Image credit: USC athletic director Lynn Swann (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
On May 29, Southern California athletic director Lynn Swann announced that the contract of head coach Dan Hubbs would not be renewed. That brought an end to a seven-year tenure for Hubbs that produced just one postseason appearance, in 2015, and a 188-200-1 overall record.
Hubbs pitched for USC from 1990-93, and after a seven-season playing career in the Dodgers and Phillies organizations, he began his college coaching career as an assistant at California from 2000-2011.
He moved back to Los Angeles to become USC’s associate head coach prior to the 2012 campaign, and after the firing of Frank Cruz at the conclusion of that season, Hubbs was promoted to head coach.
There is no arguing that Hubbs brought stability to a program that desperately needed it. After USC fired longtime head coach Mike Gillespie in 2006, the Trojans took a step back in four seasons under Chad Krueter. The situation became worse when Cruz lasted just two years before he was fired for violating the NCAA’s limit on practice time.
Relative success also quickly followed Hubbs taking the job. The Trojans went from 20 wins to 29 wins to 39 wins and a regional appearance in his first three seasons. But Hubbs has not been able to maintain that same level of success, and the Trojans haven’t had a winning season since that 2015 NCAA Tournament appearance.
In a perfect world, USC will find the head coach who can deliver another national title to a program that already owns 12 of them, the most of any school. But before the Trojans can think about adding to their trophy case, they need to find a coach who can put them back in regionals on a consistent basis.
Previous Head Coach
Dan Hubbs: 188-200-1, seven seasons
There is a perception that USC is a job with immense potential and there’s no doubt the ceiling is high. But it’s a more complicated job than the surface-level perception. What it has going for it is obvious. It’s a Pac-12 job located in talent-rich Southern California, and it has a powerful brand. On the other hand, the school has not been committed to baseball at a high level for some time, and as a result USC is digging out of a hole. Overall, USC’s athletic department isn’t in tip-top shape right now, with its football and men’s basketball programs also struggling and the university as a whole deeply ensnared in the college admissions scandal uncovered by the FBI. Also, in the last decade-plus since USC’s slide began, UCLA has become a national power under John Savage. A fully functional USC should have no real trouble breaking back into the Pac-12’s top tier but competing with the powerhouse in Westwood won’t be as simple.
Gabe Alvarez, recruiting coordinator, Southern California
A former All-American at USC and big leaguer with the Tigers and Padres, Alvarez has been on staff under Cruz and Hubbs for the last nine seasons. As a current assistant, he’s familiar with the personnel, the recruiting classes and he would provide an easy transition. The Trojans have also continued to stockpile impressive talent, even as the results have waned, so his experience as the program’s recruiting coordinator is a feather in his cap. USC has a somewhat insular athletic department that has placed great value on USC experience in the past, which could benefit Alvarez’s candidacy, but on the other hand, Swann might be looking to start fresh.
Andrew Checketts, head coach, UC Santa Barbara
Checketts will be high on the wish list of every athletic director looking to fill a job on the West Coast, and USC is probably no exception. He’s turned the Gauchos into a Big West power, leading them to a series of milestones in recent years, including hosting a regional (2015), reaching the CWS (2016) and winning the Big West (2019, first since 1986). He also helped lead UC Riverside to a Big West title as an assistant in 2007, and with previous stops at Oregon State (as a player) and Oregon (as an assistant coach), he’s got Pac-12 experience as well. If USC wants to seriously get involved with Checketts, it will have to compete with a number of other programs, and don’t discount the chances that he stays where he is, in a good situation at UCSB.
Jason Gill, head coach, Loyola Marymount
Gill has been at the helm of LMU for 11 seasons now, leading the Lions to 30-plus wins six times. In 2019, the program went to its first regional since 2000 and upset No. 1 overall seed UCLA in a winners’ bracket game before ultimately losing to the Bruins in the regional final. With assistant coaching stops at Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine, Gill would come to the job with serious Southern California bona fides. He also spent four years as an assistant coach at Oregon, helping to relaunch the program, giving him Pac-12 experience.
Andy Stankiewicz, head coach, Grand Canyon
Having played in the big leagues, managed in the minor leagues, worked as the Mariners’ minor league fielding coordinator, served as an assistant coach at Arizona State and now as the head coach at Grand Canyon, Stankiewicz has approached the game of baseball from all angles. He led the Lopes in their transition from Division II to Division I, after which they were competitive immediately, and in 2017 and 2018, he guided the team to WAC regular season titles.
USC as a Brand Name
The university’s recent struggles in a number of high-profile sports and various off-field scandals haven’t helped matters, but USC is still very much a national brand. At this point, however, very little of that cache is derived from the performance of the baseball program. Longtime college baseball observers recall USC as the preeminent program of the 1970s and as a nationally relevant entity as recently as the early 2000s. But that hasn’t helped much lately, and the rise of UCLA only makes things tougher.
The Alumni Factor
How much will USC ties matter? Historically, it has mattered a lot. Both Hubbs and Cruz were elevated from assistant coach to head coach. Chad Kreuter, the head coach prior to Cruz, wasn’t a USC alum or former assistant, but he was the son-in-law of his predecessor, Mike Gillespie. And that’s not just true with the baseball program. If you include interim coaches, the last four USC football coaches had all coached there prior to being hired as head coach. And Swann himself, of course, is a USC alum. It’s not altogether uncommon for athletic departments to look to alumni and former assistants first for openings, but given the relative lack of success over the last 15 years, perhaps a hard reset would be a welcome change.
The new head coach will have some rebuilding to do. Top hitters Matthew Acosta, Blake Sabol, and C.J. Stubbs are all draft risks, as is top starting pitcher Connor Lunn and relief ace Chris Clarke. Righthander Kyle Hurt, a draft-eligible sophomore, is more likely to return to school, but could also leave as well. Outfielders Brady Shockey (.295/.331/.403) and Jamal O’Guinn (.281/.401/.452), and lefthanders Isaac Esqueda (3-5, 3.94) and John Beller (2-2, 3.86) make up a group of underclassmen who could very well be part of the new foundation at USC, but this isn’t likely to be a turnkey operation in 2020.