Cal State Fullerton Baseball Coaching Search, Job Profile And Candidates
Cal State Fullerton on June 4 announced head coach Rick Vanderhook is stepping down as head coach immediately and will retire Dec. 30 of this year, serving until then as a special assistant to athletic director Jim Donovan.
The move brings an end to a 10-year tenure for Vanderhook in the role that saw the Titans put up a 322-225 record, win five Big West championships, reach seven NCAA Tournaments and reach the College World Series in 2015 and 2017.
It also brings an end to a long and distinguished career for Vanderhook at Fullerton. In addition to his years as head coach, he spent a total of 21 years over two different stints as an assistant with the program, serving on the staffs of national title-winning teams in 1995 and 2004.
Vanderhook was the most recent Fullerton coach that draws a direct link back to Augie Garrido’s time with the Titans. He, like Dave Serrano and George Horton before him, played for Garrido and then went on to coach under him.
Cal State Fullerton is a name brand in college baseball, but it’s undeniable that it hasn’t felt that way in at least a few years. In 2019, a streak of 27 consecutive postseason appearances came to an end. That season also brought an end to a streak of 44 straight seasons of at least 30 wins. And whether you count last season’s abbreviated season, which ended with a 4-12 record, or look at this season, when the Titans went 20-35, they just suffered the first losing season in the history of the program.
Fullerton has had plenty of blue chip prospects through the years, and MLB rosters are littered with Titans, but its best teams have historically been filled with overlooked recruits from within the state that blossomed into stars over three or four years.
Lately, Fullerton has had seemingly fewer and fewer of both, and the next coach will be tasked with reversing that trend.
Previous Head Coach
Rick Vanderhook: 322-225, 10 seasons
Cal State Fullerton is a job where the history of the program is held dear by those who care about it, but that history cuts both ways in today’s college baseball. On the one hand, it’s because of that history that Fullerton still holds a prominent place in college baseball and it’s a selling point in recruiting, but it can’t be ignored that a great deal of the success that made the Titans a household name came in a very different college baseball environment. Specifically, its four national championships all came at a time before power conference money was pouring into baseball the way it is today, and as a result, came before much of the facilities boom that we’ve seen around the country in recent years. Despite all of its history, Fullerton traditionally hasn’t been able to keep up with its Pac-12 competition in terms of facilities and resources, much less its counterparts in leagues like the SEC, and that makes this job tougher than it might seem on its face given the national name recognition.
Do they stay within the Fullerton family?
Cal State Fullerton is a place where being part of the family is valued a great deal, as evidenced by the Garrido - Horton - Serrano - Vanderhook coaching lineage. But through the years, the coaching staff has been so insular that there isn’t a wide-reaching coaching tree out there like you might expect. Also, perhaps the most notable coach off the Fullerton tree, Texas Christian pitching coach Kirk Saarloos, has advanced to a place in his career where he now has more lucrative opportunities than going back to Fullerton. There are some good choices out there with Fullerton experience on their resume, but given that the program might be entering a period of reinvention, maybe a fresh voice wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Will there be additional investment?
Financial investment is the elephant in the room when it comes to Fullerton baseball. Goodwin Field is a fine facility with a ton of history, but it doesn’t stack up to the facilities used by the kinds of programs that Cal State Fullerton compares itself with nationally. The same can be said of coaching salaries. For many reasons, not the least of which being conference affiliation, it’s unrealistic to expect Fullerton to ever become a giant in the sport financially, but perhaps the jarring sight of the school’s flagship sports team floundering the way it did in 2021 will change some things about the way the administration supports it.
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While it’s natural to look to Texas Christian pitching coach Kirk Saarloos as a candidate—he both played and coached at Fullerton—don’t expect him to take the job. He’s in a comfortable role now and should Jim Schlossnagle move on—he’s in the mix for both the openings at Louisiana State and Texas A&M—Saarloos, 42, would be a leading contender to take over at TCU.
TCU associate head coach Bill Mosiello might be more inclined to return to Fullerton, where he was an assistant coach under Garrido from 1991-92. Like Saarloos, Mosiello, 56, is in a good spot and would be in the mix for the TCU job should Schlossnagle move on. But he’s 14 years older than Saarloos and the chance to take over a prominent program might be tempting.
Cal State Northridge’s Dave Serrano certainly knows what it takes to win at Fullerton. He was the head coach of the Titans from 2008-11 and in four seasons he won 175 games, led them to Omaha once and super regionals two other times and won three Big West titles. He left after the 2011 season to take over at Tennessee and while that didn’t go well—the Volunteers did not make the NCAA Tournament during his six years—he’s still capable of winning big. Serrano, 56, also took UC Irvine to the CWS in 2007 and this year led CSUN to a fourth-place finish in the Big West in his second season—without fall ball or a non-conference slate. (Note: Serrano also worked at Baseball America as a college baseball analyst for the 2019 season.)
George Horton would be another back to the future move for the Titans. He was Fullerton’s head coach from 1997-2007 and won the 2004 national championship. He then left to restart the program at Oregon, which he took to the NCAA Tournament five times. Things slipped at the end of his tenure in Eugene and the Ducks had losing records in each of his last two seasons (2018-19). After his tenure at Oregon ended in 2019, he in 2020 stepped in as head coach at Orange Coast (Calif.) JC following the tragic death of John Altobelli and he now is a player personnel consultant for Missoula, in the Pioneer League. Horton, 67, is a figure the program can rally around and be expected to right the ship.
Utah associate head coach Gary Henderson is in the mix for the head job at Utah following Bill Kinneberg’s retirement. But, if he doesn’t get it, he would be a good candidate for Fullerton. He coached there for one year (1989), but, more to the point, he’s a proven head coach. Henderson, 60, was head coach at Kentucky from 2009-2016 and served as interim head coach for most of 2018 at Mississippi State, leading the Bulldogs to the College World Series.
East Carolina pitching coach Jason Dietrich and Southern California pitching coach Ted Silva both have solid resumes for the job. Dietrich, 48, was Fullerton’s pitching coach from 2013-16 and then served in the same role under Horton at Oregon from 2017-19, and has a long track record of success. Silva, 46, was the winning pitcher in the 1995 national championship game for Fullerton and then spent two years as an assistant for his alma mater from 2005-06, before going to coach at Fresno State, UC Irvine, Loyola Marymount, Nebraska and now USC.
Nevada’s T.J. Bruce checks a lot of boxes. He this season led the Wolfpack to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000 and to their second Mountain West title in four years. He previously served as recruiting coordinator at UCLA and was a part of the Bruins’ 2013 national championship. But Bruce, 39, played and coached at Long Beach State. Would Fullerton not only leave the family, but also hire a Dirtbag?