George Horton is a house sale away from being officially out of Eugene.
A dozen years after leaving his native Southern California to start up the baseball program at Oregon, Horton has returned home. The summer recruiting schedule of a college baseball coach has been replaced with babysitting grandchildren and planning an annual family trip to Big Bear Lake.
With as many ties as anyone in college baseball, Horton was called as a reference by some athletic directors during the recent coaching carousel that featured a few of his former assistants getting new jobs. Horton acknowledged that the number of openings in Southern California forced him to decide just how quickly he wanted to try and get back into the game.
“I had some people reach out to me and ask me to be part of their program, but I don’t know,” Horton said Monday during an interview with The Register-Guard. “I’m still regrouping, reassessing, and I don’t want this to be a rash, emotional decision. I’d say I will get back into baseball in some shape or form, if not this year then maybe the year after.”
In the first two months following a mutual agreement between Horton and Oregon to end his run as coach, Horton delayed a couple of media interview requests. He was bothered by the negativity he felt near the end of his tenure while trying to figure out what was next for a 65-year old who has spent the past 42 years coaching college baseball.
This week, Horton spent nearly 30 minutes reflecting back on his time with the Ducks, thanking Pat Kilkenny, Phil Knight and the others who brought him to town while expressing no bitterness about his exit. The coach looked back from the beginning of his tenure to end with highs and lows in between, including two words that still hurt to this day.
“Every time I hear Kent State, it gets me right back in the same disappointment,” he said.
Horton’s Ducks peaked in 2012 when they earned a No. 5 overall seed into the NCAA postseason and won a regional at PK Park to host a Super Regional against the Golden Flashes, a surprising winner of the Purdue Regional as a third seed. The best-of-three series went the distance before Kent State got a bloop double in the ninth inning for a 3-2 win in the deciding game.
“Whenever we hosted at Fullerton, all but one year we went to Omaha,” Horton said. “Kent State, no offense, but that is not one of those who’s who teams of college baseball, but it was a hot team and what a great accomplishment to get to Omaha. As I think back to some of the teams we had to beat at Fullerton to get to Omaha, to not get that done. ... Maybe we were a foot away in the first game from J.J. Altobelli’s shot with the bases loaded going over the center fielder’s head. We lost a ball in the sun in the deciding game. You put your palms up and go ‘Why did that happen?’ We did not accomplish it and maybe that could have changed some of the dynamics and some things in recruiting.”
The rise of Oregon baseball was quicker than most observers imagined, but that’s exactly why Kilkenny hired Horton away from Cal State Fullerton where he made five trips to the College World Series, including a title run in 2004. Five postseason appearances in the first seven years at UO raised expectations that were not met during the final four seasons when the Ducks finished in the bottom half of the Pac-12 each year.
“Two things probably worked against us at the end of the day,” Horton said. “We had one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA history from year one to two, we went from being awful to making the playoffs. We were a national seed twice in the first five years. Add in the fact that the Beavers were doing well in that 11-year span and doing extremely well in the last four or five years. There were expectations and then ‘Why can’t you continue to do this?’
“I don’t have the answer because otherwise we would have done it. We just came up short the last four years. We had good players who may play in the big leagues and some nuggets out of the disappointment, but you are measured in wins and losses and I understand that ... That string of not making the playoffs is as much a mystery for me as anyone else, but it was not for a lack of effort.”
Horton was hired in the fall of 2007 and picked assistants Andrew Checketts and Jason Gill, who are now the head coaches at UC Santa Barbara and USC, respectively. It would be nearly 17 months before Horton could coach a game as his immediate priorities were on recruiting and the administrative duties of starting a program and building a stadium.
“That was a difficult, but rewarding year and I knew it was part of the process,” he said. “As Pat Kilkenny said, we didn’t have a jock strap, a mitt, a baseball or a field. We didn’t even know where the field was going to be when I said ‘Yes’.”
PK Park was still under construction in 2009 when Oregon played its first home series in 28 years by taking two of three games from defending NCAA champion Fresno State for the highlight of a 14-42 season. Pitcher Scott McGough from that team became the first modern Duck to reach the major leagues and pitcher Tyler Anderson developed into a first-round pick of the Colorado Rockies.
When outfielder Scott Heineman joined the Texas Rangers last week, he became the eighth player from Horton’s program to reach the majors.
Oregon won 40 games and reached a regional during Horton’s second season and went on to make the postseason each year from 2012-15. Oregon never won more than 30 games in Horton’s final four seasons.
Horton noted some player defections, as pitchers James Acuna and Isaiah Carranza joined infielders Travis Moniot, Morgan McCullough and Matt Kroon as players who were selected in the MLB Draft after transferring from Oregon. Matthew Dyer left for Arizona following his freshman season and batted .393 last year for the Wildcats.
UO began last season with optimism based largely on having two of the nation’s top starters, but Kenyon Yovan pitched two innings before suffering a season-ending hand injury and Ryne Nelson had an early-season heel injury that sent him to the bullpen.
“That puts a hole in things and you fight an uphill battle,” Horton said of the transfers and injuries. “We were short on talent, we couldn’t match up with some of the programs in the Pac-12 in terms of success and the dynamics of what we were doing. I took the blame for that because I am the head coach, but I did not forget how to coach the last four years. In some areas, we did a better job of coaching and were not rewarded with wins.”
Horton was replaced by his former assistant, Mark Wasikowski, who hired ex-UO player Jack Marder as an assistant. Wasikowski called Horton after he was hired and spoke during his introductory press conference about trying to finish Horton’s goal of getting the Ducks to Omaha.
“I wish Waz luck and know my relationship with him and Marder will always be there for a lifetime,” Horton said.
Wasikowski joins Checketts, Gill and new New Mexico State coach Mike Kirby as former UO assistants now leading a program. All three of Horton’s assistants from last season got hired at different schools for next year.
“At the end of the day, it is more lifetime things than your win-loss record,” Horton said. “The relationships with coaches and players, you get invited to weddings and funerals and see guys walk down the commencement aisle. I hope the impact we made upon them as human beings, community members and students is more long-lasting than the wins and losses. ... As I look back on my legacy as a coach, one of the things I am most proud of is the doctors and lawyers and successful businessmen. That’s not a trophy or a ring, but it is what we do in coaching. The impact you make on somebody’s life as a teacher or coach far outreaches other industries.”
Horton said he would consider options to return to baseball at the pro or college level or maybe work again with USA Baseball where he was the head coach of the Collegiate National Team in 2016 and an assistant in 2012. He spoke out in frustration this year when the NCAA did not approve a third full-time assistant for baseball and noted other changes to the sport that have made it tougher to coach in college.
“Some of the bureaucratic things like scholarships, agents and travel ball,” Horton said. “Having 11.7 scholarships for 35 players on the roster is the worst in the NCAA. You become a GM, a negotiator, a guy that is not giving families what they need to be successful academically and some of that is frustrating.”
Having coached 36 players who reached the majors, Horton has plenty of contacts in the pros, but said he would not be interested in coaching in the minor leagues.
“In pro ball, you take guys and try to develop them, but the thing I don’t like is it isn’t about winning except at the major-league level,” he said. “I’d have a tough time with that. With all the analysts and metrics and bench coaches and the extra positions that have been created for a major-league team, I would love to do pro ball, but it would have to be at the major-league level. Not everyone gets to start at the top, but I know enough people in major-league dugouts that I might be able to help out if that opportunity would arise.”
Horton has been inducted into the California Community College Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and was similarly honored by his alma maters, Downey High School and Cal State Fullerton. With 863 Division I wins, including a College World Series title, he could become a candidate for the College Baseball Hall of Fame as well.
Horton departed Eugene hoping he left a legacy behind for the sport that he spent a dozen years building with the Ducks.
“Bringing another Division I baseball team to Oregon did nothing but good for the youth of Lane County,” he said. “Extra clinics and hitting lessons created opportunities for moms and dads to get out with their kids to play baseball. It is not something measured, but if you ask Little League people, Oregon was good for the youth of Eugene and the sport of baseball. Nothing against Civic Stadium, but building PK Park and having it be a first-rate facility made it more comfortable for everyone to go to Ems games. Bringing baseball back to Oregon was a positive thing in Lane County for all those reasons.”