On February 27, 2009, the Oregon Ducks christened the opening of Pat Kilkenny Park in front of a sellout crowd of 2,777 fans in dramatic fashion. A 1-0 walk-off victory over No. 15 Fresno State, the defending College World Series champions, had the ballpark buzzing with excitement for the future of this Oregon baseball program, which had just been reinstated at the University for the first time since 1981. Somewhere, however, deep within that brand new state-of-the-art complex, a small area remained still.
A trophy case, primed and polished, ready to be filled with hardware. The hiring of Head Coach George Horton, who led Cal State Fullerton to a National Championship in 2004, had set the bar high.
Eight years later, that trophy case remains still, virtually untouched.
It might hold some memorabilia to acknowledge Oregon’s five trips to the NCAA Regionals under Horton, or maybe there hangs a participation medal that was received following their loss to Kent St. in the Super-Regional in 2012, ending the Ducks season one game short of a trip to Omaha for the College World Series. But the real hardware —the trophies that Nike Co-founder Phil Knight envisioned when allocating $19.2 million for the stadium — those have yet to come. And at the moment, they don’t look to be arriving any time soon.
Instead, it seems that Oregon baseball is destined to underachieve. Because of this, I believe it is time for Horton to locate his nearest EXIT, and leave quietly. You may find that to be a harsh resolution, but it is a course of action that could lift the baseball program to the same heights that have come to be expected of Oregon athletics.
For the past decade, Oregon’s football team has consistently found itself in the AP Top-25 rankings, and as of late, the basketball program has conjured up discussions of dominance after back-to-back trips to the Elite 8 and Final 4. The women’s basketball team just overachieved its way into the Elite 8; the men’s golf team has a nice set of 2016 national championship rings to show off; and the softball team continually makes a deep run into the postseason. Not to mention the track & field team, which has a total of 14 indoor and outdoor national championships since 2009.
And, oh yeah, the baseball program almost finished as one of the top eight teams in the nation once, five years ago.
I’m sorry, Coach, but that isn’t going to cut it.
In November of 2016, former Oregon football Head Coach Mark Helfrich was fired following a 4-8 season. He was 37-16 in four years at the helm, and won a school-record 13 games in 2014 on his way to taking the Ducks to the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship. If he can get the axe after a couple of mediocre seasons, then nobody is safe.
Yes, that means you, George.
In the past nine seasons, Oregon holds a 322-220-1 (.593) record under their current coach. This season, the Ducks sit in eighth place in the Pac-12 with a 29-23 (11-16 Pac-12) record. They have lost nine of their last 12 games dating back to the start of May, and they endured a seven-game losing streak during that time. Their last defeat, a 14-9 loss, came at the hands of USC, who sits in last place in the conference standings.
Like that inaugural victory in 2009, there have been many bright spots in the program’s recent history. This season, for example, the Ducks started out 5-2 and were ranked No. 22 in the nation in early April. But, like that team from 2009 that eventually finished the season 14-42, they reverted back to their average, un-Oregonian ways.
The low points have been growing more frequent. Following the dismal month of May, Horton will likely miss the postseason for the second straight season for the first time in 20 years as a D1 coach. And for the third year in a row, Oregon is on pace to finish in sixth place or lower in the Pac-12 standings.
To make things worse, Oregon State, who is widely known around the Eugene campus as “Little Brother,” currently holds the No. 1 ranking in the AP Top-25, and they have two national championships on four College World Series appearances in the past 11 years.
There have been whispers of a possible need for change at the coaching position, but when you take all of these factors apart, they can be easily dismissed as short-term lapses. When combined with the regional success, and the success of other Oregon sports programs, however, that whisper can turn into a holler, and I think Horton is starting to hear it.
“I think I’ve let the people that hired me, Pat Kilkenny and President Frohnmayer, down a little bit. We were supposed to be in Omaha by now,” Horton told Steve Mims of The Register Guard.
“We’ve had a couple crummy years — no mistaking that — but hopefully the administration has confidence in me. You can only do what you can do. I would like for them to think I’m the right man to get it going back in the right direction.”
In 2012, Horton signed a 5-year deal that would bring him into the 2017 season. That contract expires on September 10 of this year.
It is unknown whether a coaching change will be made in Eugene following the 2017 season, and the athletic department has declined to comment on the situation. Until a decision is made, however, the Ducks will continue to trot nine players on to the diamond day after day, trying to garner the approval of a hopeful fan base.
“I’ve never had a team roll over — even momentum we can create by not making the playoffs could carry over into next season,” said Horton.
We will just have to wait and see if he is the coach waiting to mold that momentum into success.