By Dave Albee
As if replacing his successful father-in-law as head baseball coach at USC isn’t motivation enough, Chad Kreuter has found an even greater source of inspiration right next door.
The former major-league catcher and Marin native is embracing the chance to coach and work in the Los Angeles Coliseum-sized shadow of USC football coach and fellow Redwood High graduate Pete Carroll. Kreuter has one goal in mind, and it’s essentially the same one Carroll had when he arrived on campus.
“Restore the glory,” Kreuter said. “I shouldn’t say that because it’s not a knock on the (storied Trojans baseball) program but we are under a microscope now because of football.”
Carroll, hired by USC in 2001, led the Trojans to an Orange Bowl victory to cap the 2002 season, then won the national championship the next two years and just missed a “three-Pete” when USC lost the BCS title game last January. The Trojans have won 35 of their last 36 games and 46 of their last 48 games under Carroll.
Between former coach Mike Gillespie and Carroll, Kreuter has picked two tough acts to follow. In the case of Carroll, it’s something along the lines of Pharaoh following Moses.
“Tim Floyd (USC’s men’s basketball coach) jokes around about that, too,” Carroll said. “All I can do is apologize, I guess.”
USC baseball is starting fall practice after coming off a disappointing season in which it had an overall record of 25-33 and finished tied for fifth in the Pac-10. The Trojans used to dominate league play, but their Pac-10 record the past four years is 47-49. On June 2, the 66-year-old Gillespie abruptly retired after a 20-year stint and 763-471-2 record at USC. The Trojans haven’t won the Pac-10 championship since 2002, haven’t reached the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., since 2001 and haven’t won an NCAA championship in baseball since 1998.
“I don’t view it as pressure. I view it as opportunity,” Kreuter said. “In those pressure situations, it’s an opportunity to do something great. I think I’ve been given an opportunity to do like Pete has. Like Tim (Floyd) will be doing.”
Since he took over at USC, Kreuter has been flying around the bases, so to speak. The whirlwind job began the moment Kreuter received a call from USC only six months after he was hired by the Colorado Rockies to manage their Single-A affiliate, the Modesto Nuts.
“This really blindsided me,” he said.
“We had talked two years ago (when Kreuter was an unpaid volunteer assistant coach at USC) about the possibility of him coming back as a full-time assistant coach thinking down the road that if we did well he might become head coach,” Gillespie said. “I’m thrilled for him and for my daughter and for my grandchildren. It’s an incredible opportunity for him. I’m confident it’s going to go well for him.”
By coaching at USC instead of with Modesto in the minor leagues, it means Kreuter can stay and work near his home in Santa Clarita – about a 10-minute drive from his father-in-law – and not have to the ride the bus in the California League in hopes that one day he might be promoted to a big-league manager.
“This is more of a career choice,” Kreuter said. “It’s the business of baseball, but it’s not the business of baseball at the major-league level where you never see your family.”
Kreuter first met his wife, Kelly, when he was playing for the North Pole Nicks in the Alaskan Summer Midnight Semipro League in 1983. He was a freshman at Pepperdine University, Gillespie was his manager in Alaska and Kelly spent the summer with her dad. The Kreuters now have two sons – 15-year-old Cade and 10-year-old Cole. This summer their dad replaced their granddad to become only the fourth Trojans coach in 77 years.
Kreuter inherited a celebrated program with a wealth of prospects in Southern California to feed the expectations.
“In 20 years, we went to Omaha four times. With him, SC in the next 20 years might go eight or 10 times. I think they can do that,” Gillespie said. “Everything is in place for SC to do well all the time. “¦ There’s a lot of ifs and a lot of parts to the formula but it can be done and he knows that. He’s young and he’s driven.”
And if Kreuter ever needs some advice on how to deal with it, he can either drive to his father-in-law’s house or walk next door to the USC’s football practice field.
“We practice next to their facility. He sees us all the time,” Carroll said.
Kreuter apparently is already peeking and taking notice. The 42-year-old Kreuter wants to learn more tricks of the trade from the Trojans football coach, who turned 55 on Friday. Kreuter is attempting to create Carroll’s same atmosphere in his practices.
“One of the biggest things is we’ve got guys competing with each other. It’s like what Pete has done on the football field,” Kreuter said.
The new USC baseball coach, however, has some catching up to do to be measured on par with the football team’s recent success. Then again, the Trojans had lost 12 of their previous 20 games and finished sixth and eighth in the Pac-10 prior to Carroll’s hiring and Carroll’s first team at Troy lost five of its first seven games.
Kreuter can only hope the USC baseball program reverses its fortune as fast as Carroll turned around the Trojans football program.
“How long does it take? We always said, “˜We’ll be good when we are good,'” Carroll said. “It took us a half season to get it going. He (Kreuter) is a great guy. We’re got a very special thing here. Our situation and our talent is so hot. There’s so many good players (to recruit) around here. If he (Kreuter) can just do that, he’ll be OK.”
Kreuter is off to a good start. Still, the Trojans have been passed by Cal State Fullerton as a college baseball power in the area and by Oregon State as the elite baseball program in the Pac-10. The Beavers won their first NCAA baseball title this year, Stanford and Arizona State still have strong programs, and UCLA, USC’s crosstown rival, finished ahead of the Trojans in the league standings this past season.
USC baseball fans, alums and Kreuter’s friends and supporters shouldn’t expect too much success too soon.
“They all know it’s going to be a very tough grind. It’s not going to happen that quick,” Kreuter said. “I’ve been given the most prestigious job in college baseball. I’ll have to work my rear end off to make it work.”
That’s the first step in how glory gets restored.
High school: Switch-hitting catcher out of Redwood High.
Drafted: Picked in the fifth round by the Texas Rangers in 1985.
In the majors: Debuted with the Rangers against the A’s on Sept. 14, 1988, with two hits (including a home run) and three RBIs.
Highlights: In 1991, he caught Nolan Ryan’s 5,000th career strikeout; In 1993, he homered from both sides of the plate in the same game for the Tigers; In 1994, he tied a major-league record with three sac flies; In 2000, he went into the stands from the bullpen at Wrigley Field after a fan stole his cap; In 2001, he was behind the plate catching when Barry Bonds hit his record-breaking 71st home run.
Final numbers: Retired April 28, 2003. In 994 big-league games and 2,505 at-bats, he finished his career with a .237 batting average, 54 home runs and 274 RBIs. His best season was 1993 when he had career-highs in games played (119), at-bats (374), runs (59), hits (107), doubles (23), triples (3), home runs (15), RBIs (51), strikeouts (92), stolen bases (2) and batting average (.286).