Most of the excitement in USC sports has been in anticipation of the start of Trojan football. But there was some big news this week for a different men’s sports team —one with arguably more prestige than those guys who play in the Coliseum.
On Tuesday, USC announced that baseball coach Dan Hubbs, who took over for former coach Frank Cruz late last season, had officially been promoted to the full-time director of the program. Hubbs played for USC from 1991-3, playing in three NCAA Regionals — an accomplishment athletic director Pat Haden would certainly welcome given the program’s current state.
The Trojans still hold the record for most NCAA Division I championships (12), twice as many as the next closest competitor. In fact, the baseball team’s total of 12 national titles even bests the football team’s total of 11 — and yes, I’m including the BCS Championship win over Oklahoma in the 2004 season — What are you gonna do about that, Mr. Emmert?
But the present rendition of the squad looks nothing like the team that was once a perennial power.
The program has had seven straight losing seasons and last year’s team won fewer games than any USC baseball squad in the last 59 years. Athletic director Pat Haden is hoping that Hubbs can return the program to its former glory.
“I am excited for the opportunity to continue as the head baseball coach at USC,” Hubbs said in a press release. “To coach at my alma mater is very special. I look forward to building upon the rich tradition of USC baseball.”
Hubbs, a former pitcher and assistant coach for the Cardinal and Gold, openly dreamed about becoming the manager one day and did just that last year, but in a less-than-ideal situation.
His boss at the time, former manager Frank Cruz, was fired just two days before the start of the season after investigations revealed he broke NCAA rules about practice time limits and Hubbs was promoted to the top spot.
Hubbs led the group to a 20-36 season, the fewest number of wins in a season for the Trojans since they went 18-4 in the 1954 season.
With a total of 16 true freshman on a team of 35 last year, the team led the Pac-12 in walks surrendered yet were last in the conference in walks drawn. That is merely the sign of a young team; an extra year of experience should give pitchers more confidence and command, while hitters should feel less nervous and more patient at the plate.
With all but two starters in the field returning along with the entire starting rotation and most of the key guys from the bullpen, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Trojans will reverse their downward trend and start winning more ball games. The extra year of experience for Hubbs should pay off as well, especially now with him able to set the tone at the start of training camp.
But is Hubbs the best guy for the job? How quickly can a guy who’s never been a head coach before start convincing future major leaguers to come to Troy and get to the College World Series on an annual basis again?
Well, probably not right away. He’ll need to show his ability to develop players into prospects over the next couple of years before the culture around the team, or more specifically the recruiting scene, changes.
It’ll take more than just hustle, work ethic and dedication to consistently compete in a tough Pac-12 conference that has provided the last two NCAA champions (Arizona in 2012, UCLA in 2013).
Pete Carroll and his staff were arguably the best in the business at developing guys for the NFL. No team has had more players drafted into the league than USC with Carroll at the helm, and that made a huge difference in bringing in players that could win BCS bowls.
And yes, USC really did try to nab UCLA’s coach for the job. John Savage, an established recruiter who has been head coach in Westwood since 2004, has made several trips to Omaha since then and finally helped win the Bruins their first national championship ever in baseball this past season.
Offered a contract worth seven figures according to the Los Angeles Times, Savage declined the offer to switch loyalties in the bitter crosstown rivalry, despite spending time with the Trojans as an assistant back in the 1990s. Though the move would have been one of the greatest steals in sports rivalry history (I would say narrowly ahead of the Yankees acquiring Babe Ruth from the Red Sox but not quite as cool as when Dr. Arthur Toga and Dr. Paul Johnson left UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuroimaging to come work at Keck last year), I’m happy USC stayed in house.
Sure, it will take longer for Hubbs to get USC back to Omaha, but I definitely think he will a couple years down the road. It says a lot about his character that USC would offer him the job at a relatively young age and with relatively little experience.
As a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, the move reminds me a lot of the Mike Matheny hire two years ago, as he too had never held a managerial job and was much younger than the other considered candidates. But the Cardinals finished just a game away from a World Series appearance in his first year.
So USC will probably lose more than half of its games this year on the diamond, and that’s OK. It will take some time for players and prospects to get a feel for his personality and know that he’s the right guy for the long run.
The coaching hire lends itself to a baseball metaphor — the move is not quite as exciting as stealing home, and is much more like scoring a guy from third via a sacrifice fly. But the point is that USC still manufactured a run with the move. And that’s what the program is going to be all about — manufacturing a run.