John Anderson planned to conquer the world when his alma mater made him the youngest head baseball coach in Big Ten history at age 26. Anderson figured he would outwork and outcoach his counterparts in making the Gophers one of the nation’s premier programs.
“I found out very quickly that the landscape had changed in college baseball,” he said.
College baseball became a sport dominated by warmer-weather programs, which meant Anderson either had to adjust his coaching philosophy or change jobs.
He’s still going strong, 37 years in the same spot.
Fresh off a series sweep over Indiana this past weekend, the Gophers remain tied with Michigan for first place in the Big Ten. The Gophers are No. 14 in RPI, their highest ranking since 2007.
“A lifetime of work in coaching and you’re seeing some of the results of the things you’ve been trying to get people to buy into,” he said.
Anderson’s tenure remains a remarkable accomplishment in the history of Gophers athletics. He is a rock and trusted figure inside a department known for leadership turnover.
Anderson has worked under 11 different athletic directors, counting interims. He has won 1,277 games, made 18 NCAA appearances and been inducted into the Hall of Fame of four organizations despite coaching at a program beset with obstacles.
Northern schools have one arm tied behind their back in college baseball. Ohio State was the last northern team to win the College World Series, in 1966. Cold weather and baseball never will be compatible.
Gophers fans forever have lamented the impact Minnesota weather has on football recruiting. Imagine trying to attract baseball players to this climate.
Anderson had a conversation years ago with Florida State coaching legend Mike Martin, who broke the NCAA record for career wins this past weekend.
“What is an indoor practice?” Martin asked him, perhaps only half-joking.
Anderson laughs when telling that story.
“You can’t be weak mentally to play in this climate,” he said.
Crummy April weather this season forced the Gophers to move their home series against Penn State to Purdue. How many teams have taken a nine-hour bus ride to a home game? (Their bus broke down on the way home.)
In the time between the Metrodome’s demise and U.S. Bank Stadium’s completion, the Gophers started seasons with six weeks of road games until Siebert Field thawed.
“The kids think it is fun to travel until they start doing it,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t go perfectly very often.”
And yet Anderson has endured only two losing seasons in 37 years. He has won at least 30 games 30 times. That consistency looks even more impressive when factoring in weather-related challenges in recruiting and scheduling.
Anderson turned down other job opportunities over the years because this is his home, his program. He admits he likely wouldn’t have lasted if he hadn’t met sports psychologist Rick Aberman in the early 1990s.
Anderson still had visions of winning national titles. Aberman encouraged him to reflect on his style of coaching, the challenges he faced and what he wanted his program to represent.
“I’m not sure I would have made it this long without [Aberman],” Anderson said. “I probably would have crashed and burned.”
Anderson became more patient. He stopped choosing captains and instead focused on leadership training for all players. He became a “transformational” coach who is more concerned about player development than being fixated on records and standings.
“It’s not that I wasn’t competitive or didn’t want to win,” he said. “We just weren’t going to win as much as Florida State or Texas or UCLA. We reset our expectations and standards and started to build a better culture.”
The result is a program that has produced 10 Big Ten regular-season titles and 300-plus Academic All-Big Ten selections. His loyal assistant of 33 years, Rob Fornasiere, deserves credit, too. Anderson insists on it.
“I wouldn’t have lasted this long if I didn’t have an assistant like that,” Anderson said.
Anderson, who turns 63 next week, has three years left on his contract. He still loves coaching and adores his current team. He has remained in one job for nearly four decades because he refused to let circumstances define his program.