(Note: This article is part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball programs going into the 2011 season. To view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
Several months after being hired in late 2007 to resurrect the long dormant baseball program at the University of Oregon in Eugene, George Horton – the Ducks’ new head coach – sat down for a lengthy Q&A with the Portland (Ore.) Tribune.
Horton had just started assembling a program that after an absence of nearly three decades would put its first team on the field in the spring of 2009. The program’s sparkling new stadium, PK Park, was still a year away from opening its doors.
But Horton had already formulated a timeline for the UO baseball program.
“I don’t want to commit media suicide,” he told the Tribune, “(but) we’ll put green and yellow on 30 athletes, no matter what their names are, and we’ll be competitive right away.
“… It would surprise me if we win the race on this and do it sooner than the third year. (The third year) would mean three (recruiting) classes, the facility up and running for a full year, and I’d be disappointed if we weren’t nationally prominent.”
Horton wasn’t necessarily on target with either of his projections. First off, the Ducks weren’t competitive right away, finishing a disappointing 14-42 (4-23 in the Pac-10 Conference) in 2009.
But it also didn’t take three years for them to become nationally prominent. Oregon finished 40-24 (13-14 Pac-10) in the reinstated program’s second season, and advanced to the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed at the Norwich Regional.
Horton didn’t sound all that surprised his 2010 team won 40 games.
“It was probably more of a case that it surprised me that we were so crummy the first year,” he said during a recent telephone conversation with Perfect Game. “I pride myself on being able to develop baseball teams, and we’re not always held hostage to the level of talent. We’ve had some rosters that were more talented than others, but we always seemed to win our share of games and compete and make frequent trips to Omaha.
“So I didn’t think it would be quite as bad the first year, and I was not surprised but I was pleased with the progress we made in year two.”
Many of his peers more than likely questioned Horton’s sanity when he left national power Cal State Fullerton and the friendly and familiar environs of Southern California to tackle the task of program-building in the Pacific Northwest.
Cal State Fullerton is home to one of the nation’s most elite baseball programs. It was started by Augie Garrido in 1973, and the success he experienced right away was continued by Horton and now by Dave Serrano. In 13 seasons at CS Fullerton, Horton took seven teams to the College World Series and won the national championship in 2004. His record at the school was 490-212-1 (.698) and he was twice named national coach of the year.
Horton grew up in Southern California and graduated from CS Fullerton in 1978. He said everything about the school was “very near and dear” to him, especially the people in the administration and on his immediate staff. He also indicated that although he had achieved phenomenal success at his alma mater, he felt like there was still some unfinished business.
That did not, however, keep him from making the move to Eugene.
“When this opportunity at the University of Oregon presented itself it was very unique, and some of my colleagues had told me that the best times they had in their careers was (starting) a program from scratch,” Horton said.
Former Oregon Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny announced Horton’s hiring as head coach on Sept. 1, 2007. No one in the UO community ever imagined someone with Horton’s stellar resume could be brought on board.
“This is a tremendous day for the University of Oregon,” Kilkenny said on the day of the hire. “Baseball coaches of George Horton’s distinction and ability don’t come along very often, and his decision to come to Eugene speaks volumes about our commitment for Oregon baseball to become successful on a national level.”
Horton liked that UO was a member of the Pac-10 in all the other D-I sports and therefore there would be no waiting period before the Ducks could begin competing for conference championships.
“That ended up being a negative thing the first year because we got our ears pinned back,” Horton said, noting the 4-23 league campaign.
There are going to be challenges to overcome whether a coach is trying to start a program from scratch or trying to maintain a level of excellence at one that is already established. Expectations are obviously different, as are fan-bases (or lack thereof) and community support.
In UO’s case, the last players to put on baseball uniforms representing the university before 2009 did so in 1981. That’s a 28-year stretch where no tradition was established.
“We had an alumni game and there were a bunch of old guys like me out there running around trying to play,” Horton said with a chuckle. “And we don’t have a clientele playing in the Major Leagues, and it’s just a different set of fans and supporters you’re trying to please.”
Horton and his family have settled into the culture – some would say counterculture – of Eugene, Ore., nicely. The tree-filled UO campus is near the Cascade Mountains, the Pacific Ocean and the scenic Willamette River, and is within a two-hour drive of big-city Portland.
The support the university’s athletic teams receive from the entire region is phenomenal, even if it is shared with Oregon State University, located about 45 miles away in Corvallis. There seems to be enough enthusiasm to go around.
“The energy in the state of Oregon toward Oregon athletics and Oregon State athletics and the other institutions is unparalleled,” Horton said. “The support and the donors and the fan-base are unbelievable, and the fact that you’re on the news and on the front page of the sports section when you do something special is different and unique.”
The success the Oregon football team has enjoyed over the past several years has been beneficial to every aspect of the university. It’s given the university and its mascot, the “Oregon Duck,” a national identity and a national fan following.
“We continue to thank Coach (Chip) Kelly for creating the buzz and the excitement, and the Duck being on ESPN all the time, and the effort here from our marketing people is really (unmatched),” Horton said.
Horton spoke with admiration of Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight, a 1959 UO graduate and the school’s most prominent and prolific donor. It is widely believed that PK Park is named for Knight, but the official line is that it is named for former UO athletic director Pat Kilkenny, the man who reinstated the baseball program and led the stadium’s fund-raising drive.
But make no mistake, any conversation about Oregon’s athletic facilities revolves around Knight, and Horton is grateful for the Nike founder’s contributions.
“We’ve got great people, but none greater than Mr. Knight himself, who’s here today pulling faxes off the fax machine. He’s not just a donor, he’s way involved,” Horton said. “He’s second-to-none and a marketing genius, not only for athletic apparel but for an athletic department in general. Having him as a colleague to all of us has been a huge blessing for the University of Oregon.”
The Ducks head into the 2011 baseball season – which kicks off with four games against the University of Hawaii in Honolulu Feb. 18-21 – with very high expectations. Perfect Game has them ranked 10th in its preseason poll and they have shown up in quite a few other preseason top-10s as well.
“I don’t know if we’ve earned a top 10 or a top 15 type of ranking yet because I’m the kind of coach who likes to earn things on the field. We like to earn it the old fashioned way,” Horton said. “We welcome the respect that we’re getting … but then I watch our team practice, and I know comparing them to other teams that I’ve coached, we’ve got a ways to go to earn that.
“We’re encouraged, we expect to be good and we welcome the respect that we’re getting, but I still think we have to roll up our sleeves and get after it to earn that.”
The Ducks will be led by the return of a strong group of juniors who, like Horton, are in their third year in the program. Four of those juniors are pitchers, including lefty Tyler Anderson, a preseason NCBWA All-American who was 7-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 16 starts (17 appearances), and 105 strikeouts and just 33 walks in 102.2 innings in 2010.
Junior right-handers Madison Boer (3-1, 2.44 ERA) and Scott McGough (5-2, 2.45) combined for 48 appearances in 2010, with a combined nine saves and 106 strikeouts in 110 innings. Oregon’s strength in 2011 will definitely lie in its pitching staff.
Junior infielders KC Serna (.348, 5 HRs, 37 RBIs, 45 runs, 14 SBs) and Danny Pulfer (.300, 3 HRs, 38 RBIs, 47 runs) head the list of returning position players.
The Ducks will also be helped by a second straight nationally recognized recruiting class, a group of 13 that includes seven players who were taken in the Draft but who all decided to remain loyal to the college commitment.
Horton recruits nationally out of necessity and is especially aggressive in California. Twenty-four of the 35 players on an early 2011 roster hailed from California, including 10 of his freshmen.
It’s Year 3 of the Horton regime at UO. It’s an important season for a program still looking to prove it belongs among the nation’s elite.
“We have no excuse now. We’re not a new program. We have juniors and seniors who have been around, and whatever we do now, this year and from here on out, will be on a level playing field with every other program in the nation,” Horton said.
“In the first two years we could always hang on our hat on that we’re a brand new program and we’re not supposed to win and we’re not supposed to go to Omaha. No longer can we say that. We expect to go to Omaha this year and compete for a national championship.”
What follows is a list of players on the 2011 University of Oregon roster who either participated in Perfect Game events or created a Perfect Game profile while still in high school. Click on a player’s name to view his complete PG profile.
J.J. Altobelli – PG Rising Jrs. National/PG WWBA
Madison Boer – PG P-C Indoor/PG Minnesota State/PG WWBA
Porter Clayton – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Paul Eshleman – PG BCS
Kyle Garlick – PG National Upperclass/PG California Underclass/PG WWBA
Dylan Gavin – PG NorCal Underclass
Jeff Gold– PG WC Top Prospect/PG NorCal Underclass
Ryan Hambright – PG WC Top Prospect/PG WWBA
Connor Hofmann – PG Sunshine West/PG WWBA
Joey Housey – PG Sunshine East/PG WWBA
Aaron Jones– PG National Upperclass
Christian Jones –PG National Showcase/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Mitch Karraker – PG WWBA
Alex Keudell – PG Sunshine West
Tyler Kuresa – PG National Showcase
Jack Marder – PG WWBA
Scott McGough – PG WWBA
Danny Pulfer – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Stefan Sabol – Aflac All American Classic/PG National/PG Showcase at Aflac/PG WWBA
Jimmie Sherfy – PG WWBA
Brando Tessar – PG National Underclass/PG BCS
Nick Wagner – PG WWBA/PG BCS