He had coached baseball at the Division I level for 21 years and then one day in May of 1991, it was over.
He hasn’t coached since.
But the story of Steve Land is hardly that simple.
His decision was by no means made in the spur of the moment. But when the University of Wisconsin voted to cut baseball in the spring of 1991, Land had to make a difficult choice. He no longer had a position as the head coach.
Land thought about potentially coaching at a lower level Division I school, following his eight years at the helm of the Badgers. But he was raising a family and balked at having to uproot it to pursue his coaching career.
It came down to a simple reality for all Division I baseball teams: America’s national pastime doesn’t generate money at the college level. Land would have to scrap for resources at another school like he had done at UW.
“After being here 21 years and battling and battling and battling, I just thought I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that,” Land said.
“I had twin boys that were raised in the school system. It would have taken quite a bit for me to leave and pull them out of it,” he added.
And so after Wisconsin fell 1-0 to Purdue in the finale of a twin bill at Guy Lowman Field May 10, 1991, Land’s coaching career came to a close.
Out of left field
It was no secret that Wisconsin struggled in baseball and had been a perennial middle of the road team over the course of its 117 years as a program dating back to 1870. But despite the lack of continuous success, with only five Big Ten championships and none since 1950, Land had no clue baseball was on the chopping block, even just a year before it got the axe.
In the fall of 1990 Land heard the athletic department was looking into the possibility of eliminating several sports to try to fix long-standing financial issues, he said. That was the first time getting rid of baseball was in the conversation.
But by March 23, 1991 the UW athletic board was already convinced it needed to eliminate baseball, along with both men’s and women’s gymnastics and fencing. Try as they might, Land, the players and others involved with the baseball program could not sway the board’s decision.
“The fact that it was over was really, really hard to accept,” Land said. “Some still have not accepted it. Some are still as bitter today as they were then. I can understand that.”
Dual athlete Rob Andringa, who was a standout defenseman on the hockey team in addition to his utility role on the baseball team, was one of those immediately affected by the athletic department’s decision. He was only in his junior season in the last year of baseball and would have had one more season left had baseball not been cut.
But Andringa wasn’t as upset as some of his other teammates.
“I don’t know if it hit me hard,” Andringa said. “Honestly, I think some of it had to do that I came to school to play hockey and I was wanting to play baseball, but I was very fortunate that coach Land allowed me to play baseball.”
There were a few other players that were dual sport athletes, including John Byce a few years earlier, but for the most part, nearly all of the baseball players only played baseball.
Their backgrounds in sports were only one part of the factor of how each player handled the decision.
“It varied immensely, not in terms of ability but just in terms of players,” Land said.
But regardless of how each player felt about the situation, the final weeks were emotional.
“There was a lot of tears, anger, heartfelt speeches and rallying and points and moments during the last year of baseball that tried to show the general public that this was not right cutting the baseball program,” Andringa said.
The final mood in the last game was not overbearingly negative, according to Land, but Wisconsin took to the field in symbolic fashion.
“We wore black shoes, and black socks, and black shirts, black hats” Land said of the attire for the final game. “But just the finality of realizing that baseball was done and that these kids were done playing baseball at the University of Wisconsin. They had a lot of questions. That was not easy for any of them.”
Move to the stands
The transition for Land was made better by the fact that he had more in his life than just baseball.
Coaches back in the early ’90s, especially in a non-revenue sport like baseball, weren’t paid at the rates they are now. That pushed Land to find an additional source of employment, so he could maintain his family’s financial stability.
As part of his college education, Land had taken some math classes because he was required to get a certificate in another field in addition to his major in physical education. After graduating from Northern Illinois in 1964, Land took a job at Highland Park High School just outside of Chicago, where he ended up teaching math along with his duties as head baseball coach.
When he came to Wisconsin as an assistant under Tom Meyer in 1970, Land switched from teaching to learning once more, as he decided he wanted to pursue a master’s in physical education. But after a few years, Land realized he’d rather spend his time more focused on baseball.
That’s when he picked up teaching again.
“I’m sure that some people thought that I should be full-time in the athletic department and be a full-time coach, which would have been my choice,” Land said. “But with what they paid me salary-wise that wasn’t something I felt I could afford to do.
“I would have made more money if I was full-time teaching.”
In his 21 years as a coach with the Badgers, Land spent the better part of 19 of them teaching at Madison’s Memorial and West high schools. Sometimes that meant getting back from road trips at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning and only a few hours later showing up to teach morning math classes at West.
Land spent his mornings instructing teenagers and then afternoons at baseball practices with college-aged athetes. Sometimes when baseball practice ended early, Land would take some time to recruit. In addition to that he also had to fundraise and complete other administrative duties, as he was responsible for nearly every aspect of the program.
But even with everything he had on his plate, Land never felt overwhelmed with all aspects of his double life.
“I had some difficulties some times, but the season actually ended in terms of, I didn’t know how to slow down,” Land said. “All of sudden I had a day where I didn’t really have to do something all day long.”
Life after the show
At the age of 57, Land had retired from teaching and thought about trying to find a job at UW, which he had originally done after losing his job as head baseball coach.
But just as before, he found his way back to teaching where he stayed for another 12 years.
He finally retired from teaching morning classes at Madison West about four years ago, but he still continues with education, tutoring in his spare time.
And although his baseball coaching career might have concluded years ago, his relationship with baseball still continues to this day as well.
It’s just a little different.
“The only place I really get involved with it now is with grandchildren, and as much as I can with that, which is a lot of fun to see and watch,” Land said.
However, his now distant past with Badgers’ baseball is remembered by many throughout Madison’s baseball community.
“No matter where I went in Madison everybody that knew I worked in baseball, that was always the thing that was brought up,” Land said. “It still is today. I run into people that I haven’t seen for awhile, ‘When’s baseball coming back? Is it ever coming back?’”
Even though the prospect of baseball is brought up to him quite often, Land assured he doesn’t get tired of hearing about it. But he recognizes the probability of baseball returning is slim.
Although the baseball team was underfunded and had some of the worst facilities in the Big Ten while it was around, it provided lasting memories for Land and Andringa even in its dying embers.
“The last moment … I think everyone knew that this was it,” Andringa said. “From there, all you can hang onto are your memories and the friendships and the things that you’ve built up during your years at Wisconsin. And hopefully take those with you and turn them into a positive somehow.”
Land managed to transform the turmoil into positives and has had some time to reflect on his time as the last coach in Badger history. He regrets a few things like not getting to know his players better and not giving some players more opportunities.
But he also remembers what he helped instill as coach.
“We had three things: wear your hat right, run hard, be on time,” Land recalled. “Run hard means that you busted your butt all the times that you were there. Wear your hat right meant that you looked like a baseball player. You weren’t sloppy in your appearance whether on the field or off it. Be on time was that when things were supposed to happen, you were ready for them to happen.”
Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part story about baseball at the University of Wisconsin. UW had a varsity baseball team until 1991 when the sport was cut by the athletic department along with five others in order to combat a financial deficit.