Cal State Fullerton head coach George Horton stared skyward and traced the baseball as it sailed through the Nebraska air. The crowd in Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium watched as the tiny white sphere reached its apex and slowly descended, coming to a rest in the glove of Fullerton right fielder Bobby Andrews.
The scoreboard said it all: 3-2 Fullerton over Texas for the 2004 NCAA College World Series title.
Horton bellowed and immediately bear-hugged his closest assistant coach as his players leapt over the dugout railing and dog-piled on the infield. He embraced everyone he could find.
Horton sought out his dad in the stands, his wife, Francie, and their four daughters. And when he finally hoisted the NCAA trophy and passed it back to his overjoyed players, the picture on his face was pure happiness.
“Words can’t describe it,” Horton reflects. “It was the best of the best.”
Six years later, Horton has a cluttered desk stacked high with notebooks, papers and binders in an office at the University of Oregon, where he is now the head coach. A window takes up the entire back wall of the room, overlooking the soccer field. The light illuminates the 56-year-old’s close-cropped, balding grey hair. His trademark mustache isn’t quite as brown as it once was. A wad of Copenhagen chewing tobacco is wedged
between his bottom lip and teeth.
History is everywhere in the office. There’s a picture of Horton shaking hands with former President Bill Clinton after the 1995 College World Series. On the opposite wall hangs a landscape picture of Rosenblatt Stadium and his team celebrating in 2004. Just underneath the picture is the game ball from that special night, autographed by every player on the team.
Those overwhelming moments are dispelled upon engaging the Downey, Calif., native in conversation. His eyes twinkle when talking. A grin is never far from his face. Horton speaks with a bit of gravel in his voice from years of giving orders. He commands an unfathomable amount of respect from his players.
“He used to yell a lot during the games, and he was pretty animated and would get fired up,” said Mike Kirby, a former player for Horton and now assistant coach at Oregon. Kirby tells stories of a younger Horton hurling erasers at snoozing players during team meetings and kicking dirt and pop bottles when displeased in the dugout. “Now he’s more mature and it’s not all about winning. It’s about the relationships and the stuff you build.”
Horton’s championship ring, which rests on his meaty right ring finger, is a reminder of those relationships. It serves as a memento of his biggest legacy — he’s a mentor and teacher to his players as well as a coach.
“Having a parent or a young man thank you after he plays for you and turning him from a young man to a real man is very rewarding,” Horton says.
The road to Omaha
Horton’s story starts much earlier than 2004, when he won his first Division I title as a head coach. It goes back to the end of his playing days in college, when he played outfield for Cal State Fullerton from 1975-1976.
He had transferred from Cerritos College after two years and performed well during his time at Fullerton. But Horton saw the writing on the wall. Although he was a starter on the 1975 team that made it to the College World Series, he knew he would never play professionally.
“I was 5-9, 190 pounds,” Horton says. “Couldn’t run, couldn’t throw. I could hit a little bit. But in this day and age I would be a long shot to play on Division I team … I wasn’t going to play pro ball … I just knew I wasn’t going to play in the major leagues, so I just got on with the rest of my life.”
That talent evaluation was a skill Horton would use time and again over the next 14 years. He worked his way from a volunteer assistant at Cerritos in 1977, to a part-time assistant at Los Angeles Valley College from 1978-1980. He then travelled back to Cerritos
During a large part of the early days of coaching, Horton worked graveyard shifts at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, commuting two hours and getting just two hours of sleep a night. His wife, Francie, was the bread-winner while Horton worked his way up the ranks of coaching, and at times it was tough for the two with four children to worry about.
“Coach has paid his dues,” said Kirby, who tells stories of an old yellow Volkswagen Beetle Horton drove back in the early years, and going to Alaska to coach during the summer and fishing for salmon for his family’s dinner because they didn’t have much money. “To this day, he doesn’t do salmon.”
Then in 1990, an opportunity of a lifetime happened. Cal State Fullerton came calling, with his old coach, mentor and friend Augie Garrido wanting Horton as an associate head coach. Horton didn’t hesitate in taking the job. In 1997, when Garrido left for greener pastures at Texas, Horton became the head coach.
The next 11 years established Horton as one of the nation’s top coaches. The team made appearances at the CWS six times in eight years. In his 11 years at Fullerton, he made it to regional play every year, Super Regionals in seven years and had over 50 playoff wins to his credit. Horton’s 490 wins, two championships and two coach of the year awards stand as a testament to his accomplishments.
Leaving sunny California for the Pacific Northwest
After all the success, Horton was prepared for a bigger challenge, something he could label his own. When Oregon announced it would be reinstating its baseball team, it seemed liked the perfect opportunity. He packed up his family and headed north.
Nonetheless, 2007-2008 was hard for Horton. It’s tough when you’re a coach with no team. The long days were spent behind his desk, going to meetings and recruiting his team.
“I was miserable. I wasn’t a very fun guy to be around. I would go home and yell at my wife for not hitting the cutoff man or not getting bunts down. I didn’t have the release of going out on the field.” Horton says the last part with a laugh, but one can tell the inactivity ate at him.
Things gradually improved for Horton. On Feb. 20, 2009, he coached his first game in two years. But instead of being an immediate success, the year was a horrendous disappointment. The Ducks finished 14-42.
“You see the real coach come out during the losing,” sophomore pitcher Scott McGough said.
“Last year, he didn’t know what to do with us,” sophomore second baseman Danny Pulfer said. “He tried yelling, it didn’t work. He tried going easy, it didn’t work.”
The agony of his name going along with 42 losses was maddening. Although the relationships Horton created with the players strengthened his resolve, the failure ate at him.
“I’d be lying to you if I said the competitive part wasn’t there, because winning is huge,” Horton said. “None of us had a good experience last year because we weren’t winning. The relationship part was still there … but I would be lying to you if I told you I didn’t still have that passion for excellence.”
Today, Horton is in Connecticut. At 7 p.m. EDT, he will stand on the top step of the dugout just like he has for every other game in his career. But this time will be different. It will be the first time in the postseason that he has done so with the Ducks.
In just the second year of the sport at the University, the coach has revived a dead program and made it relevant again. The Ducks finished 38-22 in the regular season, winning 24 more games than a year ago. The feeling is 180 degrees different. His players have finally bought into the winning mantra he’s preached.
“I have such an admiration for the guy,” McGough said. “I don’t want to let h
He’s their leader, an example Oregon will continue to flourish because he not only teaches good baseball, he teaches good life skills.
“I’m not a coach because of money or winning games on its own merit,” Horton said. “I like to coach because I like to develop human beings. I like to work with young men. I like to be around them. It keeps me young. I wake up in the morning looking forward to seeing my team and being around them. That’s what I do, that’s what I like.”