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Southern California Baseball Coaching Search, Job Profile & Candidates

Southern California on Monday parted ways with coach Jason Gill after three seasons. The Trojans had a 60-59 record overall under Gill and went 21-39 in Pac-12 games.

It’s a very quick change for USC in the context of what the last three seasons have entailed. Gill’s first season was the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and his second season began with the Trojans not having any fall practice due to continued Covid protocols. It’s tough to build much momentum in that situation.

On the other hand, it’s also tough to make an impassioned argument for patience based on the on-field results. After a 2020 season marked by a 10-5 record and some inspired play early on, the Trojans finished tied for eighth in the Pac-12 in 2021 with a 13-17 record and came in last in 2022 by going 8-22.

USC’s continued irrelevance nationally in college baseball is one of the most confounding situations in the sport. The Trojans have been to the postseason once since 2005 and will soon be on their fifth head coach in that time.

Some of the coaches brought on since USC fired Mike Gillespie after the 2006 season were bad choices, others were just uninspired hires. They’ve all resulted in the program underperforming, not just compared to USC’s historical success but also based on the way the program continues to recruit—it still routinely has Top 25 recruiting classes (nine in the last 12 years)—and with the natural advantages it has in geography, history and cache.

USC’s struggles within the university as a whole over the last decade are well-documented, including multiple scandals, so there’s a lot going on here beyond hiring the wrong coaches. Even in light of that, it’s hard to believe that the baseball program hasn’t found something closer to a winning formula on the diamond just by happenstance.

That’s the reality, though, and so here USC is again, looking for the right guy to turn the latent potential that always exists with the program into results.

Previous Head Coach

Jason Gill: 60-59, three seasons

Job Description

At this point, USC as a national power in college baseball exists just in the history books. Many of the players it is currently recruiting weren’t born the last time the Trojans won a regional in 2005 and a vanishingly small number of current USC players were born the last time the program went to the College World Series in 2001. There’s always going to be potential at USC. It’s a prestigious brand, it has local access to some of the best prep baseball talent in the country and, in the Pac-12, postseason trips are eminently reachable, even if USC has made it look difficult for the better part of two decades. However, it is fair to wonder about USC’s ceiling as it stands right now. Historic Dedeaux Field has fallen behind the best in playing facilities, not just nationally but within the Pac-12. More and more of the best Southern California baseball talent is heading East to play in other major conferences than ever before and what talent does stay on the West Coast tends to look first at crosstown rival UCLA, which has filled in the power vacuum in the city. And flatly, college baseball isn’t as West Coast-centric as it was during USC’s heyday. Just ask Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and Arizona State, all of which have fallen on tough times in the last five years. Given some of the advantages, USC’s baseline season should probably be higher, but even with the right coach, a return to the game’s elite is far from a given.

Is Lincoln Riley’s hiring a tea leaf worth reading?

When we did this same exercise just three short years ago, we mused that it might behoove USC to look outside the family. While Gill wasn’t a hire from within the USC family, it wasn’t a particularly outside-the-box hire, either. His roots are Southern California through and through and he was coming off of an 11-season stint as the coach at Loyola Marymount, just 12 miles Southwest of the USC campus. The tide appears to have turned within the athletic department, however. After years of insular hires by his predecessors in an attempt to resurrect a bygone era on the football field, new athletic director Mike Bohn, who perhaps not coincidentally was not hired from within the USC family, made a stunning hire six months ago in poaching Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. Is that a hiring process specific to football or is a hire that sends shockwaves through college baseball on the table?

Are expectations being raised?

USC’s two previous hires were coaches who came from places where one has to do more with less. Dan Hubbs was a longtime assistant at California, a notoriously under-supported program, before arriving in LA. Gill got LMU, a small private school in a quiet area of the city, to a regional for the first time in 19 years in his final season at the helm. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but in hindsight, it might also have been USC sending a message about what it expected from its baseball program. It’s unlikely USC pulled the plug on a coaching tenure after just three years to simply make another hire in the same vein.

Roster Outlook 

The USC roster throughout the entirety of Gill’s tenure was an amalgamation of players who played for the previous regime, players who were initially recruited by the previous regime who arrived at the same time as Gill and a smattering of younger players who were recruits of Gill and his staff. Perhaps as a result, USC’s roster over the last few years has felt much more like a collection of players than a cohesive team built around one vision. In that context, and in light of last season’s 8-22 Pac-12 record, it stands to reason that the team that takes the field in 2023 will look quite a bit different than the one we saw in 2022. Both the Hubbs and Gill coaching staffs recruited well, though, so there is some intriguing young talent to be found. Shortstop D’Andre Smith is one of the most exciting players on the West Coast, but it’s likely he’s drafted this summer and begins his pro career. Second baseman Tyresse Turner and center fielder Rhylan Thomas could both return, however, and would give the new coach excellent lineup cornerstones. Outfielder Adrian Colon-Rosado, catcher Garret Guillemette and first baseman Nick Lopez are also coming off of productive seasons and could return. On the mound, a rotation of righthanders Tyler Stromsborg, Charlie Hurley and Jaden Agassi, in some order, should be a massive reason for optimism, if the new coach can keep them in the program and get them to take steps forward next season. Righthanders Carson Lambert and Matt Keating also have eligibility left if they want to return to anchor the bullpen. As is always the case with USC, it’s not really a talent issue. It’s translating that talent into wins.

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The Candidates

USC is undoubtedly college baseball’s most vexing mystery. The Trojans have more national titles (12) than any other program. They play in Los Angeles. They have as strong a brand as any athletics department in the country. Why, then, can they not compete at a high level in baseball?

A greater investment would be a good place to start for USC and that starts with the coaching search. USC’s swoop in December for Lincoln Riley as well as its women’s basketball search last May that saw it hire Lindsay Gottlieb away from the Cleveland Cavaliers show what athletic director Mike Bohn is capable of. So, don’t expect anything less than a home run swing in this search.

So, what would a home run swing look like in this case? A move for a big-name, established head coach from outside the region can’t be ruled out. But those kinds of moves aren’t easy to finance in baseball, where you can’t rely on season ticket sales and luxury boxes to make the money back.

UC Santa Barbara’s Andrew Checketts was a target in the search three years ago, but USC wasn’t able to make it happen. There’s no doubt that Checketts, 46, is deserving of a long look. In 11 years at UCSB, he’s led the Gauchos to their first College World Series appearance, two Big West titles (their first since 1989), hosted a regional and won more than 40 games in each of the last three full seasons. The question now is if USC is able to pry him away from Santa Barbara. Checketts has built UCSB into the best program in the Big West and is very comfortable there.

Oregon’s Mark Wasikowski has done excellent work at Oregon since taking over following the 2019 season. The Ducks last year hosted a regional and this year made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. Wasikowski, 51, signed a significant contract extension following last season and it would take something special to pull him out of Eugene. He grew up not far away in Orange County.

Grand Canyon’s Andy Stankiewicz was also involved in the search three years ago and since then has just kept winning. The Antelopes have made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons, including an at-large bid this year. He has extensive experience in addition to his 11 seasons as head coach at GCU. He’s also been an assistant coach in the Pac-12 (Arizona State), a minor league manager, a field coordinator in pro ball and a big leaguer. Stankiewicz, 57, might not be the flashiest potential hire, but his baseball acumen is unquestioned.

Sacramento State coach Reggie Christiansen has over the last decade built one of the most consistent programs in California—only Stanford, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara have more wins since 2012—and has led the Hornets to their only three NCAA Tournament appearances in program history. He doesn’t have Pac-12 experience, but he’s more than proven that he knows how to win.

UC Irvine’s Ben Orloff, 35, is one of the best young coaches in the country. In 2021, he led his alma mater to its first Big West title since 2009 and the Anteaters are 120-66 in his four years as a head coach. It probably won’t be easy to pull Orloff away from his alma mater but life in the Big West isn’t getting any easier and he has the acumen to be a program builder.

Long Beach State's Eric Valenzuela made for an intriguing candidate three years ago when he was at Saint Mary's, but he ended up taking the job at Long Beach. He's produced a solid resume as a head coach, including taking SMC to its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. The Dirtbags haven't quite had a breakthrough season yet under Valenzuela, but they've certainly had some big moments and he knows the landscape in Southern California well.

If USC is looking to make a splash, Texas volunteer assistant Troy Tulowitzki is a potential target. The former all-star has been on staff with the Longhorns for three years since retiring as a player and also coached the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team last summer. A native of Southern California, he played at Long Beach State. He’s earned plenty of praise for his coaching, but taking over a program like USC would still be a big step up for the 37-year-old.

A trio of recent Pac-12 openings were filled by teams hiring a notable alumnus out of pro ball. If USC wants to follow that trend, it will have no shortage of options. Seth Etherton is the pitching coach for Triple-A Louisville and has college experience, as he spent two seasons on staff at San Francisco. Morgan Ensberg is in his third year as manager of Double-A Montgomery and also has college experience, spending two seasons on staff at UC San Diego.

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