The news of Frank Cruz’s firing on Wednesday marked the latest occurrence in USC baseball’s steady decline into irrelevance, following a generation of dominance over the college baseball landscape.
Here’s something that I’m betting most current USC students don’t know: USC’s baseball program is generally considered to be the most dominant in the history of college baseball. The Trojans have won 12 national championships since the College World Series was created. The next highest teams? LSU and Texas, with six apiece.
Think about that for a moment. In the 66 years that the College World Series has been in existence, USC has won nearly one in five times and twice as much as any other team.
This is all the more surprising when you consider that the Trojans’ last national championship came in 1998, and before that season, the team hadn’t hoisted the trophy since way back in 1978.
So from 1947 to 1978, USC’s baseball team won the national championship 10 out of 32 times.
What’s happened since then?
Despite qualifying for the NCAA tournament just once (2005) in the past 10 seasons, USC can still comfortably call itself the traditional powerhouse of college baseball. But with the way the team has played in the last decade, memories of past glory have become increasingly difficult to fall back on.
So what exactly is to blame for the cavernous drop off that the program has suffered? USC has been incredibly fortunate in terms of head coaching stability throughout the glory years. Consider that from 1942 to 1986, USC saw six head football coaches, seven head basketball coaches and five school presidents, but only one head baseball coach: the legendary Rod Dedeaux.
During his time as USC’s head coach, Dedeaux led the Trojans to 11 national championships, one of which he won as co-head coach alongside Sam Barry. He retired as the winningest baseball coach in NCAA history and was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. USC named its baseball field after him in 1974 and, in 1999, he was named Coach of the Century by Collegiate Baseball.
Basically, if a Mount Rushmore of college baseball existed, there would be no doubt that Dedeaux would be on it.
Following Dedeaux’s retirement, USC again struck gold with its selection of Mike Gillespie as head coach. Gillespie led the team from 1987 to 2006, earning four College World Series appearances and one national championship. Though he failed to match the success the program experienced under Dedeaux, Gillespie’s tenure at USC was certainly nothing to scoff at.
Unfortunately, Gillespie’s retirement marked the end of USC’s run of long-term baseball coaches. Chad Kreuter took over control of the program in 2007 and was fired in 2010 after failing to reach the postseason each year. Cruz’s record in his brief two-year run at the school was 48-63 and included an 11th place finish in the Pac-12 last season.
Gillespie’s decision to step down following the 2006 season was a surprise to many at the time, and it seems as though, seven years later, USC still hasn’t recovered from the shock. Relative to how long past coaches were able to stay at USC, Kreuter had a very short leash as the team’s coach. Granted, he didn’t turn in results that warranted extra time, but perhaps the pressure of replacing not one but two college baseball legends was too much to bear.
Cruz fared no better in his two years, suggesting that the program is still far from reaching a state of stability. His firing only further complicates things for a team that must replace its top four leaders in innings pitched from a season ago as well as last year’s team leader in hits.
Now, the program so storied in past glory is left searching again for the right man for the job. In one sense, his firing for violating NCAA rules is a positive in that it shows that Athletic Director Pat Haden is serious in his diligent mission to run a squeaky clean athletic program. But it would be inaccurate to say that the baseball program is better for having to hire its third head coach in four years.
USC can still rest easy in knowing that its lead in all-time national championships is safe for the foreseeable future. Still, this is an athletic program that does not take kindly to mediocrity, especially for a program as storied as USC baseball.
The task will be tough for this year’s team to make progress toward any kind of return to prominence. USC will feature plenty of new faces this season, which is something the program has seen perhaps a bit too much of in recent years. And until the Trojans can reach some level of steadiness in the dugout, memories of past glory will continue to drift further into the distance.
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