Surrounded by family, friends, fans and student-athletes, Linda Garza officially became part of the Bulldogs family Tuesday morning.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Wow, I can’t believe I’m actually back home,” the fourth softball coach in Fresno State history told the crowd of about 60 gathered at the Save Mart Center.
Born and raised in Fresno, Garza was hired July 5 to replace Trisha Ford, who took over at Arizona State after going 143-73-1 in four seasons with the Bulldogs, with back-to-back Mountain West championships and automatic NCAA Tournament bids the past two years.
I may not have the degree (from Fresno State), I may not have the diploma, but I’m going to tell you just as the saying goes: ‘Bulldog born, Bulldog bred, Bulldog ’til the day I’m dead.’ It’s what’s been in my room; it’s how I lived.
Linda Garza, new Fresno State softball coach
Garza acknowledged Fresno State holds “a special place in my heart.”
“There are 300 places in the country – and I only wanted to be here,” she said. “So I’m completely honored and thankful for having this great opportunity.”
Garza prepped at Hoover High and earned an athletic scholarship to UNLV. As a freshman with the Rebels in 1998, her hometown Bulldogs captured the NCAA championship.
After her playing career, she was an associate head coach at Cal Poly for two seasons before taking over at Wright State in 2010 and leading the Raiders to the Horizon League tournament title and an automatic NCAA berth.
Garza spent the past four seasons at UC Riverside, where she energized a Highlanders program that never had a winning season and averaged only 17 wins over 11 straight years before her arrival. By the second half of her tenure, Riverside recorded back-to-back 30-win seasons, including 39-17 in 2015 with the 14th-best ERA (2.13) in the nation.
So after so many stops, the realization she’s finally a Bulldog wasn’t lost on Garza.
“For so many years I was on the outside of the fence, finding my way to get in,” she said.
The first Fresno-area native to coach a Bulldogs team since longtime men’s golf coach Mike Watney stepped down in 2013, Garza was welcomed by administrators who have also returned to the San Joaquin Valley: Fresno State President Joseph Castro and athletic director Jim Bartko. Castro was born in Hanford and Bartko is from Stockton.
“We’re overjoyed that you’re back home and coaching our softball team,” Castro told Garza.
Our goal is not only to have the best coach that we can get, but also one that wants to be here and has ties to the Valley.
Jim Bartko, Fresno State AD
“Our goal is to win the Mountain West in all of our sports, and hiring great coaches is the biggest part of it – and we hit a home run here,” Bartko said just before he called Garza to the podium.
Garza said her goal is to make the Bulldogs national contenders like she remembers when she was a kid.
“This is where I want to do it because I grew up seeing it here. So why not us?” Garza said.
“You saw the 2008 baseball team go out and shock the world; you saw (softball) do it in ’98. So what? Let’s go out and do it again. It’s going to take work. It’s going to take commitment. It’s going to take support. But I believe in the athletes that we have, the direction that we’re going and the staff that I have behind me.”
Garza has already gone out recruiting for Fresno State, and made her first hire Friday in associate head coach Jodie Cox, who held the same position under Garza at UC Riverside.
Senior outfielder Christina Rodriguez said she’s eager to start the next chapter in Bulldogs softball with Garza.
“I’m excited and can’t wait to get on the field with coach Garza,” Rodriguez said. “I love the fact that she wants to be here. It’s going to make it easier that she wants to win, she wants to keep the tradition and everything going.”