Image credit: Garrido during his years at Illinois (Photo courtesy of Illinois)
Augie Garrido is indisputably the greatest coach in the history of Cal State Fullerton baseball and has more to do with turning that program into one of the most successful in history than anyone else.
He’s in the conversation at Texas, too, where he stands alongside fellow legends in Bibb Falk and Cliff Gustafson as reasons why the Longhorns have been among the sport’s elite since the 1940s.
Those stories are well known. What’s less known in Garrido’s distinguished career is the tale of his mid-career jaunt to Illinois, where in his introductory press conference, Garrido used the metaphor that he was looking forward to building a new race car after having won the race twice at Fullerton.
Garrido, who died in 2018, was only in Champaign from 1988-90, but in those three years, he managed to take the Illini to two regionals, which was the team’s best stretch of baseball since the 1960s.
From the outside looking in, it was a strange fit. Garrido was a Californian through and through. He grew up in Vallejo, played at Fresno State, coached in the California high school ranks, got his start in college coaching at San Francisco State and moved on to Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton after that. Even his final coaching stop at Texas makes more sense, given the Longhorns’ prominence in college sports and especially in baseball.
Illinois doesn’t fit any of those molds. When Garrido arrived in 1988, Illinois had not made the NCAA Tournament in 25 years. It was coming off a 32-24 season in 1987 that saw it miss the Big Ten Tournament for the fourth time in five years.
So, to say it was a coup for the Illini to bring in a coach who already had two national titles to his name would be a huge understatement.
“I just think there was quite a buzz,” said Dave Loane, who covered the Illini as a radio reporter before serving as the play-by-play voice of Illini baseball from 1989 until his retirement in 2019. “People were (like), ‘Hmm, they’re going to make a go at this baseball thing.’ ”
The fit looks a little better, though, when you dive into the details surrounding the move.
Garrido’s total compensation at Illinois was reportedly more than $100,000, a significant sum for a college baseball coach in the late 1980s at a program with relatively little history of competing nationally.
Garrido and Fullerton were also perpetually locked in a lovers’ quarrel of sorts, most notably about the potential construction of a new baseball facility, and perhaps it was just time for the parties to take a break from each other.
Most importantly, though, he had a friend in Champaign in athletic director Neale Stoner, whom he had previously worked with at Fullerton and Cal Poly. Stoner sold Garrido on a vision for Illinois baseball, one that had to be fairly easy to believe at the time, given that the Illini had just opened up new Proano Stadium (now known as Illinois Field) and the athletic department had seemingly pulled out all of the stops in setting the stage for the baseball team to be a player on the national stage.
The connection between Stoner and Garrido was strong enough that a reunion was actually being discussed by the two sides before the job at Illinois even came open.
Bill Kernen was an assistant under Garrido at Fullerton from 1978-82, rejoined the staff for the 1987 season, and then, in large part out of his respect for his boss, turned down the chance to be the head coach at Fullerton in order to follow him to Illinois. He remembers hearing about an arrangement with Illinois when Garrido was trying to talk him into coming back to Fullerton ahead of the 1987 season.
“I knew going in when I came back with him that the Illinois thing was in the works, because the athletic director that we had at Fullerton got the AD job at Illinois, Neale Stoner,” Kernen said. “So that was all in the works.”
Of course, even with all of that making his transition from the West Coast to the Midwest easy, that’s not to say that there weren’t days when the partnership between Garrido and Illinois still felt like a square peg in a round hole.
Former Illini beat writer Jeff Huth, who covered the program for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette from 1981-2014, remembers a day in the early spring that must have made Garrido feel like he and Illinois made for a particularly bad fit.
“I recall one time during his first year here where I had interviews scheduled at the Illinois Field clubhouse,” Huth wrote in an email. “When I approached the glass-door entrance, Garrido was standing there, looking out. He had an unhappy expression. Or at least kind of a grim look. At the time, snow flurries were falling. The transition from winter to spring in the Midwest is always a tug of war, and winter was winning that day.
“When I entered, he said, and I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t recall the exact words, but it was something like ‘They tell me this is unusual for now. Is that true?’ I forget my response, but it was probably yes. Really didn’t matter. It was dawning on Garrido pretty quickly that Midwest weather really impacted college baseball programs, sometimes well into April. Impacted practices. Impacted games.”
Despite that, on-field, success came relatively quickly. Garrido’s first Illinois team got off to a strong start, but with the desired talent and depth not quite there yet, they faded down the stretch and finished 26-20 and in seventh place in the Big Ten.
Things changed in 1989, and not just in terms of results. The entire makeup of the roster did as well. In 1988, all but six players on the roster were from Illinois, and only two of those six were from outside the Midwest. In 1989, nine players from California arrived, helping make the roster about half players from Illinois and half players from elsewhere.
“We go in there, and I’m not too sure about who’s in Illinois yet (among recruits), and there’s no way to find out because nobody plays until May,” said Kernen, who served as recruiting coordinator. “I can’t wait until May to set my recruiting, and so I would go up to Chicago and I’d watch guys in (batting) cages, and I’m going, ‘Augie, I’ve got to make some other moves here. There’s some good players, definitely, but there’s no way for me to really tell if they can play or not. They never play games or anything.’
“I ended up bringing in guys from California, and I’m talking about almost all of them from California.”
Fortunately for Illinois, the new blood that arrived for the 1989 season, led by Riverside, Calif., native Charles “Bubba” Smith, a two-way player who won Big Ten player of the year and freshman of the year honors that season, energized the Illini. They finished tied for second in the Big Ten standings and won the Big Ten Tournament, clinching their first postseason appearance since 1963.
In 1990, they were just as good, tying for second in the Big Ten and winning the Big Ten Tournament again, this time led by conference player of the year Mark Dalesandro, a senior holdover player from Chicago who went on to play in the big leagues with the Angels, Blue Jays and White Sox.
Not surprisingly, along the way, Garrido created an extremely competitive environment within the team. Every game, even those sleepy midweek games where some coaches might be inclined to get younger guys innings or at-bats, were played with intensity. His players mirrored that attitude.
“When Bubba Smith broke his left wrist his sophomore year, he still attempted to pitch, doing a Jim Abbott-like maneuver, switching the glove to his right hand after delivering a pitch,” Huth said. “Certainly, Garrido fostered a culture of competitive toughness.”
After the 1989 and 1990 seasons, it looked like Garrido and the Illini were going to make for a beautiful relationship after all. They were winning games, developing stars and after relying on recruits from the West Coast early on, the coaching staff had successfully started to pivot their recruiting strategy to look for key players in their own neighborhood.
“Garrido did follow through on his stated plans to eventually make Illinois and (the) Midwest the primary recruiting territory for his UI program,” Huth said. “His biggest get was Scott Spiezio. A really big get. That had to have gotten the attention of other upcoming state of Illinois talent.”
But we’ll never know where things would have gone from there for Garrido in Champaign because in the background, events were conspiring to keep him from truly becoming entrenched at the university.
The first crack in the foundation of the relationship was Stoner resigning in the summer of 1988 amid allegations of misuse of university funds and labor. A year after arriving at Illinois, Garrido lost his biggest advocate.
Stoner got Garrido to the Midwest in large part thanks to assurances that the program would be supported at extremely high levels, and perhaps Garrido wasn’t ready to have to fight battles for support all over again with a new administration.
In fact, doubts had crept in about that very thing as far back as 1988. In July of that year, just weeks after Stoner resigned, Garrido admitted to Los Angeles Times reporter Gene Wojciehowski that the stray thought had crossed his mind that he wished he stayed at Fullerton rather than come to Illinois only to have his biggest supporter, in his mind, get run off.
“I’d be less than honest with you if I denied that,” Garrido told Wojciehowski. “I was angry about why it happened, how it happened and who it happened to. That was my first emotional response. I got angry and I thought it was very unfair, extremely unfair. That was a reaction.”
And then there was the weather, which no man, not even a college baseball force of nature like Garrido, could change. As any coach in the Midwest can tell you, adverse weather well into the season just makes everything a little bit tougher.
Add it all up, and perhaps Garrido saw the hill to develop Illinois into a national title contender as simply too steep to climb, or at the very least, steeper than he was willing to climb when other opportunities were presented.
Specifically, the Fullerton job opened at the end of the 1990 season after Larry Cochell, Garrido’s successor, departed for Oklahoma, and, making the deal sweeter for a potential return, a new baseball complex for Cal State Fullerton had been approved during the years while Garrido was in the Midwest.
Garrido would be giving up some things by leaving Illinois. He would be leaving a prestigious academic institution and the resources that come with that, something he lamented not having while coaching at a Cal State school in the shadow of schools in the more academic-minded University of California system.
He would also be giving up, to recycle the metaphor from when he arrived in Champaign, the construction of his new race car and the dream of bringing Illinois baseball to new heights.
But in the end, Garrido likely decided that it was worth moving on in order to go home. With a new facility in the works and the job open, the latter of which couldn’t be guaranteed to happen again anytime soon, it might have been his last best chance to reconcile with the school he left after 1987.
“He saw the writing on the wall a little bit in Illinois with Neale gone, and I think the weather and some of that stuff probably started wearing on him a little bit too, and he just felt like he needed to get back now that the conditions were so much improved back at Fullerton,” Kernen said.
Certainly, Garrido sounded content with his decision immediately after agreeing to terms with Fullerton.
“I’m a very happy man,” he told the Los Angeles Times in August 1990. “This is my home, and I’m happy to be relocating to the area where my family is. I have deep feelings about the whole thing.”
In the same article, Garrido also admits the idea of not having to do quite so much heavy lifting in fundraising was enticing. In his previous stint at the school, he had been charged with raising $100,000 each year and he felt solely responsible for keeping the program afloat.
This new arrangement, though, called for Garrido to do less fundraising for day-to-day expenses in the program and for him to receive a $10,000 salary supplement each year from the athletic department’s fundraising pool.
“Their commitment to roll up their sleeves and get in there and help with the fundraising makes a big difference,” Garrido said. “Doing it all by yourself gets old.”
Perhaps Illinois didn’t transform into a national title contender, but two postseason appearances in three years after more than two decades of being on the outside looking in is quite an achievement in its own right, and Garrido’s .661 winning percentage is the best for any Illini coach going back to 1934.
And yet, his Illinois years are entirely forgettable on two fronts. For Garrido personally, his time with the Illini pales in comparison to his national title-winning stints at Fullerton and Texas, and for Illinois, Garrido’s tenure will never be remembered as fondly as those of Itch Jones and Dan Hartleb, the two Illini institutions that succeeded him.
Such is the nature of his impressive but incredibly brief time in Champaign.
“It’s been years since I’ve been asked how to sum up Garrido’s time at the UI, but when the topic came up way back when, I’d always compare it to a shooting star,” Huth said. “Like a shooting star, he burned extremely bright, but then was soon gone.
“You had to look quick.”