George Horton, whose Cal State Fullerton teams were a fixture at the College World Series, left the Titans on Friday to take over a fledgling program at Oregon that could make him the highest-paid college baseball coach in the nation.
Horton, 53, took Fullerton to the College World Series six times in his 11 years as coach -- including four of the last five. The Titans won the national title in 2004.
At Oregon, he takes over a program that was cut from the athletic department in 1981, reinstated earlier this year and will resume play in 2009.
An Oregon spokesman would not confirm that Horton had been hired but said the school would introduce its new coach at a news conference today before the Ducks football opener against Houston at 12:30 p.m.
Horton did not return phone messages, but sources close to him and the Fullerton program said the decision was extremely difficult and that a Friday afternoon meeting to inform the Titans' players was filled with emotion.
"I know for a fact that this whole process has been very tough on George," said UC Irvine Coach Dave Serrano, a former Titans assistant and a close friend of Horton's who has maintained contact with him throughout the decision-making process. "But I think it's a good move for him at this time.
"Cal State Fullerton is a difficult place to leave with its tradition and history, but he's going to a place with a tremendous amount of resources and some incredible people involved."
Horton had a 490-212-1 record at Fullerton after taking over when Augie Garrido left for Texas in 1996. He was twice national coach of the year, was coach of the year in the Big West Conference five times, and his teams were ranked No. 1 in the nation for at least parts of seven seasons.
Horton will reportedly earn an annual base salary between $500,000 and $600,000 plus incentives and endorsements that could push the value of the deal close to $1 million. His base salary at Fullerton was between $150,000-$200,000.
"It had to be an overwhelming deal," said Long Beach State Coach Mike Weathers, another friend of Horton's. "To give up what he had at Fullerton, there had to be a lot of financial gain."
That gain comes courtesy of Nike founder and Chief Executive Phil Knight, who recently donated $100 million to the Oregon athletic program.
There are also plans to build a state-of-the-art facility for the baseball team.
Before engaging Horton, Oregon had talks with Vanderbilt's Tim Corbin, whose squad was the No. 1 team in the nation most of last season, as well as Serrano, the reigning national coach of the year.
Observers say the fact that in-state rival Oregon State has won consecutive national titles fueled Oregon's move to jump-start its program and invest in making it a national powerhouse.
"With the energy and resources that they have and the facilities that they are going to have, it was too hard for him to pass up," Serrano said. "They are serious about building a program and I have no doubt that they got the right man for the job."
Weathers said that while the money clearly played a prominent role in the decision, the opportunity to build a program from scratch can't be dismissed as a factor.
"I think that's very attractive for a coach," he said. "To put your name on a program, to start it up and make your mark on it, is very enticing."
Still, it was a surprising move to some.
UC Riverside Coach Doug Smith said he was caught off guard by the news, but that it was quite clear that Oregon wanted a big gun.
"It's definitely a surprise," Smith said. "But at the same time, George is a high-profile guy and it was very clear in the people they were pursuing that Oregon was coming full throttle."
The list of candidates to replace Horton at Fullerton could be very long or very short.
Rick Vanderhook, promoted to associate head coach in June, has been with the Titans for 21 years.
"I'm hoping Rick gets the job," Serrano said. "He's been a very big part of their success for many, many years."
But Fullerton could attract a slew of well-qualified candidates.
"When you talk Cal State Fullerton, you're going to open a lot of eyes," said Serrano, who has already withdrawn his name from consideration.
Whoever replaces Horton, it's clear that he will have some big shoes to fill.
"Fullerton is the team by which our conference is measured," Smith said. "I certainly hope they stay competitive because if they slip, our whole conference slips."