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'Horn Swagger

Garrido returns to Fullerton with spring in his step after taking Texas to national title but knows wolves are never far from door

March 01, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Joyously pumping his outstretched arm, his index and small fingers extended, Augie Garrido stood outside the dugout at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium last June and faced the crowd.

Legions of Texas baseball fans, a sea of burnt orange and white, returned the "Hook 'em Horns" gesture.

Finally, college baseball's winningest active coach felt like he belonged -- all it took was winning the College World Series.

"Winning the national championship has made a significant difference," Garrido said recently from his home in Austin. "People trust us more."

The coach is expected to hear many more cheers this weekend when he brings his defending champions to Cal State Fullerton, which he built into a national power in two stints, from 1973-87 and 1991-96.

Texas, Fullerton, UCLA and Tulane are playing in the Kia Baseball Bash, a round-robin tournament that started Friday at Fullerton's Goodwin Field. Tonight at 7, Texas meets the Titans in the main event.

Garrido, who won 933 games and three College World Series titles at Fullerton, has been there as an opposing coach only once before, in 1990 with Illinois. He was greeted by a standing ovation from a capacity crowd.

He expects this time will be no less emotional, possibly more so at sparkling, 3,500-seat Goodwin Field, a top-grade facility Garrido helped make possible.

"I know it's going to be exciting with as many people that have blessed our lives that live in that area, that I worked with and was alongside for 21 years," Garrido said. "I'm not one to try to hide that. There's going to be a lot of excitement."

Garrido, 64, remains a revered figure at the university, and for good reason. He built the Titans from the ground up and made Fullerton a destination point on the college baseball map by routinely beating bigger schools with bigger budgets.

Little wonder, then, that his accomplishments still resonate, even seven years removed from Southern California. At a luncheon in January that featured coaches from the 12 Division I baseball teams from Santa Barbara to San Diego, none was mentioned more often than Garrido.

His Titan teams, which made seven College World Series appearances, set a standard for the programs a notch down from established powers such as USC.

"It gave you hope," said Andy Lopez, whose Pepperdine team defeated Fullerton in 1992 to give the Waves their College World Series championship.

"This is something I've always been in awe of," said Lopez, now the coach at Arizona. "There was a time when there were no regionals held in Fullerton. They were on the road all the time and doggone it if they wouldn't go there and win that regional and get to Omaha.

"He made it very well known that there was some very good baseball out [in California]."

Titan Coach George Horton, a longtime assistant to Garrido before taking over for him, acknowledged that there are several levels of fondness for his former boss among his old local competitors. But with most, there is also a high level of respect for his accomplishments.

"He's battled through a lot of obstacles and I'm sure he stepped on some toes in Orange County fighting for what was right," Horton said. "It was the only way he could be as successful as he was here."

During most of his Fullerton years, Garrido worked with minimal financial resources. There were years when the Titans played off campus at a city-owned park. The highest budget he ever had was $325,000 -- compared to the $1.5 million he has at Texas.

However, that money presented a new challenge for Garrido. While he didn't have to worry about things like a first-class stadium or the ability to compete for top players, he had another, equally taxing problem.

Great expectations.

When a Californian -- forget the three years in Illinois -- was called in to replace major college baseball's winningest coach, the legendary Cliff Gustafson, his every move was scrutinized by influential fans, reporters and competing coaches.

Once a powerhouse, Texas had faltered a little in the previous couple of seasons, and there was no inclination to cut the new guy any slack.

"The fans at the University of Texas are some of the most knowledgeable and educated baseball fans in the country," Baylor Coach Steve Smith said. "Even before Augie had got there, that program had slipped even in Gus' last couple of years. Now all of a sudden, there is a guy who is not one of them. That had to make his job more difficult."

Garrido, who never had a losing season at Fullerton, encountered one in his second year in Austin. The Longhorns went 23-32-1, their worst season in 40 years. Texas rebounded with a 36-26 record and a regional berth in 1999, but that didn't stop growing criticism from Longhorn fans.

"There's so much passion surrounding this program," Garrido said, acknowledging the pressure was starting to wear on him. "That passion translates into love and hate. I just had to get past that and stop listening to all those voices. I was part of my own problem."

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