Honor thy leader by stepping on him?
It won’t work for everyone, but it works for the University of Oregon baseball team -- as long as everybody is careful where they walk.
Pitchers Scott McGough and Tyler Anderson are Oregon’s team captains. Because of the university’s relationship with nearby Nike, Oregon athletes are allowed to make stylistic suggestions to the company’s designers. Coach George Horton allocates that special privilege to his captains. When McGough and Anderson met alone with the shoe manufacturers, their playfulness came out.
“Scott and Tyler are pretty witty,” Oregon catcher Jack Marder says.
Witty might be an understatement for the college baseball fashion statement of the year.
“We were brainstorming and thought it would be sweet if we could have Coach Horton’s picture on our cleats,” McGough says. “We thought it would be awesome and a really unique way to honor our coach.”
And so, a shoe was born.
Of course, Horton had no inkling about what his players concocted. At the team’s Christmas party, Nike reps brought a sample of the shoe -- the team’s game day baseball cleats. On the bottom of the heel of the shoe is a glossy color photo, about the size of a dime, of the coach wearing his Oregon hat and shades.
The players loved it. When Horton first saw it, he didn’t know what to make of it. When his players explained that they meant it as a measure of respect and that they wanted to take Horton out onto the field with them, the coach lit up.
“He got the joke,” McGough says. “And he got into it. He told us he was going to hear about it from other coaches. And then he told us not to kick his face against a trash can if we get angry and not to hit a bat against his face to knock the dirt out of our cleats.”
In college baseball, many players consider their coaches to be uptight and stiff. Horton is no pushover and has a competitive streak, but his ability to understand his players’ unconventional gesture further endeared him to his team.
“People ask why he’s a player’s coach and I think it’s because he’s adaptable,” Anderson says.
But that doesn’t mean his players walk all over him. Horton rides his players when they don’t perform and isn’t afraid to call out his team when he thinks they are coasting.
In other words, Horton won’t hesitate to plant a picture of his face firmly in his team’s backside when he thinks it’s deserved, but his players think that’s a fair trade. As they say: If the shoe fits.
Horton was a two-time national coach of the year and led Cal State Fullerton to six College World Series appearances and the 2004 championship before he left the comfort of an established program to take on the task of building a program from scratch. Oregon brought back baseball in 2009 after a nearly 30-year absence.
During his career, Horton has helped prepare a slew of future big leaguers, and McGough and Anderson are considered top prospects.
“I came here all the way from Pittsburgh to play for [Horton] and I’ve learned so much,” McGough says. “The way he teaches us to play baseball, to play for each other, is really special to us. He has a way of making everyone believe. We’d basically die for him.”
Horton won’t ask his players to die for him, but McGough says he did have one request:
“He asked us not to step in any dog poop.”
-- John Klima is a regular contributor to ThePostGame.com and author of "Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend."