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Garrido Tries to Recapture Lone-Star Status at Texas

May 09, 1997|LON EUBANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas — Augie Garrido looks a little out of place deep in the heart of Billy Bob-twang country, standing in front of the Texas dugout at Disch-Falk Field when they play "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You."

Except for those three years he was away at Illinois, Garrido has nearly always been a Californian, the bon vivant baseball coach who lived in Newport Beach, hung around with his movie star pal Kevin Costner, and led Cal State Fullerton to three College World Series championships in three decades.

But when Texas tossed a $1.68-million, six-year contract in his direction last summer, Garrido quickly saddled up.

So tell us, Augie, how's the new home on the range?

"It's sort of like I've got me a baseball rodeo going on," Garrido said, smiling. "I'm trying to stay on the bull, but he bucks me off about every half-inning. I've worn out six pair of blue jeans and about 12 shirts trying to ride this monster. It's been a pretty rough ride."

Garrido is only half-joking.

The ride has been rough enough that Texas probably won't be in the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 1978. Worse still, the Longhorns aren't one of the six teams to qualify for the Big 12 Conference tournament, which decides the automatic bid.

Texas had a mathematical chance to make the conference tournament in the last weekend of the regular season but could win only two of three against Nebraska and finished 29-22. That probably won't be good enough for an at-large bid. The Longhorns were seventh in the conference at 12-15. Sixth-place Missouri, which won two of three games from Texas in late April, was 15-14 after a sweep of Iowa State last weekend.

Texas got off to a good start, winning 18 of its first 22 games and sweeping a three-game series at home against Miami, one of the nation's top teams, but then went into a nose dive and lost 12 of its next 17.

"We hit our rough spot at exactly the wrong time," Garrido said. "What happened? We went on the road and starting playing better teams. Really, that was a part of it. The ball starting going faster, farther and was harder to catch."

It has been particularly troubling to Garrido. "I'm pretty intense," he said.

Garrido took over a program that had started to wither under longtime coach Cliff Gustafson. Recruiting had dropped well below Texas standards in the last couple years. Gustafson's last team was a far cry from the 17 that made trips to the World Series in Omaha in his 29 years at Texas, even though it won the final Southwest Conference regular season title. Gustafson retired last summer during a controversy over the misuse of funds from his summer baseball camp.

"I'm not sure Augie realized how far it had slipped before he came here," said Bill Little, Texas assistant athletic director.

But he does now.

Garrido compares this season to his first at Illinois.

"We got off to a good start there too, but when things start to go sideways, inexperienced players don't know how to recover," Garrido said. "That's when the insecurities start to rage and flare up. And when no one is familiar with your program, you don't have the kind of leadership on the team to settle things down."

The losing even brought a few negative letters in the Austin newspaper, and some grousing on the sports talk shows. "There wasn't any outright booing at the field," Garrido said with a smile. "But if you're not approved of, the fans here will sure let you know. They really care about this thing."

Tommy Harmon, who had been Gustafson's assistant for nine years before he was hired by Garrido, says the Texas players have had to adjust to Garrido's style.

"Coach Gus liked to scrimmage a lot while Augie is more into development drills," Harmon said. "And Gus put a lot of his emphasis on the pitching and the defense, while Augie is more into the offense. They both have their own way of doing things.

"The people Augie worked with at Fullerton were accustomed to the way he wanted everything, but our players haven't been as successful at doing some of the things he likes to do, like the bunting game. There probably has been some over-trying on the part of the players too."

Shortstop Kip Harkrider agrees.

Harkrider, the only regular back from 1996 and a member of last summer's Olympic team, says he knows Garrido's patience has been tried. "We haven't played up to standards, but he's done a marvelous job," Harkrider said. "I know he's helped me a lot personally this year with the mental aspects of the game. He's the best coach I've ever had."

Pitching coach Burt Hooton, the former Dodger, also is in his first year in college baseball after spending eight years coaching in the minor leagues.

"It's been an adjustment for all of us," Harmon said. "Augie and I had never worked together before, and we've all gone though a learning process."

But Harmon thinks it's only a matter of time before Garrido has the program back as a national power.

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