about it and dream about it and work every day to become the premier program in the country, it’s not going to happen. I’ve had enough people tell me you can’t do this or you can’t do that, and (those) people are right if you believe them.”

A portrait of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium hangs on Dahm’s office wall. He used to be able to drive past the site of the College World Series on his way to work, but he could never quite get there during his 10 seasons as Creighton’s head coach.

He had spent four seasons playing for Jim Hendry at Creighton. He spent four more years with the Bluejays as an assistant and worked alongside Hendry on the 1991 Creighton team that reached the College World Series.

Hendry left Omaha for professional baseball in 1991. His replacement, Todd Wenberg, resigned amid an NCAA investigation that turned up only minor rule infractions. Dahm was named the school’s head coach in 1993. At age 25, he was the youngest head coach in Division I baseball.

“I wasn’t ready to be a head coach,” he said. “As I continued to learn things and you try to implement them in the program, a lot of times it looks to the players like you’re changing your ideas and philosophies.”

Dahm produced four winning seasons, a 283-276 record, and guided Creighton to the NCAA regionals twice. But the weight of expectations became greater after the 1991 World Series appearance, and it didn’t help matters that the Bluejays were playing in Rosenblatt’s back yard and rival Nebraska had turned into a Midwest power.

Dahm saw the pressure affecting his players. He felt some of it, too. And he felt as if he was spending too much of his time as a fund-raiser and not enough as a coach.

Moreover, recruiting players to a private school left Dahm with little room for error or injury. Sure, he fielded talented teams, but Dahm often found himself in a repetitive cycle. The Bluejays would hover near the .500 mark while playing underclassmen, flourish when the same players gained seasoning, and then fall back to mediocrity after they graduated.

And after 18 seasons as a player and coach at Creighton, Dahm resigned after the 2003 season. Shortly thereafter, he had several job opportunities in baseball, ranging from positions in the professional game to assistant jobs at Division I power conferences.

A week after Dahm coached his final game with the Bluejays, Scott Broghamer resigned as Iowa’s coach. Dahm immediately thought back to a conversation he had with Hendry more than a decade earlier. He remembered asking Hendry about some of the top jobs in college baseball. He remembered Hendry talking about the pieces in place at Iowa.

Six weeks later in July 2003 Dahm was sitting in a hotel room on the eve of his introduction as the Hawkeyes’ new coach, writing down ideas about what he would bring to Iowa and what needed to be changed.

On the outside, the Hawkeyes had to repair their image. On the inside, they needed to change some of their bad habits.

Some of those who were with the program prior to Dahm’s arrival said there were too many players getting into trouble downtown and not enough taking accountability for their mistakes on the field. Dahm moved swiftly to fix those issues.

“He makes sure every guy is doing the right thing at all times,” senior catcher Kris Welker said. “He doesn’t let anything slide. A lot of guys early on last year got kind of annoyed with it. They weren’t used to being picked on so much. A lot of guys liked to come to practice, do their thing, and not get yelled at so much, but he’d chew your butt if you did something carelessly or showboated a play instead of doing it the right way.”

Dahm said he sensed some resistence last season, but part of his plan was to figure out who was on board with him and assistants Nick Zumsande and Ryan Brownlee, and who wasn’t.

“We knew there had to be a change right away for this team to be successful,” senior right fielder Nate Yoho said. “We had talent, but there was a little too much leniency. It was a little rough at first with all the rules and everything, but we got the feeling he was here to turn this thing around.”

But Dahm hasn’t been a hard-line leader, either. He says one of the things he learned from his tenure at Creighton was the value of fun in baseball. He started a daily ritual when he arrived at Iowa. The Hawkeyes tell a joke every day before practice.

Unlike past seasons, Iowa baseball hasn’t been a laughingstock this year. Dahm’s first full recruiting class, which joined the program this year, was ranked the best collection of incoming talent in the Big Ten, and more help is on the way. Dahm said one of his top priorities has been to “make it hard for kids from the state of Iowa to say no to us,” and this year’s success won’t make it any easier for recruits to decline his offer.

Dahm’s first season at Iowa produced a 20-35 record marred by 11 losses in 13 games decided by one run. This year, the Hawkeyes compiled a 28-27 record heading into today’s game against Minnesota, a program that posted a 23-game winning streak against Iowa during the past decade; a program that also lost three out of four in Iowa City this month.

“There have been some great players that have come through this program, but I think it’s just the attitude (that’s different now),” senior shortstop Andy Lytle said. “You can have all the talent in the world on a team, but if you don’t know how to prepare a team and not let the highs get too high and the lows get too low, that’s a big key. We’re not intimidated anymore when we have to go up against a Minnesota, just because of what they’ve done to us in the past.”

Welker and closer Tim Gudex said Dahm and his coaching staff have been responsible for the attitude overhaul.

“There’s a little swagger about us to where we know we’re a pretty good ballclub now,” Welker said. “Our whole team has grasped the fact that no matter who we’re playing, we expect to come out and beat any team. Our standards have been set a little higher, and our team has finally figured out we can meet those standards.”