Gary Van Tol set aside his dreams to ensure his Boise State players didn’t lose theirs

Boise State head coach Gary Van Tol walks toward the dugout after meeting with umpires before the start of game Feb. 28, 2020. Jake King/Idaho Press

Gary Van Tol was never planning on leaving the minors. He’d spent 10 seasons coaching with the Chicago Cubs’ Short A affiliates. He was happy there.

But in 2017, Boise State University offered Van Tol a chance to restart a baseball team that had been dormant for 37 years.

“When this opportunity presented itself, the chance to start your own Division I program from scratch?” the 54-year-old said. “Most guys don’t get that opportunity in their lifetime.”

His team played four weeks of its debut season, then never touched the diamond again. Van Tol spent three years rebuilding Boise State baseball, only to see it eliminated last summer after just 14 games. His program, along with the swimming and diving teams, fell victim to the university’s pandemic-driven budget cuts.

It would’ve been understandable for Van Tol to have spent days following the decision personally coping with the abrupt end of his dream. Instead, he focused solely on doing everything he could to help the 28 players who had committed to it.

“Gary is a great man,” pitcher Travis Weston said. “Obviously, us kids, we’ve never experienced something like that in our lives. He was amazing, especially the way he dealt with this. He called everyone on the team, made sure everyone was taken care of. He was really thorough throughout it all. It was awesome.”

The program initially seemed destined to succeed. Boise State cut wrestling in 2017 to ensure baseball was properly funded. In Van Tol, it had a coach who could effectively sell recruits on the rebuild.

“It wasn’t a normal recruiting trip where you go and they show you the locker room, the stadium and all the bells and whistles,” first baseman Joe Yorke said of his first meeting with Van Tol. “We got to see the campus, the weight room and then his idea of what Boise State baseball was going to be. That vision was something we all bought into.”

In February 2020, the new era of Boise State Broncos baseball began with a series against nationally ranked University of Texas. Though they were swept, the team’s play convinced Van Tol his work was paying off.

“Everybody expected us to get our teeth kicked in,” Van Tol said. “To compete, to walk out of there with people going ‘Wow, this is your first game in 40 years?’ It validated the plan that I’d been able to put together.”

The Broncos won nine of their next 11 games, loudly supported by the baseball-crazy local community. Van Tol says opposing coaches couldn’t believe how quickly his program was progressing. When the pandemic cut the season short, he fully expected to build upon this momentum in 2021.

Van Tol soon found out that wouldn’t be the case.

Without warning, he was informed that June that Boise State was discontinuing baseball. It was one of hundreds of NCAA programs across the country that had become a casualty to coronavirus. The team for which Van Tol sacrificed a minor league career was leveled four months after coming to fruition.

Boise State head baseball coach Gary Van Tol makes notes from behind home plate during a scrimmage at Memorial Stadium. Jake King/Idaho Press

The players were notified two days later via email. They were scattered across the country at the time, as Van Tol had found them playing opportunities in leagues still active despite the pandemic, making closure impossible to gain.

“Every player was in a different place,” Van Tol said. “I couldn’t even get the guys in the locker room to tell them. We didn’t have that opportunity as a team to even close the door.”

After scouring the country to secure his players dugouts to join over the summer, Van Tol now had to work even harder to find them somewhere to finish their college careers, even as his unceremoniously ended.

Within weeks of his program’s elimination, Van Tol helped 20 players secure transfers. Doing so in late summer, at the start of a new academic year, made this feat Herculean. He also had to be meticulous, ensuring no players jumped from one eliminated program to another flirting with the same fate.

“I was scared, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” outfielder Reagan Doss said. “[Van Tol] was helping us talk to schools, supporting us when we decided to go to another school. He was our biggest fan.”

Five players were initially unable to find a new program, remaining at Boise State. Van Tol continued training them, even after he joined the independent Pioneer League to manage the Boise Hawks in January, keeping his former players prepared for whenever a roster spot opened up.

Van Tol ultimately did find landing spots for all of his players, six of whom went on to join him as members of the Hawks.

“They had to go through something that nobody wants to go through,” Van Tol said of his former players. “There’s going to be some great things in store for them. I know they’re going to be just fine.”

Lost in the wake of those chaotic months lies a question Van Tol still has on his mind. Why was Boise State so quick to cut baseball?

“I really didn’t even have a chance to try and save the program,” Van Tol said. “None. Zero. It was like ‘See ya, thanks for coming.’

“There were groups raising money. We had over $1 million raised in a week and a half. We could’ve self-funded the program. I fully believe it. I would’ve been a full-time fundraiser instead of a baseball coach, but I was willing to do that.”

Boise State chose not to entertain fundraising efforts. An explanation for this decision remains elusive, as then-athletic director Curt Apsey stepped down from his role last October. A request seeking further comment from the university was declined, with a spokesperson reiterating that the decision to discontinue baseball was final.

“I feel bad for him,” Doss said of Van Tol, who helped him, Weston and Yorke all transfer to the California Polytechnic State University baseball program. “He spent three-plus years trying to get this thing going. He put in a lot of work, a lot of money and a lot of time. He sacrificed a lot.”

The Boise State baseball team hasn’t been together since March of 2020. Nobody knows if it ever will be again. Yet, asked how he’ll remember his brief experience as coach, Van Tol remains unshakably positive.

“We got to the starting blocks,” he said of his team. “We were at least able to get through the first portion of the race knowing that we belonged. We built it the right way.

“This group will go down in history as the last team to play at Boise State. That’s pretty cool.”

Casey Drottar is a Freelance Sports Reporter for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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