SoCal Dominoes

George Horton's departure from Fullerton set off coaching domino effect

Feb. 12, 2008

By Douglas Kroll


Doug Kroll is an editor for, focusing on baseball.

The next time Oregon's George Horton, UC Irvine's Mike Gillespie and Fullerton's Dave Serrano see each other at the annual ABCA convention; it'd be fitting if the three sat down for a game of dominoes.


Not that any of the coaches boasts playing the game in their spare time, but early September saw a huge game pop up in Southern California. All thanks to Horton's departure from Cal State Fullerton to start an Oregon program from scratch after not having baseball since 1981.


It went something like this:

Sept. 1: Oregon names Horton head coach

Sept. 7: Fullerton hires Serrano away from Big West rival UC Irvine

Oct. 8: Anteaters hire former USC coach Mike Gillespie

Oct. 9: Gillespie names Pat Shine, the head coach at D-II Cal State-L.A., as assistant


It was a 40 day period that gave a program that dropped baseball 27 years before instant credibility, and left coaching changes that reached down to Division II. It was a span that the coaches themselves say, happened real fast.


The biggest question Horton gets on why he started the domino effect is a pretty simple one: Why would you leave a program that is basically in Omaha every season to deal with the headache of starting a program from nothing?


There are a few answers to that question.



There's the dream of building something from nothing that every coach has. There's the money factor thanks to Nike's funding of the Ducks program. And there's the family factor. All three clicked at the right time for a coach that won the 2004 national championship and made the NCAA Tournament in all 11 of his seasons at the helm of the Titans.


"A lot of people thought `Oh why the heck would he leave Cal State Fullerton when he's been so successful there and is from there, and is a place he went to school,' so it was a unique situation for me to be sitting in a leadership chair in a place that I was very fond of as a player, and worked as an assistant coach," Horton said. "So it had to be something that was exciting and brand new, and of course with the energy up here at the University of Oregon and all the things we got going, and with Nike, there were just a lot of things that made the stars align, and it just made a lot of sense to tackle this type of challenge.


"But I'll be following Fullerton until the day I die."


Leaving is always the hardest part. Leaving the athletes that became a second family, the place that is home and where he was a player and an assistant was bitter. But there's a sweet part to the bittersweet taste that was left in Horton's mouth upon the move to Eugene.


And it largely had to do with his good friend, Serrano.


"I'm very proud of coach Serrano," Horton said. "He was very successful at Irvine, a little too successful from the chair I sat in [laughing], since they eliminated us [in Omaha last season]. I think he's making a statement now that George Horton reaped the rewards of him being on one of the better young staffs in the country. It was just a matter of time before he moved on and got his own program to start using the things that we learned together at Fullerton."


It came as a surprise to some when Serrano was hired by the rival Titans. Not because he didn't have the track record. After all, he'd been an assistant with Fullerton under Horton from 1997-2004 before taking over the Irvine program. And then there's that whole trip to the College World Series last season when they became the darlings of Omaha.

The direction the school decided to go in instead of hiring longtime assistant Rick Vanderhook, a person that Serrano himself endorsed for the job when he denied wanting anything to do with the opening, left the Anteaters scrambling without a head coach that had built a program into a College World Series team in only four years.


It just all happened so quick.


"It took some time to get acquainted with our surroundings," Serrano said of the transition back to Fullerton. "It's gone a lot smoother now than before since there were so many emotions involved, and it does feel like home again.


"It all happened faster than people can ever imagine. It was like a blur when decisions had to be made quickly and that was the unfortunate part of the whole situation. I think it ended up well with everyone in good hands."


Again, leaving the athletes behind wasn't easy. Especially because of the emotional run the `Eaters went on in 2007. But, there was a right man for the job.


Enter Gillespie. He is known for his 20 years as head coach at USC, in which the Trojans made the postseason in 15 of those years. He took over that program from legendary coach Rod Dedeaux and became only the second man to ever win one baseball championship as a player and one as a coach when he guided the Trojans to the 1998 title.


This transition is slightly different than when he took over USC in 1987.


"When I went to USC I didn't feel like I was naïve, but I probably didn't fully appreciate the reality of what that situation was going to be," Gillespie said. "Here, I fully know what the situation is going to be. They've had this taste and expectations are high. I like that. They want a program that they can consistently be proud of, and so do we."


Gillespie spent last season coaching the Staten Island Yankees (Single-A affiliate), and was set to come back to California as an assistant at LMU before the Irvine job became vacant. And he couldn't be happier.


"It hasn't been too difficult since it's something I've done my whole life," Gillespie said. "At least the baseball part hasn't been. George is one of the very, very, very good guys in the game and no one could have expected everything that happened. It all happened quite suddenly and abruptly. It was a pretty interesting couple of weeks."


While Gillespie, Serrano and Shine all have begun practice in the recent weeks, Horton won't be filling out lineup cards or making pitching changes until 2009 when the Ducks begin their first season in the Pac-10. Only a couple of Oregon baseball players are even on campus.


But that doesn't mean he's not busy. Everything you can ever think of that goes into a baseball program has to be drawn out. It's something that comes with the territory.


"It feels very unusual for me not to be out on a practice field or not going over scouting reports or travel plans and different thinks like that," Horton said. "But that void in my life has been filled with a lot of meetings, a lot of discussions and a lot of processes."


The stars were aligned for those 40 days. No one could have predicted the way things fell into place. This was one game of dominoes that happened real fast, and for the Anteaters, Titans and Ducks, it'll be one they remember for a long, long time.  

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