LOS ANGELES – USC coach Chad Kreuter isn't a stranger to tough challenges.
Kreuter spent six seasons as a catcher in the big leagues and played for seven different organizations. Bouncing around was difficult, but Kreuter always found a way to make the best of his situation.
Just a few years later, Kreuter again faces a challenge – and this one is much more difficult. His status doesn't hinge on banging out a hit or blocking the plate. Instead, he's being measured by how much he wins as coach of the nation's most historic program.
So far, his report card isn't exactly sparkling. The real question, though, is will USC give him more time to right the ship?
The Trojans have been in a world of pain the past few seasons. They last reached an NCAA regional in 2005, where they compiled a record of 41-22 under legendary coach Mike Gillespie. The 2006 season, though, was a major disappointment. USC entered the season with high hopes, but finished 25-33. Most importantly, the Trojans failed to make a regional.
Gillespie was essentially run off after the season by USC athletic director Mike Garrett. Don't feel sorry for Gillespie – he's enjoying a wealth of success at nearby UC Irvine.
The Trojans, in turn, hired Kreuter, who happens to be Gillespie's son-in-law. Kreuter spent the '05 season on Gillespie's staff as the director of baseball operations. He also spent some time as manager of the Modesto Nuts, an advanced Single-A club. One thing lacking from his resume was previous experience as a college baseball coach.
No one will ever know exactly what Garrett was thinking when he hired the inexperienced Kreuter. Perhaps he believed that his Major League pedigree would enhance recruiting and fund-raising. This is not to suggest Kreuter is a complete failure. He's not. The Trojans are taking care of business in the classroom, Kreuter said, and growing as young men.
But, as Kreuter quickly is learning, academics and good citizenship have little bearing on a coach's job security. Especially at a school that has won the most baseball titles in NCAA history, 12 to be exact, and has made 21 College World Series appearances.
The Trojans expect to win, make a regional, make a super regional and get back to Omaha.
"There's probably a lot of Chad Kreuter haters out there, but there's something to say about that," Kreuter said. "Look at the body of work of these kids. We're trying to develop these guys as human beings and trying to make them top-flight baseball players at the same time. That's tough."
But what's even tougher for Kreuter is the fact that this team once again is on the outside looking in for an NCAA regional berth unless something dramatic changes the next few weeks. The Trojans are 11-12 with a less than stellar RPI.
In Kreuter's previous two seasons, the Trojans finished 28-28 and 27-29 and were not invited to an NCAA regional. The Trojans are in danger of not reaching a regional for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
Heading into Tuesday's game against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Kreuter's record is 66-69. As a result of his first two seasons and how the '09 campaign has transpired, many at USC already are calling for his dismissal at the end of the season. Wrong or right, that's the reality of coaching at a prestigious place like USC. Kreuter knew what the position entailed.
The fans, boosters and perhaps even some administrators demand much more. Heck, Kreuter, to a lesser extent, shares the same sentiments.
"If you would've asked me three years ago if I thought we'd be fighting to be .500 in year three, I would've said you were crazy," Kreuter said. "We really thought some players would come back the past two years, but they didn't. There are some reasons why we haven't accomplished those goals."
The Trojans lost key players in the MLB Draft in past years. Outfielder Nick Buss, for instance, is a guy the Trojans were counting on to be a big-time contributor this season. Instead, Buss signed with the Dodgers for $95,000.
The draft blues haven't stopped with players already on campus. The Trojans have lost several talented high school prospects to the MLB Draft and could lose a few more this summer.
Conventional wisdom suggests the Trojans should find a way to ditch some of the high-profile prospects for players that have a greater chance to go to school. But as Kreuter points out, it's not always that easy.
"It's tough to turn down guys that want to sign with your school but are expected to be high draft picks," he said. "Just look at Gerrit Cole, who decided to go to UCLA. Even if you decide you want to pass on a guy that will be drafted high, you take the chance of getting someone's leftovers. It's almost a lose-lose situation in some cases."
A lackadaisical attitude also has been an issue at USC in the past, but Kreuter believes the team is improving in that aspect. Known as a hard-nosed player, Kreuter would someday like to see his program compared to other perennial winners in talent-rich Southern California when it comes to attitude. Changing that, as with everything else, takes time.
"We want to have an attitude like Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine around here," he said. "No matter what happens in a game, those two programs always seem to have a feeling they're still going to win games. We're trying to drive that attitude home with our guys and I think it finally is starting to resonate in their minds."
Although All-American Trojan shortstop Grant Green is off to a rough start himself, he is heeding Kreuter's calls.
"I sat down with coach last week and we just talked about how all the lazy efforts were going to be out of the equation the rest of the season," Green said. "I thought we came out and displayed a good attitude against Arizona State. These struggles aren't going to last forever. That's what I'm telling our younger players right now."
Though the Trojans are beginning to pick things up from an attitude standpoint, Kreuter and his coaching staff essentially will spend the rest of the season wondering if Mike Garrett will side with the vocal crowd that is calling for change. They hope the athletic director will recognize the progress and positive direction of the program from their eyes.
Kreuter realizes the program isn't what it used to be. But he also maintains that winning big isn't as easy as it once was with many more schools in Southern California and throughout the Pacific 10 Conference becoming competitive.
Kreuter would like to continue tackling his latest challenge, but his future hinges on USC officials having patience. History suggests that isn't a strong suit with the folks of Troy.
"Those naysayers that say we have to get back to where we were 10 or 11 years ago don't realize that those type of days for any program are gone. There are just too many great teams out there," Kreuter said. "There's some great baseball around here and I'm just not sure anyone is in position to knock our kids and program for what we're trying to do."
Making a regional, though, isn't asking for much. After all, it wasn't too long ago the Trojans were hoisting a national title trophy in Omaha.
Kreuter knows what needs to happen. And there is no time to lose.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com and Yahoo! Sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.