If you skipped work Friday to get an early jump on your Labor Day Weekend getaway to some remote location, you must have been pretty shocked to get back to your computer Tuesday and discover that one of the biggest names in college baseball has a new gig. George Horton belongs on any short list of the game’s elite coaches, along with Augie Garrido, Jim Morris, Wayne Graham, Mark Marquess, Andy Lopez and now Pat Caseyâ€”-all of whom have won championships and developed reputations as fine in-game tacticians, recruiters, motivators and teachers.
From the day Oregon announced it was reviving its baseball program, athletics director Pat Kilkenny made clear his intention to make a major splash by hiring a big-name coach to shepherd the Ducks to prominence quickly. But landing one of those coaches from college baseballâ€™s pantheon seemed beyond Kilkennyâ€™s wildest dreams.
But Kilkenny pulled it off. Horton was introduced as Oregonâ€™s new baseball coach amidst a thunderous standing ovation at Saturdayâ€™s Oregon-Houston football game, a lesson that it pays to dream big. Especially when Nike founder Phil Knight is one of your primary benefactors.
Not only did Oregon get one of the nationâ€™s very best head coaches, it also snagged two of the countryâ€™s most talented up-and-coming assistants. Horton took hitting coach Jason Gill with him from Fullerton, and he hired pitching coach Andrew Checketts away from UC Riverside.
After a whirlwind weekend, Horton took some time to answer Baseball Americaâ€™s questions about this huge shakeup in the college baseball world.
BA: When word of Oregonâ€™s interest in you first began to leak out last week, many people–myself included–immediately dismissed the possibility. When I think of Cal State Fullerton, I immediately think of George Horton, and itâ€™s hard to imagine one without the other. But here we are. Was it just a perfect storm of circumstances?
Horton: There were a lot of factors in that. I think some of the rumors of how much they’re paying me are exaggerated. Initially my perception of that (Oregon) job was that it probably would be a pretty good job because of Nike’s involvement. I didn’t recruit them–Dave Serrano got involved, and he told me about his appreciation for the leadership and the vision up there.
When he decided he no longer had interest in the job, he threw my name out to them, and they were surprised I was interested, like a lot of people across the country because of the special place I’ve been allowed to coach for the last 11 years. Then it became a whirlwind. I got the chance to meet those people and see their energy and leadership, and I kind of fell in love with the direction they were going. Then it happened quickly–there was a lot of soul-searching with myself and my family. And the negative part of this is Iâ€™m walking away from my alma mater. I’ve been here many, many years, my second family is here in the way of players. In the meantime I was getting my wisdom teeth taken out, so there was a lot of stuff on my plate.
I went back and forth on whether this was the right thing to do. My wife is a professional, sheâ€™s been the director of a large dental office for 31 years, and she was kind of at the end of the trail; you hate to walk away from that income. The Horton family needed a change, we were both very successful, but it was taking its toll on the children and us. Not that this will be any easier for me, but at least one of us gets to put the ball down for a while and concentrate on the family. So there were two factors in this: one was the leadership and family atmosphere I’m joining at University of Oregon. I’m walking away from that here, but it might even be slightly better there because there’s more of them. And two, itâ€™s better for my family.
Q: Has your entire family gotten a chance to visit Eugene now? What did they think?
A: We all went up, my two assistant coaches and their wives. It was my entire family, missing one daughter and grandchildren. They did a fabulous thing, they introduced me in between the first quarter and second quarter of a football game. It explains a little bit of the difference with here, there were 60,000 people at this football game, they gave me a standing ovation when I was introduced, so it was a chilling moment. I shared that moment with Pat Kilkenny. Kudos to Pat–I think it was a two-fold standing ovation. One, they were excited about my name, someone to fight the battle with Oregon State up there, and also recognition for Pat.
Q: You mentioned two assistant coaches. So itâ€™s now official that Andrew Checketts will be your pitching coach?
A: Yes. He’s an incredible hire. I feel so good about this staff we’ve put together, words can’t describe how I feel. I didnâ€™t know him that well, just knew him from competing on the recruiting fronts. He’s even better as a human being, he’s a great kid. I really like his wife, and we had a little bit of a chance to talk. He’s a very, very prepared assistant coach, beyond what I even thought he might be.
Q: So now youâ€™ve got two incredibly talented recruiting coordinators on one coaching staff. Who will handle those duties up in Oregon?
A: That’s part of the deal that’s been intriguing for Andrew as well–that responsibility fell mostly on his shoulders at UCR, which takes him away from his new bride and potential family they wanted to start. And Jason Gill was kind of a one-man recruiter for us. I donâ€™t think we’re going to name a recruiting coordinator, I think Andrew will take the lead, because heâ€™s more electronically gifted than Jason and I put together, so Andrew might be in the lead, but it’ll be a two-fold recruiting coordinator thing. All of us will have to recruit to get this thing going to begin with. Neither one of them will be on the road constantly, I think that was one of the intriguing things for both of them.
Q: When Oregon first announced it was reinstating its baseball program, Kilkenny said the new coach would only have four or five scholarships at his disposal the first year. Weâ€™ve heard that was a major issue in the negotiations. Did you end up getting more than that?
A: That was a big issue for me. Quite frankly, when I first started hearing rumors about the Oregon position, that was not a rumor, that was the truth–they intended to start out slow and stair-step into it. It wasn’t financial consideration, it was more a gender equity issue after they had to drop wrestling. They basically gave me the green light that we could use all 11.7 in the first year, and that was a big thing for me. It would have been ludicrous to accept that job with four scholarships against Pac-10 competition. But it would also be suicidal for a coach to go in and spend 11.7 scholarships the first year, especially now that there’s no transfer rule. They said, â€˜We’re going to give you the keys to the car, Coach, and we’re going to watch what you do and make sure you don’t commit suicide.â€™ Of course, we may offer 11.7 but only get four or five to school. At least it gives us some tools to work with and some bullets to shoot out there.
Q: One of the challenges of this job that you have alluded to is going head to head with Oregon State. Obviously it will be a daunting task, and theyâ€™ve brought in another big recruiting class and show no signs of dropping off anytime soon. Are you excited about going up against those guys?
A: It’s exciting for me only in the case that I like challenges. I commend Coach Casey and his staff, they’ve done a fabulous job. From being in Omaha with Coach Casey and his group, then competing against his group this year, I know they do everything with class. I got a little out of my league in the press conference when I said we intend to dominate the Northwest in recruiting, because that’s obviously going to be difficult. But I think we have enough tools to know that we have no excuse not to be able to compete against them.
The other thing that Coach Casey’s done is, not only with recruiting, which is a big topic for everyone, but their baseball team is a very efficient baseball team. I think they have a lot of characteristics of what we want to try to accomplish.
We’ll see what we can do. I think there’s some fabulous resources there. We expect to be very competitive recruiting the Northwest. The problem for us right now is we’ve gotten a very late start. A lot of â€˜08s have already committed. Our charge will be to see if we can put together a team of guys who will go to school.
Q: Is the funding in place now for the new ballpark?
A: They’ve got a soft commitment for a donor-based group. They think this momentum of announcing the program being resurrected and having a coach will add to the capitol campaign for that. There’s some land issues, political issues, co-op issues. From the chair I sit in, it seems they’ve discussed the amenities we want, got some construction group and advisement group in place. Their commitment is to build a state-of-the-art facility on par with the best in the country. That’s the other exciting thing is you get the chance to put your fingerprints on the stadium as well as building the program from the ground up.
Q: Originally Pat Kilkenny was talking about a ballpark in the $5 million to $10 million range, but now weâ€™re hearing itâ€™ll be more like the $10 million to $15 million range. Is that true?
A: That’s the neat thing about Pat Kilkenny: he doesn’t have a small-scope vision. He knows what he wants, whether it’s hiring George Horton, starting a baseball program, whatever. He knows they want to be the best of the best–that starts with (University of Oregon) President (Dave) Frohnmayer. He’s giving them a lot of leeway to make big expenditures knowing there’s a donor base that will back those expenditures up. They’re not real worried about raising the money, which is refreshing for me. As far as what they’ve told me, there are no limits or parameters. I welcome putting a couple bells and whistles on the facility that they might not have thought of, being unfamiliar with the process of hosting regionals and super-regionals. Their intent is to build if not the finest facility in the country, one of the finest facilities.
Q: Jason Gill and Dave Serrano have said they think Rick Vanderhook should succeed you at Fullerton. Are you lobbying in some way for him to get your old job?
A: As much as I can, on a personal basis with our athletic director and our associate athletic director that supervises baseball, Steve DiTolla, I’ve let it known with them that Rick Vanderhook has 100 percent of my support. I’ve done everything in my power as the ex-baseball coach to promote Rick Vanderhook. This Titans baseball family runs pretty significant, there are a lot of guys that could be successful that are out coaching in other places, but my opinion is it’s a no-brainer. Rick Vanderhook should be the next head baseball coach at Cal State Fullerton, he should be given a three-year contract.
Rick’s been here for 20 years, been here longer than I have, been here during Augie Garrido’s tenure, been here during my tenure. That wasn’t just a token thing making him associate head coach (this year), he does pretty much everything I did with the program.
Q: Was the decision to leave Fullerton even harder knowing how good your incoming freshman class is?
A: Itâ€™s been our best recruiting class in the last couple, three years, and it was very difficult to look those young men in the eye in that meeting before I took the Oregon job, it was a very difficult process with me. Like I told them, they’ll be my team in the spring, I have no team this year, I’ll follow them for the rest of their careers. The relationships I formed with the kids was something that made me bawl like a baby, quite frankly. We did a covert operation, snuck me in there Friday because the media was out there waiting for me and we wanted to wait for Oregon to announce it before saying anything. I felt kind of stupid, sneaking in the back door, and I spent 15, 20 minutes there crying. I told them I just played a role in that program, it was never about George Horton. The program is much bigger than George Horton and Jason Gill. If they’re patient, just like the group in â€˜97 when Augie left and I got a chance, I assured them they’ll still be as successful as if I was the head coach. I just asked them to trust me. This program is just too good and too consistent and too traditional to fall flat on its face just because I’m moving on.
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