As I’ve walked around the USC campus the past few days, I have seen nothing but tears, last minute photo ops and heartfelt goodbyes.
I get that graduation represents some sense of finality — the light at the end of the tunnel for college students. But for those who fear that an exit from the university’s pearly gates will be more than just a temporary goodbye, rest assured there is one potential departure from these friendly confines that will hardly warrant the type of emotions typically the norm this time of year.
When students take their final strides on the worn path of this memory-filled institution, odds are they stop by Tommy Trojan, the Leavey Library fountain, the Finger Fountain or the hollowed grounds of the Los Angeles Coliseum. Yet, I for one can no longer imagine many students making the fateful walk out toward the direction of a once-notorious campus mainstay, Dedeaux Field.
While a visit to the home of the USC baseball team is a history lesson regardless of the time of year, the sights and sounds of the storied program these days (yes, even more storied than the beloved football program), appear to be a few shades darker than when Chad Kreuter first stepped onto the scene.
In summer 2006, Athletic Director Mike Garrett handed over a university treasure to Kreuter, a former big league catcher for 16 years, in the hopes that a man who had spent his life’s work on a baseball diamond could over time mature into a figure that would uphold the national pastime as a staple in USC’s ever-evolving athletic tradition.
Though it’s easy to play the cynic in this story of deterioration, watching the transformation of a national powerhouse-turned-Pac-10-conference-afterthought is hard to bear, even for someone who wasn’t present to witness the golden years of Mike Gillespie, USC’s tried-and-true coach before Kreuter.
In some respects it’s hard to blame Kreuter, seeing as he’s not only the son-in-law of Gillespie but also the man chosen to fill his irreplaceable shoes in the dugout. Even the most skeptical of people, if logical, understand you don’t just replace a man whose 20-year career in Cardinal and Gold was paved with four College World Series appearances, a .618 winning percentage and a National Championship in 1998.
Yet when you take over the post of a prestigious athletic program where consistency and on-field excellence are not just gold standards but a way of life, ultimately winning is what defines you as a coach. For Kreuter, it has been a four-year stint defined by the bottom line — one that reads doughnut holes across the board where conference titles and regional banners once stood.
While the former Dodgers catcher had familiarity both with managing a team and the USC program itself before he became the fourth manager in school history, it didn’t take long to realize he was in over his head.
In his first year, USC finished with an underwhelming 27-29 record, a meager eight wins in the Pac-10 and an unprecedented losing record at home (12-16). It would be the first time since 1923 that the program posted back-to-back losing seasons.
Although the first years in college as a student or a coach can be rough, Kreuter’s early slump was a telling sign that this was likely not a match made in heaven. In his second season, led by crafty left-hander Tommy Milone and shortstop Grant Green, USC produced a 28-28 record, a tie for 6th in the Pac-10 and a campaign that ended well short of a regional appearance.
Last season, despite a cavalcade of potential pro prospects — Green, right-hander Brad Boxberger and catcher/pitcher Robert Stock — and a home schedule more befitting of a school that plays for a second tier conference, another .500 and a losing record in the Pac-10 should have raised a red flag in Garrett’s office that a shakeup needed to be made.
But the 2010 season, one which on paper seemed like an absolute must-win year for the team, doesn’t need any summaries to capture its essence. The stench (23-28, 5-16, after this weekend’s sweep at the hands of crosstown rival UCLA) is obvious, the unfulfilled expectations apparent, and the likely end of a disappointing era looms nearer and nearer with each passing day.
I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but let’s face it: The writing has been on the wall for some time now — at least on the one I’m staring at.
This is not a criticism of Chad Kreuter, the man, the father or the former player. I do not consider myself of the ilk to stand before anyone and act as if I can comprehend the pressures of coaching at this university.
I believe at his core, the USC skipper takes pride in his team’s performance, the way the members represent the university inside the white lines and how much preparation it takes to maintain a program like the one he took over in 2006.
However, I was once told that history only remembers the brilliant failures and brilliant successes of an individual’s life, and despite what looked to be a recipe for success when the initial hire was made (former catcher-turned-manager a la Joe Torre and Mike Scioscia), if Kreuter, the coach, were to have graduated this past weekend, I can guarantee it wouldn’t haven’t been with high regards.
While it is safe to say this program is surrounded by an experienced coaching staff, a well-regarded media relations team and several highly touted ballplayers — sophomore first baseman Ricky Oropesa, sophomore outfielder/pitcher Alex Sherrod and redshirt sophomore right-hander Andrew Triggs just to name a few) the role of a coach is not only to recruit and nurture this talent on an individual level but to harness the strengths of the whole when the lights turn on from February through June. And in this area, quite simply he has missed the mark.
Goodbyes can be painful, emotional and in some cases life-altering, but when I look at the impending future of Kreuter and USC baseball, parting ways seems mutually beneficial anyway you slice it. This program is bigger than any one player, coach or athletic director, and to dismiss the consistent pattern of on-field futility over the past few years is to disgrace the legacies of those who have come before.
Sometimes saying goodbye is hard, but I’d like to believe making the right decision trumps the emotion behind an unavoidable departure.
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