UPDATED: Wednesday, 1:49 a.m. ET
Southern California fired head coach Frank Cruz on Wednesday, six days after it suspended him pending an investigation into an NCAA rules infraction. Dan Hubbs, in his second season at USC, has been elevated from associate head coach to head coach.
In a release, the school said it was dismissing Cruz for "knowingly violating NCAA Countable Athletically-Related Activities limitations within his program."
Those CARA rules restrict the number of hours student-athletes can spend in activities directed by or supervised by the coaching staff. USC has also self-imposed a reduction in the number of practice session hours for its baseball team this season and next season.
"Adhering to all NCAA rules is paramount for each one of our coaches, student-athletes and staff members," USC athletic director Pat Haden said in the release. "Those who knowingly break NCAA rules are subject to termination."
Cruz started his college coaching career as an assistant under Mike Gillespie at USC from 1993-96, then spent 12 seasons as the head coach at Loyola Marymount, leading the Lions to three regionals. He joined Chad Kreuter's staff as a volunteer after he was fired from LMU, then became the interim head coach when Kreuter was dismissed in August 2010.
Cruz led a feisty Trojans club to a respectable 13-14 Pacific-12 Conference finish in 2011, and he was rewarded that May, when Haden made him the full-time head coach. But USC took a major step backward last year, going 8-22 in Pac-12 play to finish in 10th place. The Trojans went 48-63 overall in his two seasons.
"I want to thank USC for the opportunity to coach such a storied program," Cruz said on Twitter on Wednesday evening. "All of my efforts were aimed at returning USC to greatness, both on and off the field. The Trojan family deserves and demands nothing less. I am responsible for recording all practice hours and for the required compliance. Any oversight was unintended.
"I thank the USC family, USC athletics, alumni, players & parents for an extraordinary experience and I wish the team & our recruits success."
USC's rich baseball tradition—which includes 12 national championships, the last coming in 1998 under Gillespie—has not been able to save the program from falling into a state of national irrelevance since Gillespie was forced out in favor of his son-in-law, Kreuter, after the 2006 season. The Trojans haven't made a regional—or even posted a winning season—since 2005, though they finished exactly .500 overall twice. In six years under Kreuter and Cruz, USC has gone 60-99 (.377) in conference play and 159-180 (.469) overall.
A big part of the problem has been recruiting. USC has secured commitments from marquee recruits every year, but the Trojans never had a realistic shot to get many of them through the draft and onto campus. Consider the litany of big-name USC recruits who have signed pro contracts out of high school since 2006: Rio Ruiz, Shane Watson, Travis Harrison, Christian Lopes, Joc Pederson, Angelo Gumbs, Matt Davidson, Jio Mier, Jeff Malm, Aaron Northcraft, Tim Beckham, Aaron Hicks, Mike Moustakas, Mike Stanton, Hank Conger.
The Trojans have five recruits in BA's High School Top 100 prospects list for the 2013 draft, including four in the top 31. But USC has no chance to land J.P. Crawford (No. 5) or Dominic Smith (No. 6), and Rowdy Tellez (No. 16) seems like another long shot. Jeremy Martinez (No. 31) and Ryan McMahon (No. 66) have better chances to show up at school, but there is still plenty of draft risk with both.
Of course, USC brought in the nation's No. 19 recruiting class this past fall, a group anchored by blue-chip lefthander Kyle Twomey. A year earlier, USC's class ranked No. 11, but two of the pillars of that class—lefthander Stephen Tarpley and outfielder Ryan Garvey, have already transferred to other schools. Garvey proved under-equipped to compete at USC in the fall of his freshman year, but the loss of the talented Tarpley, who left to become eligible for the draft a year earlier by playing at a junior college, was a real blow.
Hubbs, a former USC pitcher who spent 12 years as the pitching coach at California before joining Cruz's staff last year, has a great baseball mind and a strong recruiting track record, and he has a chance to turn the program around. But it won't be easy, and if USC struggles this year as expected, the Trojans could undertake a national coaching search this summer. Still, the school made no mention of the words "interim" or "coaching search" in its release.
"I'm confident that Dan Hubbs and his staff will lead our team to a successful season," Haden said. "Dan is a good coach, he is highly regarded in the baseball community and he has strong Trojan roots."
Hubbs also played a major role in helping lead Cal to three regionals in his final four years at Cal, including a run to the 2011 College World Series while the program was on the chopping block for much of the season. Haden is correct that Hubbs is well regarded in coaching and scouting circles.
But winning at USC is much more difficult than it used to be, now that less expensive public schools UCLA and Cal State Fullerton have emerged as the region's primary powers. During Rod Dedeaux's USC dynasty, UCLA was largely irrelevant, and Fullerton wasn't a factor until the tail end of the run in the mid-1970s. The Trojans even have more competition among private schools in the area, as San Diego now has a better facility and a much stronger recent track record than USC, and Pepperdine has been a consistent winner for a long time. USC has fallen behind all of those of those programs since Gillespie left.
And in case you'd forgotten, UC Irvine—where Gillespie is in his sixth season as head coach—has blown past the Trojans as well, making six regionals since USC's last trip in 2005. How different would USC's recent history have been if former AD Mike Garrett hadn't made the disastrous decision to force Gillespie out in 2006?
Cruz did not return a phone call Wednesday afternoon. Hubbs did speak with Baseball America on Wednesday evening; read an in-depth Q&A with him here.
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