USC Baseball’s Run of Poor Seasons All Goes Back to Recruiting

(Photo Credit: Shotgun Spratling/College Baseball Daily)

The Trojans have not put a winning team on the field since 2005. (Photo Credit: Shotgun Spratling/College Baseball Daily)

There are many reasons USC named its baseball stadium after Rod Dedeaux. He spent 45 years as head coach. He won an unmatched 11 College World Series titles, including five in a row from 1970 to 1974. He was named Baseball America’s “Coach of the Century.”

But many of the students who came through USC during his tenure from 1942 to 1986 probably appreciate one thing most: the free beers.

“Rod Dedeaux used to buy a keg and set it behind the visitor’s dugout,” says Steve Lopes, USC’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer. “Red cups in the stands. A couple hundred kids would show up.”

Not that USC baseball necessarily needed a steady flow of alcohol to be enjoyed while Dedeaux was head coach. He won 70 percent of his games, helped to develop 59 Major League players and led the Trojans to 28 conference titles.

“They were like the Celtics winning championships in basketball,” says Aaron Fitt, national college baseball writer for Baseball America. “They were royalty in college baseball.”

But the kings have lost their crown in recent years. The Trojans have not had a winning season since 2005, the longest drought for a school that has been playing baseball since 1889. In those seven years, they have produced just two Baseball America All-Americans after having 10 such players the previous eight years. The baseball powerhouse has become a lightweight, but why?

In 1976, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote that Dedeaux’s USC program was “the greatest farm club in the history of the major leagues… and the most consistent supplier of major league talent the past 10.” Over the last several years, though, USC has not been able to get top high school players to the “farm club,” and the team on the field floundered to the longest span in Trojans history without making the NCAA Tournament.

Public vs. Private

“The lifeblood of our athletics program is recruiting,” Lopes says. “You get the best players, you’ll win the most of the games.”

College baseball programs are limited to 11.7 scholarships per team (not per year, per team), but can give student-athletes anywhere from a 1-percent scholarship to a full ride. College baseball teams usually carry more players than the 25-man rosters in Major League Baseball. With so few scholarships to give out, private schools like USC are often at a disadvantage.

The majority of scholarships given out are 25 percent or 50 percent. Trojans head coach Dan Hubbs may go into a player’s home and offer a half-scholarship to play for USC. It’s not bad, but then the player’s parents still have to pay about $25,000 per year for him to attend the university.

When UCLA head coach John Savage offers a half-scholarship to a California native, the remaining cost for parents is only $16,101 per year, going by estimated student budgets provided by UCLA. That difference of $36,000 over four years can have a substantial impact in a student-athlete’s choice of school, and public universities like UC Irvine (six straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2006 to 2011) and Cal State Fullerton (seven College World Series appearances since 1999) can reap the benefits of recruiting athletes from the high school baseball hotbed of California and being a less expensive option than USC.

However, college baseball is not completely dominated by public schools. Universities like Stanford, Rice and Vanderbilt consistently build quality teams despite expensive tuitions and the same 11.7-scholarship limit.

Stanford is the most unique school in Division I, Lopes says. He cites the university’s ability to offer a full scholarship to any accepted student with a single parent making less than $60,000 or a family making less than $120,000. The same goes for potential players at Rice who come from certain income levels. A questionnaire on the Rice Athletics website asks potential recruits to identify family income level: Less than $80,000; Between $80,000 to $120,000; Between $120,000 to $150,000; and Greater than $150,000. The need-based academic scholarships they can offer do not take any slice of the 11.7 baseball scholarships each program has.

“It takes their athletic dollars much further,” Lopes said.

Schools can’t combine acadmeic aid and athletic aid, so USC Athletics could not piece together a half-tuition academic merit scholarship with a half-tuition baseball scholarship to create a full ride. Rice and Vanderbilt, like Stanford are all have smaller student bodies and a larger endowment per undergraduate than USC, giving those schools a better ability to offer academic aid.

School Number of Undergraduates Endowment Endowment per Undergraduate
USC 17,414 $3.489 billion $200,356
Stanford 6,999 $17.04 billion $2,434,634
Rice 3,708 $4.5 billion $1,213,592
Vanderbilt 6,796 $3.399 billion $500,147

(Source: National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund Institute)

But California’s public universities have been less expensive than USC for decades, and it did not stop the Trojans from being one of the powerhouses of college baseball.

“USC doesn’t have quite the same academic reputation as Vanderbilt and Stanford, but there’s no reason USC shouldn’t be able to find talent,” says Shotgun Spratling, who covers the Southern California region for College Baseball Daily. “There are plenty of players that come from families living comfortably enough for the tuition difference at a private school to not be an overwhelming burden.”

One decision in particular changed the program’s fortunes over the last decade.

A Short-Lived Head Coach

Mike Gillespie led USC’s baseball teams to the NCAA Regionals 15 times in 20 seasons as the Trojans head coach, making four appearances in the College World Series. He “retired” from the program after the 2006 season, only to be hired at UC Irvine less than 16 months later.

His retirement was more likely a case of being forced out after only one winning season in his last four years as head coach. However Gillespie was relieved of duties, the team was taken over by his son-in-law Chad Kreuter, a former USC catcher who played in the Major Leagues and had minor league managing experience before returning to Troy.

Despite Kreuter’s professional baseball experience, he had never been a head coach at the college level, and he quickly had problems getting top players to USC.

“He didn’t know what he was doing,” Fitt says. “I hate to put it so bluntly, but when it comes down to it, he didn’t know how to recruit to the college game… It was an unmitigated disaster.”

Fitt says Kreuter’s focus was on recruiting big-name players. The problem was, he says, most of those guys had “no chance of showing up to school” over signing a pro contract out of high school.

“So then they were decimated the next fall,” Fitt says. “None of the guys showed up. It’s just not how you win in college baseball, and he never quite got it.”

Another issue with bringing in Kreuter was that he had been around pro baseball for so long that he had no sense of how college coaches bring in high school players.

“How does he know where the recruits are? How does he evaluate talent or have a network of [high school] head coaches?” Lopes asks. “You need a network of people who have built relationships.”

Poor recruiting classes led to a disastrous four-year stint for Kreuter. His teams went 39-63 in conference play, never finishing better than fifth in the Pac-10 conference. Meanwhile, Gillespie’s UC Irvine teams continued the success started by former head coach Dave Serrano. Gillespie went 69-27 in conference play and led the Anteaters to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first four seasons at the helm.

“Mike Gillespie is one of the great coaches in college baseball, certainly the most respected coach in the West Coast,” Fitt says. “They always talk about how Gillespie gets the most out of his players and his team is just so well coached.”

Building Back Up

USC is still recovering from Chad Kreuter’s tenure, even though he was fired in August 2010. “The cupboards were bare,” as Fitt puts it, for new skipper Frank Cruz. After coaching as an assistant under Gillespie from 1993 to 1996, Cruz was the head coach for 12 seasons at nearby Loyola Marymount, then served as a volunteer assistant under Kreuter. He became USC’s interim head coach in 2011 after Kreuter was fired. The team continued to flounder during Cruz’s two seasons (including an 8-22 Pac-12 record in 2012, the most conference losses for USC since 1985).

Cruz was fired just days before the start of the 2013 season for “knowingly violating” NCAA rules that restrict the amount of time players can participate in activities supervised by coaches. That left the Trojans in the hands of Dan Hubbs. It is his first college head-coaching job, but unlike Kreuter, Hubbs brings 13 years of experience as an assistant at Cal and USC.

It continues be slow going for the Trojans this year, with a 12-20 record and a 5-7 mark in Pac-12 play.

“He’s made some questionable decisions, which is to be expected of a coach without much experience in this role,” Spratling says. “But he wasn’t dealt a full hand.”

Though Hubbs is not labeled “interim” head coach like Cruz was, Lopes says he will be evaluated after the season. His successful run as Cal’s pitching coach is certainly a mark in his favor, according to Fitt. Hubbs is in charge of a roster with 16 true freshmen that is still hovering in the bottom half of the Pac-12 conference.

“They’re not overly talented, they’re very young in certain areas,” Fitt says. “But they battle, and I think that’s a sign of good coaching and a program I think is headed in the right direction.”

The pedigree of great college baseball is unmistakable at USC. Fans see it every time they walk up to the stadium. Banners marking the Trojans’ 12 National Championships line Mark McGwire Way as people approach the entrance to Dedeaux Field. They see the face of Gillespie on the scoreboard, the only other man besides Dedeaux to lead USC to a College World Series title.

The history of the USC baseball program is obvious, from the beer-soaked National Championship days of Dedeaux to the success of Gillespie. Now it is time for Hubbs to live up to it.

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