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COLLEGE WORLD SERIES CS Fullerton vs. Texas, Game 1,
Today in Omaha, 4 p.m. , ESPN

Friends Connection

It's tough for Horton and Garrido to think of themselves as foes when Fullerton and Texas square off for the title

June 26, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

OMAHA — In a symbolic way here at the College World Series, it was a meeting of Cal State Fullerton baseball past and present.

As Fullerton Coach George Horton reached his spot on the podium, Texas Coach Augie Garrido wouldn't settle for a handshake. Garrido gave his former player and coaching protege a big hug.

Part of the hoopla was for the television cameras chronicling the best-of-three championship series that begins tonight, but the moment was genuine for two longtime friends and fierce competitors who have created and kept the Titan program among the nation's elite.

"It will be like playing yourself in the mirror," said Garrido, who spent 21 years at Fullerton. "It will be competitive and it will be special because of the uniqueness of the situation. The things that surround it will bring a lot of energy and attention to the game."

Fullerton and Texas each won its bracket to reach the finals. After losing to South Carolina on Wednesday night, the Titans advanced with a 4-0 victory Thursday over the Gamecocks.

Texas has played like the nation's top-seeded team in this tournament. The Longhorns (58-13) have won all eight of their postseason games, outscoring opponents, 77-26.

Fullerton (45-22) will start left-hander Ricky Romero and Texas will go with its ace, J.P. Howell, who originally committed to the Titans. In his first College World Series start, Romero pitched a complete game in the Titans' 6-3 victory over Miami in the second round.

He will face a Longhorn lineup that is batting .357 with 14 postseason home runs.

"It's always good to get that first start out of your way," said Romero, a sophomore who is 13-4 with a 3.34 earned-run average. "They're obviously a great team. I know I have to go out there and compete and give us a chance."

Horton and Garrido took great pains to put the focus on the players, but their link is undeniable. Horton was a first baseman on Garrido's 1975 Titan club that was the first to reach the College World Series.

From 1973 to 1987, Garrido won 13 league championships and national titles in 1979 and 1984. After three years at Illinois, he returned to win three more league titles and got his third NCAA title in 1995 before leaving for Texas after the next season.

Facing his old team, he said, will be tough because he still has an affection for the program.

"You've got to remove your personal feelings from your professional feelings," said Garrido, who became the winningest coach in Division I last season. "There are a lot of emotions attached to it. When we get on the field, it's emotional."

Horton was Garrido's associate coach during the second stint and assumed the main job in 1997. In eight seasons, he has compiled a 354-154-1 record with four trips to Omaha, but this will be the first time the Titans will play for the title under his direction.

Garrido calls the 50-year-old Horton the best young coach in the nation and said he wouldn't have left for Texas if he hadn't thought he was leaving the program in good hands.

"George hasn't kept it where I had it," he said. "He's taken the program to another level. The attendance is much better, the ballpark is much better. It's continued to flourish and grow."

Horton shrugs off the compliments. Garrido was instrumental in getting Goodwin Field built, and his successor has helped make it a destination for baseball fans. The team has averaged more than 1,500 per home game in each of the last two years, even in the competitive entertainment market of Southern California.

As Horton says, "A lot of those passionate fans that are screaming and yelling at games have absolutely no ties to the university."

With all that, Horton said he would not be a success and there would not be a following without the foundation Garrido created.

"I wouldn't be sitting here if it wasn't for him," Horton said. "It's like he's your brother and he's a successful baseball coach. You're always trying to get to the level your brother is at, or surpass the level he got to. That's the way I look at it.

"I cherish what Coach Garrido has been able to accomplish at Cal State Fullerton and Texas. There's not one jealous bone in my body when it comes to what he's done. I want to be like him."

Steve DiTolla, an associate athletic director at Fullerton, said the hiring of Garrido and Horton in 1991 was essential to keeping the baseball program at the top. Horton had been at Cerritos College, where he won three state championships.

"George was actually a candidate for the job with Augie," DiTolla said. "In reality we hired two of the four candidates. Augie is a freelance type of guy. George is a very detailed coach.

"When you put those two together, it's certainly a formula for success."

The only thing missing on Horton's resume is an NCAA title. Horton acknowledged that it would be the final validation to his still-developing coaching career, but Garrido said he shouldn't be viewed in that manner.

"If he wins or doesn't win, it isn't going to redefine who he is," Garrido said. "Cal State Fullerton should be extremely lucky to have him."

First baseman P.J. Pilittere, a fifth-year senior, said his coach didn't need a championship to solidify what he has done.

"It's unfortunate with the sports world today that you haven't really accomplished anything until you win a title," he said. "Hopefully we get it done for him this weekend. If we don't, he's still top dog in my book."


College World Series

Best-of-three championship series

Game 1 -- Today

Texas vs. Cal State Fullerton, 4 p.m.

Game 2 -- Sunday

Texas vs. Cal State Fullerton, Noon

Game 3 -- Monday*

Texas vs. Cal State Fullerton, 4 p.m.

Times PDT, All on ESPN. * if necessary

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