The Gophers baseball team had just won its third of four games at Northwestern, and after shaking hands with the Wildcats the team gathered in a huddle around senior third baseman Rob Smith.
The Menomonie, Wis., native said a couple of words and the rest of the squad shouted, “Team.”
The win kept Minnesota in the hunt for a berth in the Big Ten tournament going into its final conference series against Iowa this weekend. The huddle was a symbolic marker of how far Smith has come in the past two years.
“There were times when we weren’t playing well,” Smith said. “We could never put a finger on just one thing we were doing wrong. I know I could never figure it out.
“But there were certain times when I had to voice my opinion, and that’s not a position I want to be in. It was awkward. I don’t see myself that way.”
Recently Smith has been called upon to be Minnesota’s leader, which is a weird scenario considering Smith’s history with the team.
He originally came to the Gophers to play football under Coach John Gutekunst in 1991. Back then, Minnesota’s team on the gridiron was coming off back-to-back 6-5 seasons. Smith was excited to be a part of a team he thought was on the rise.
But he always had aspirations to play Division I baseball. When Smith came to Minnesota on his recruiting visit, he stopped to talk to Rob Fornassiere, who went to college with the recreation director at Menomonie High School and is an assistant with the Gophers baseball team.
Gutekunst, who was a two-sport athlete at Duke, supported Smith’s decision to play baseball and football. But Gutekunst was fired after the Gophers went 2-9 in Smith’s freshman year. The current coach, Jim Wacker, was then brought in to direct the football team.
Smith redshirted his sophomore year, but more devastatingly, he was moved from running back to cornerback and safety. Former Gophers running back Chris Darkins had already solidified the starting spot. Defense was not a position Smith wanted to accept.
“I felt like I was being mistreated,” Smith said. “Then the football coaches forced me to make a decision between football and baseball, and I always thought baseball was my favorite.”
So Smith decided to quit football and consequently gave up a full scholarship. He was not guaranteed any financial help from the baseball team, but it was a move Smith had to make.
Gophers coach John Anderson said Smith was a project from the beginning.
“Academically he was a mess,” Anderson said. “He had a lot of work to do on the field too. But I could see the raw tools and skills there. He had good bat speed, and he was a good athlete. But it took a long time to get to the point he’s at now.”
Even this season Smith was academically ineligible for winter quarter. Smith said he rewrote a paper for class and his professor refused to grade it. The experience took away from what was supposed to be his glory year in baseball.
“I felt I could help contribute to the team and not being there for my teammates was what hurt the most,” Smith said. “I felt cheated because I lost a quarter of my senior season, and it wasn’t my fault. There were times when I wanted to go blow up (the professor’s) house or something.”
But Anderson said it wasn’t the increased numbers Smith missed the most during those 13 games away from the diamond. It was his teammates’ respect.
Anderson said Smith battled all season to gain back his teammates’ confidence.
“He lost some credibility, and he has not been able to have the impact he could have had,” Anderson said.
“I never expected him to be a vocal leader. I wanted him to lead by how he played (and) how he worked in practice. I wanted him to portray his image of not liking to lose. I think he has earned back that respect.”
Since he’s been back, Smith has recognized his role as the senior leader and done his best to show the team how to react in times like this weekend: must-win situations.
“I’m the senior, and people look to me for answers,” Smith said. “I don’t think we knew how to win, and it took the older guys to show the younger guys how to win.”
While he is bitter with the time he missed and the chances he didn’t get, Smith is now looking beyond baseball. He said he will enjoy his last game as a Gophers baseball player and miss the game tremendously.
“I’m still upset (about being ineligible),” Smith said. “But I’m just going to go out and play the way I always do. I play hard. I’m not going to put any undue pressure on myself to do well because it’s my last game at Siebert Field. I’m just going to go out and play. And I guess that’s it.”