Following a Legend
It’s never easy to follow a legend.
Remember Gene Bartow, who followed John Wooden as the head basketball coach at UCLA? Or Phil Bengtson, who succeeded the great Vince Lombardi with the Green Bay Packers? Both had the unenviable task of trying to fill some very large shoes.
Dave Esquer can identify.
Esquer was hired last fall to replace Mark Marquess, who had coached the Stanford baseball team for 41 years. Marquess retired as the fourth-winningest coach in the history of college baseball. He led Stanford to the College World Series 14 times and won two national championships, 12 conference titles, and 65% of his games. He was also one of the best Stanford players of all-time, winning All-America honors in 1967 and ’68.
To put it simply, the name Mark Marquess was synonymous with Stanford baseball.
Yet Esquer was the perfect choice to replace him, and he is doing quite well, thank you. After sweeping Arizona State last weekend, his Cardinal team is 27-5 and ranked No. 2 or 3 in the country.
To be sure, Esquer had some important advantages Bartow and Bengtson didn’t enjoy.
He was the starting shortstop on Marquess’ 1987 College World Series championship team.
He played so well in Omaha, in fact, that he was named to the All-Tournament team. And he later served as an assistant coach under Marquess for six years.
More importantly, Esquer is someone who has overcome adversity and met tremendous challenges throughout his life.
He grew up in Salinas. His dad was an auto mechanic, his mom worked in a candy factory. Despite a brilliant high school career at Palma H.S., where he starred in three sports and was class valedictorian, Esquer received no scholarship offers. It came down to a choice of walking on at UCLA or Stanford.
“I chose Stanford for all the wrong reasons,” he laughs. “I saw that their shortstop had only batted .214 the year before, so I figured I had a better chance of beating him out than the guy at UCLA, who’d started as a freshman and had a great year.”
After proving his mettle to Coach Marquess in a fall tryout, he was invited to join the Stanford team and eventually fought his way into the starting lineup as a senior. That season, he earned All Pac-12 Southern Division honors with a .314 batting average and 41 RBIs. In Omaha, he hit .350 and drove in six runs.
Esquer was selected on the 31st round of the MLB draft by the Baltimore Orioles and played four years in the minor leagues. Just about the time he realized he wasn’t going to make it to the majors, he saw an item in the sports section that one of Stanford’s assistant baseball coaches had resigned. That same day he received a phone call from Marquess asking if he’d be interested in the job.
He joined the staff and worked side-by-side with his former coach for the next six years. In those days, Marquess and his assistant coaches did more than coach. They lined the field at Sunken Diamond and cleaned the locker room.
“The biggest thing I learned from Mark was ‘be above nothing,’ Esquer says. “We just did whatever had to be done. One day he asked me to scrape some gum off the floor of the locker room. ‘Be above nothing.’ It’s still one of the first things I tell my players.”
Esquer next served three years as the top assistant at Pepperdine, before being named head coach at Cal in 1999. Over the next 18 years, he led the Bears to five NCAA regionals and the 2011 College World Series. That World Series appearance came after the Cal baseball program had been eliminated because of budget cutbacks, then restored due to alumni protests and successful fund-raising efforts.
“I had to dismantle a program, save it, and coach it—all in the same year,” Esquer says. “As always, coach Marquess was the first person I called for advice. He said, ‘don’t worry, you’re going to be all right. Just take care of your kids.’ So that’s what I focused on. It really created a tremendous bond between all of us. It was an amazing journey.”
That journey ended with a trip to Omaha and a well-deserved National Coach of the Year honor for Esquer.
When the call came from Stanford last fall, it was bittersweet.
“I had to call 35 players and tell them I was leaving,” he says. “It was the only job I’d leave Cal for. But it was a dream come true.”
It’s a dream that comes with high expectations. His predecessor is a legend. And Stanford has won more NCAA championships than any school in the country.
“I like to call it positive peer pressure,” Esquer laughs. “Coach Marquess handed me the baton, but it’s a 100-pound baton. It’s quite a challenge.”
If past history is any indication, Dave Esquer is up to that challenge.