Filling Huge Shoes

LSU and USC have new coaches, with big expectations



 
 

Jan. 27, 2007

By Glenn Tanner

Special to CSTV.com

 



Glenn Tanner

Glenn Tanner reports from Big 12 country.
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High-profile coaching jobs are pressure cookers, no matter what the sport. This spring college baseball welcomes new head coaches into two of its most prestigious jobs: LSU and Southern California. USC and LSU have won a combined 17 national titles, and the success of each program can be attributed to the standard set by a legendary coach. There are huge shoes to fill on each campus, but each school has a new coach who's ready for the challenge.

 

Being the LSU baseball coach looks frighteningly similar to being the Alabama football coach. Bear Bryant not only turned the Tide into a perennial national powerhouse, he also became a cultural icon in the state. Since Bryant's retirement, no one has been able to fill his shoes for very long. In the last 25 years, Alabama has gone through football coaches quicker than... well, quicker than Nick Saban has gone through coaching jobs. 

 

Skip Bertman is college baseball's Bear Bryant. Bertman built a program that not only won five national titles, but also annually leads the NCAA in attendance.

 

In 2001, Bertman announced that he would move to the LSU athletic director's office at the end of the season and took the unusual step of bringing in his successor to serve as an assistant coach. Smoke Laval had been a Bertman assistant for nine years before leaving to have success as Louisiana-Monroe's coach, so he looked like a good fit.

 

Once Laval assumed the reins in 2002, however, he settled in about as well as a Mentos in a bottle of Coke. 

 

Though Laval took the Tigers to a Super Regional his first year and to Omaha his second, fans criticized him heavily after every loss and sometimes even after wins. When LSU failed to make the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in 18 years, Laval resigned under pressure.

 

Into this boiling pot goes former Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri. But Mainieri's not worried about the heat. In fact, he sounds like he likes it hot.

 

"A lot of people have asked me why I'd take a job with Skip looking over my shoulder as the Athletic Director, and I tell them that's part of the reason I took the job," explained Mainieri. "You've got arguably the greatest coach ever-what a great resource! You've got a guy who has won five national championships to lean on for advice, and I do."

 

Mainieri's resume is extremely impressive because he achieved what is seemingly impossible in college baseball-sustained national success at a northern school. The Irish were one of only six teams to reach a Regional final every year from 2000-2005, and the other five are the big bullies of college hardball: Texas, Stanford, LSU, Miami, Rice and South Carolina. His 2002 team made the College World Series and even won a couple of games there, giving Mainieri two more wins in Omaha than Laval. 

 

LSU fans will also expect success in Omaha, but two wins there in six years won't cut it. Tiger fans expect to see their boys dogpiling in Rosenblatt regularly. Mainieri understands and accepts these expectations. 

 

"I took this job because I wanted the challenge and I wanted to be at a place where baseball is so important to the community and the expectations are high," Mainieri said. "You can't have all the resources that LSU has-great fan support, great facilities, warm weather and a great conference-and not have the expectations."

 

In fact, Mainieri might fit right in with LSU's fanatical fans:  "There's not one person who's going to follow our team or watch our games with higher expectations than I have," he said.

 

Although LSU will be far different from Notre Dame, Mainieri says that he won't change. 

 

"I tell every kid I recruit that there are three things they have to promise me they're going to do," he added. "Number one, that they're going to take their God-given talent and develop it to the fullest. Two, that they're going to work towards a degree. And third, that they're going to be good citizens. That's no different than what I told the kids at Notre Dame."

 

That formula produced historic success at Notre Dame. If it also produces historic success at LSU, Mainieri might one day be tougher to replace than Bertman. 

 

If Skip Bertman is Bear Bryant, then former Southern California coach Rod Dedeaux is John Wooden. Dedeaux won an incredible 10 CWS titles, including five in a row from 1970-74. 

 

When Dedeaux's 44-year career ended in 1986, he was replaced by one of his former players, Mike Gillespie. Unlike Laval, Gillespie was unburdened by a rabid fan base and settled into long-term success on the job, taking the Trojans to Omaha four times and winning it all in 1998. So when Gillespie retired last June, USC hired only its third head coach since 1942.

 

Technically, their choice didn't come out of left field, it only seemed that way.

 

The hiring of Chad Kreuter produced a lot of head scratching.  Kreuter, whose 17-year major league career as a backup catcher ended in 2003, has very little coaching experience on his resume. 

 

He spent 2005 with USC as a volunteer assistant and as Director of Baseball Operations, an administrative position. His only head coaching experience came last year as the skipper of the single-A Modesto Nuts. 

 

While many people think the Trojans were nuts to hire him, Kreuter did have a champion in his corner. Kreuter's father-in-law is Mike Gillespie.

 

In fact, Kreuter's 1985 marriage to Kelly Gillespie both drew him to USC and also gave him coaching experience even before his playing career ended. 

 

"When I retired, I wanted to help my father-in-law out and really help preserve his legacy," explained Kreuter. "I had been involved with USC baseball since the time he first took this job. We've been on the ride with him every step of the way. This is where I worked out during my offseasons and spent time with the players who had come through here, the Zitos, the Priors, the Boone brothers. I was always out in the cages, and at one point, I was actually an assistant during the fall period one of those first years.  They had a junior varsity team at that time, and I ran the team. I guess it would be a natural fit that I ended up here because I have been involved with it so long, but without that relationship, I'd probably be coaching pro ball."

 

Now, instead of Kreuter helping out his father-in-law, Mike Gillespie is helping out his son-in-law.

 

"We talk just about every day," Kreuter said of Gillespie. "Most of the players on the field are guys he recruited, and I want to get a feel from him where they fit. The big part of this job is not so much the coaching and managing, it's the administrative work that goes with it, and that's one of the things I've had to learn, and he has been a huge help."

 

Gillespie successfully handled the pressures of replacing a legend in Dedeaux, and Kreuter will also face pressures as the new man.  So far, though, Gillespie hasn't specifically advised Kreuter on how to live up to his predecessor.

 

"He hasn't given me any advice other than just being able to be there for me," said Kreuter. "I can call him right now and he'll answer any question I have. He has been there for me. That's probably the biggest thing he has done."

 

In coaching, one of the keys to replacing a great coach is having that coach on your side. Gillespie had a good relationship with Dedeaux. Kreuter might have it a little easier. As long as his wife Kelly is happy, her dad will provide Kreuter with unlimited support.

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