Twenty-five years have passed since Southern California won its 12th, and most recent, national title in baseball.
Once the gold standard, the Trojans are two decades into a down cycle that has seen the program go through four coaches since Mike Gillespie, the last tie to the glorious Rod Dedeaux era, was forced out.
Since 2006, USC has made the NCAA Tournament once and has had a winning record in Pac-12 play just twice. The Trojans finished last in 2022 and are picked 10th in coach Andy Stankiewicz’s first year.
“It’s been disappointing, to say the least, to see what’s happened,” said former major league star Fred Lynn, one of the program’s beloved figures who won national titles all three years he was with the Trojans in the 1970s.
“I’m a glass-half-full guy and hopeful things can turn around. I don’t want to look at the standings of wherever we’re playing — the Pac-12, Big Ten — and see us at the bottom. That’s so foreign to me and hard to watch.”
Stankiewicz — who appeared in 429 games in seven seasons in the majors with the New York Yankees, Houston, Montreal and Arizona — expects to have the program on an upward trajectory by the time the Trojans and crosstown rival UCLA begin playing in the Big Ten in two seasons. With their inherent recruiting and weather advantages, both should challenge for titles every year in their new conference.
The 58-year-old Stankiewicz has a deep understanding of USC’s traditional place in college baseball — the Trojans have twice as many national titles as any other school — and he appears to be an ideal fit.
He grew up in suburban Los Angeles and watched as Dedeaux stacked up the last of his 11 national titles in the 1970s. He had hoped to play for the Trojans, but it was Pepperdine that offered a scholarship.
“I was on the outside looking in and you’re always asking, ’What’s it like to play for Coach Dedeaux?”’ he said. “Then you’re playing against Mark McGwire and Randy Johnson at Dedeaux Field, this iconic ballpark. You wanted to beat them because you’re competitive, but you also knew this place was pretty special.”
His only other college head coaching job was at Grand Canyon, which he led to five Western Athletic Conference titles since 2015 and two NCAA Tournaments.
“I loved Grand Canyon — they gave me an opportunity to be a head coach — but if ever there was a place intriguing to me as one day possibly coaching, it was SC,” Stankiewicz said.
The Trojans brought back 19 players, including the top two starting pitchers and three everyday players. Stankiewicz’s top priorities were to earn the trust of players through the summer and fall practices and ramp up recruiting.
He hired an impressive staff, including a connection to better times in pitching coach Seth Etherton. He pitched on the 1998 national championship team and was that season’s national player of the year.
“One thing that has gotten lost over the years was the young men understanding the legacy of the players who put USC on the map, from Rod Dedeaux to the Fred Lynns,” Etherton said. “It’s necessary for me to give these guys a history of USC baseball, have them understand what it means to put this logo on your hat and on your jersey. It’s the greatest program in the history of college baseball, and it’s really not even close compared to anyone else.”
The Trojans opened the season with a three-game sweep of Marist before losing a mid-week game to UC Irvine.
They head to Auburn this weekend to play a Tigers team that has appeared in two of the last three College World Series. It will be a measuring-stick series for the Trojans.
Why did the Trojans fall so hard?
Andy Lopez, a College Baseball Hall of Fame coach and Pac-12 Network analyst, points to two factors.
First, the start of the decline coincided with UCLA’s hiring of John Savage in 2005. The Bruins capitalized on the controversial firing of Gillespie in 2006 and established themselves at the top of the Los Angeles area’s college baseball power structure, winning the 2013 national title.
Second, the Trojans swung and missed on their attempts to make splash hires and stayed in-house for the first three coaches after Gillespie. Chad Kreuter, Gillespie’s son-in-law, had losing seasons all four of his years. Frank Cruz was elevated from interim coach and fired after two seasons for violating NCAA rules.
Dan Hubbs, Cruz’s associate head coach, was promoted and lasted seven years. USC then went outside to hire Jason Gill from Loyola Marymount. Gill’s three seasons were marred by the school’s investigations into his treatment of players and possible NCAA violations.
“Good baseball guys,” Lopez said, “but probaby not the right hire at the time when John Savage was at UCLA.”
Lopez said he thinks Stankiewicz is the right guy and that the Trojans’ timetable for improvement could be accelerated with the move out of the Pac-12.
“It’s going to be the Big Ten and you’re going to be fine there,” Lopez said he told him in a phone call after his hiring. “You’re still going to have John at UCLA, but when you look at that conference, you’re going to be OK.”
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