Tuesday marked the latest chapter in a season full of bumps and bruises for USC’s baseball team. In a hard-fought 6-4 loss to No. 4 Cal State Fullerton, the Trojans were reminded that no matter how much they tried to overcome countless obstacles, 2013 just wasn’t going to be their year.
Not that this should be a surprise to anyone who has followed the program in recent years. USC hasn’t reached the College World Series since 2001 and hasn’t posted a winning record since 2005. Barring an improbable second-half run, USC should fall below .500 once again this season. To be blunt, the Trojans should expect to lose to Cal State Fullerton, a perennial national powerhouse.
Actually, hold that thought for a moment — let’s examine that.
Why should USC expect to lose to a school like Cal State Fullerton in baseball? There must be a key difference between the schools that gives the Titans an edge. What could it be?
Location can’t be the answer. The schools are located roughly 35 miles from each other and, as a result, they compete for the same local high school players in the miles-deep talent pool that is Southern California.
Program tradition plays a big factor in recruiting players; perhaps that is the key difference. Fullerton has a storied baseball history, to be sure, with four national championships and 52 alumni that have played in Major League Baseball.
But USC blows both of those numbers away. The Trojans are the all-time leaders in both categories, with 12 national championships and a staggering 106 players sent to the MLB, both figures more than double Fullerton’s output.
So historical prestige is now thrown out as well. Could financial security be the key? Hardly. Few schools in America can rival USC’s deep private-school pockets, with the seemingly endless line of well-to-do alumni just dying to throw money at the school. Fullerton, on the other hand, has suffered budget cuts for the past several years and could only dream of having the resources USC does.
That rules out finances as Fullerton’s secret edge. Could academic prestige be the deal breaker? U.S. News & World Report ranked USC at No. 24 in its 2013 rankings. Cal State Fullerton? Let’s just say they are a little further down the list. I don’t mean to disrespect Fullerton as an academic institution; both of my parents are proud Titan alumni (they are also the ones currently paying my tuition). But I can say with some certainty that the levels of academic rigor of USC and Fullerton are beyond comparison.
But that still leaves us without an answer to the million-dollar question. Maybe an iconic head coach is the reason for Fullerton’s recent dominance over USC? The Trojans had their greatest success under the legendary Rod Dedeaux, who led the program to 11 national championships and is a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame. Fullerton’s version of Dedeaux would be Augie Garrido, who led the Titans to three national championships in 19 seasons at the helm.
But Garrido left the program for good after the 1996 season, and since then the school has had three different head coaches. George Horton made six College World Series appearances in 11 seasons, with one national championship in 2004, before leaving for Oregon in 2007. Dave Serrano was 175-73 during his four seasons as head coach, with one College World Series appearance. Current head coach Rick Vanderhook is in his second season as head coach and now has a 65-25 record after Tuesday’s win over USC.
The point of this is that it doesn’t seem to matter all that much who is calling the shots for the Titans. They always win. In fact, since the school began playing baseball in 1975, Fullerton has never finished a season with a losing record. It’s as if the school was destined to succeed at baseball, circumstances be damned.
For the same reasons that USC Athletic Director Pat Haden says USC should have a “relevant” basketball program, the same can be said double for USC’s baseball program. It has all of the same benefits going for it, with a huge dosage of historical tradition heaped on top. It couldn’t be in a better position to succeed, which makes its decade-long struggle all the more puzzling.
I understand why Haden has basketball at the top of his agenda at the moment. He just made a big splash hire, and he needs it to be a successful one. USC’s basketball program has never enjoyed an era of significance, let alone dominance, and Haden is right in believing that the time is now to change that.
But the Trojan baseball program should be treated with a similar sense of urgency. I have to believe that if USC really wanted to succeed in baseball, it could. There are just too many resources at the school’s disposal for the program to continue to fail. Haden would be wise to make baseball item No. 2 on his agenda, if not No. 1, because if he doesn’t, the gap between USC and schools such as Fullerton, Long Beach State and UCLA will continue to grow.
But back to the original question: What does Fullerton have that USC doesn’t? Your guess is as good as mine.
“Inside the 20s” runs on Thursdays. To comment on this story, email Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.