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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Trouble with the Trojans

Kendall Rogers        
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Always be careful what you wish for.

After all, your situation, whether it's in the game of life or in sports, might just turn out the way USC baseball has the past seven years, very much a failure.

What has been a tumultuous situation for the University of Southern California's historic baseball program over the past seven years took a turn for the absolute worst on Wednesday when the university parted ways with second-year head coach Frank Cruz, who had been suspended just a few days before while the university investigated possible NCAA CARA violations.

NCAA CARA rules restrict the number of hours student-athletes can spend in activities directed by or supervised by the coaching staff. The NCAA obviously hasn't completed its investigation of the allegations, but given USC's course of action, rules being broken seems rather obvious.

Along with the termination of Cruz, the university took a proactive approach -- as athletic director Pat Haden has seemed to do over the past couple of years -- by installing a self-imposed reduction in the number of practice sessions hours for the baseball team both this year and next.

We'll see if the NCAA and Pac-12 accepts those self-imposed sanctions, but this much is very clear at this point -- USC continues to be in trouble as a baseball program, off and on the field, and we're not sure the latter is getting much better anytime soon.

"Adhering to all NCAA rules is paramount for each one of our coaches, student-athletes and staff members," Haden said. "Those who knowingly break NCAA rules are subject to termination."

While the Trojans seemingly try to get their bearings straight over the next few months, associate head coach Dan Hubbs, previously a California assistant and former USC player, takes over. For now, the Trojans aren't calling it an interim situation, so Hubbs very well could have the job after this season. If not, there will be a laundry list of highly regarded coaches champing at the bit to get a chance to turn USC around.

"This is not the way I wanted to become a head coach. That's the hard part, because Frank is a friend of mine. But it's just bittersweet," Hubbs said. "Am I excited? You bet. I think I'd be stupid  if I wasn't excited about this opportunity."

Fortunately for the Trojans, this isn't Hubbs' first rodeo with an unorganized and stressful situation. Hubbs was the pitching coach for the California baseball program when that university decided to cut baseball before eventually bringing it back because of public outcry and the fundraising of millions of dollars.

"My message to the team was to focus on the now and what lies ahead of us. I said, hey, adversity, I sure know what that's like," Hubbs said. "I was part of a program that got cut, and we ended up getting to Omaha. So I told our guys, let's just go out there and see what happens."

From a contractual standpoint, Hubbs said he hasn't sat down with the Trojans to put together a formal head coach contract. He also isn't sure that'll happen, as he's currently on his usual assistant contract. However, it's not something he's remotely worried about at this point. Hubbs also must find a way to fill the vacancy in his coaching staff without intentionally plucking away an assistant in-season.

"All they've told me is you're our coach, you're the head coach," he said. "If you're asking if I have a three-year deal or something, no I don't. They're confident in what I can do, but I think I need to go out there and prove it. Like I told our guys, all right, let's go."

Though this is just a short list of coaches to possibly target if Hubbs isn't the permanent choice, some names that standout include Oregon's George Horton, who could be looking to get back to Southern California, where he's from, in addition to San Diego's Rich Hill, and potentially even Arizona's Andy Lopez, who has made it clear in the past he'd ponder the idea of returning to the Golden State. Another name floated around USC ranks is former Arizona State big-time assistant Andy Stankiewicz, a highly energetic and charismatic character who recently resurrected Grand Canyon's program.

USC's immediate future is in the hands of Hubbs, but the fact remains that it's sad and disappointing we continue to have the discussion about the Trojans struggling.

Unfortunately, in the past, the Trojans became accustomed to sketchy, and short-sighted, decisions, this latest decision by Haden eliminated from the equation. Overall, USC has captured an NCAA-best 12 national titles in 21 College World Series appearances.

USC's last national title came in 1998 with Mike Gillespie the head coach. Gillespie coached the Trojans for 20 seasons before he was run out of the program following a disappointing 2006 campaign that followed up an NCAA postseason appearance in '05.

It was one thing to part ways with Gillespie after the Trojans were at least showing somewhat of a slowing trend. But instead of going out and hiring an elite head coach, which the Trojans certainly could've done, previous athletic director Mike Garrett settled for former big leaguer Chad Kreuter, who had exactly one year of farm system managing experience under his belt.

Kreuter, to absolutely no one's surprise, was a massive failure with the Trojans. He compiled an 83-85 overall record in four seasons and failed to make the NCAA postseason during that time.

Kreuter's unsuccessful campaign was turned over to Cruz on an interim basis in '11, as he led an embattled Trojans program to a 25-31 overall record. USC made Cruz the full-time head coach near the end of that campaign, as he finished last season with a 23-32 overall record.

Though expectations this season didn't have any bearing on Cruz's job security leading up to this spring, the Trojans aren't expected to take a big step forward this season, either, picked to finish  10th in the Pac-12, only in front of Utah, which had a 14-42 overall record in 2012.

It's quite ironic USC has now hit rock bottom with these NCAA CARA violations. 

And to think Mike Garrett once thought he had all the answers.


Despite the many things said about the USC baseball program over the past few years, there's one constant, and it's that everyone believes college baseball is much better when the perennial powers such as the Trojans, LSU and Texas are good.

It looks on the surface like USC would be a rather easy place to turnaround a big-time program. The Trojans have a big-time brand behind the program by way of the university, and to a large percentage of the California population, it is still the "it" institution in the state.

But while things once were very easy for USC baseball, the dynamic has changed over the past decade. The Trojans aren't the "it" baseball program in the region. That title belongs to UCLA, which by the way, is coached by John Savage, the Trojans pitching coach on the 2008 national title team that defeated Arizona State.

Winning big isn't so easy at USC anymore.

As documented as the Trojans' fall from grace has been over the past seven years, equally impressive is the Bruins' rise to power.

Savage took over UCLA in 2005 after a three-year stint as the head man at newly-built UC Irvine. His first season with the Bruins didn't go to well with a 15-41 overall record, but it has been, for the most part, all success from there.

The Bruins made three-straight postseason appearances from 2006-08, including an NCAA Super Regional appearance in '07. They missed the postseason in '09, but responded in a huge way in '10 with a College World Series runner-up showing, while an NCAA Regional appearance was in store in '11 and they reached another CWS last season.

Barring somewhat of a surprise, UCLA expects to return to Omaha this spring, too. Meanwhile, USC just hopes to stay out of the Pac-12 cellar. Digging deeper into the difference between the Trojans and Bruins over the last seven years, here are some figures to chew on: Savage has a 258-163 (.612) record at UCLA since Gillespie was removed from the USC program. The Trojans during that time span? Zero postseason appearances.

"I think we need to get the guys we're going to get on the recruiting trail, mostly guys that will go to college. And quite frankly, we just need to win," Hubbs said. "When this place wins, everyone comes here. We just need to identify the right guys. Period. Getting guys that want to come USC isn't the issue at all."

The Trojans have been slammed by the MLB draft and transfers over the past few seasons. For instance, the 2011 recruiting class, ranked No. 24 nationally, lost some guys to the draft, but also no longer includes Ryan Garvey and Stephen Tarpley, who have since transferred to junior colleges after arriving on campus with the Trojans. Meanwhile, the 2012 class included guys such as Rio Ruiz, Shane Watson and Chase DeJong, all guys who wound up signing the dotted line at the MLB draft signing deadline.

What also comes with the territory of identifying the right recruits also comes the tough chore of going up against UCLA and other area public institutions from a financial standpoint.

As attractive as USC and its history might be to a prospective student-athlete, it's not a cheap institution to attend. USC costs $55,000 per year to attend with tuition and housing. By comparison, students at UCLA pay $30,000 per year for housing and tuition, obviously a stark contrast. The difference is much wider when you compare USC to programs such as Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and Long Beach State. Hubbs noted that USC was $13,000 per year when he played in the program from 1991-93.

"The two private schools that seem to keep a lot of their guys are Vanderbilt and Stanford. You have to keep guys, it's plain and simple," he said. "We have to turn our place into Stanford, where we make our dollars stretch and work. We're going to have to get creative."

Time will tell what happens with the USC program this season and beyond. The Trojans made a decision seven years ago to part ways with a college baseball coaching legend. They've paid gravely for that decision, with Savage-led UCLA becoming the area's premier program.

This go-round, this situation, wasn't something USC ever wished or hoped for. But it's something they must deal with while going head-to-head with powerful UCLA and others in the Pac-12.

Maybe for once, what USC didn't wish for will ultimately be what turns this program around.

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