||Head coach Mike Gillespie is in very select company he is one of only two people in history to both play for and coach an NCAA championship baseball team.
In addition to leading USC to the 1998 College World Series championship, he played left field on Rod Dedeauxs NCAA title-
winning team in 1961.
Since taking over as coach in 1987, Gillespie has led 10 USC teams to playoff spots, three to Pacific-10 Southern Division titles (1991 Troys first league crown since 1978 and back-to-back crowns in 1995 and 1996) and taken USC to its first College World Series in 17 years (where the 1995 Trojans finished as the nations runner-up). His USC career record is 483-267-2 (.644).
By winning their first national championship in 20 years, the 1998 Trojans put an exclamation point on 12 outstanding years at USC for Gillespie, who was named the 1998 National Coach of the Year by both Collegiate Baseball magazine and the American Baseball Coaches Association.
Gillespies involvement with successful teams goes back to his prep days at Hawthorne (Calif.) High, where he was an All-CIF baseball and football player. He went on to play both infield and outfield at USC while lettering three years (1960-62) under Rod Dedeaux.
A physical education major, Gillespie earned both bachelors (1962) and masters (1963) degrees from USC before beginning his coaching career at the high-school level. He eventually became coach at College of the Canyons, a community college in Valencia, Calif., where he started a baseball program from scratch and developed it into a Dedeaux-like dynasty.
From his office overlooking Dedeaux Field, Gillespie talked with writer Neil Miller about last years College World Series-winning season, his coaching philosophy, his 1999 Trojan squad and the USC baseball tradition.
TF As last season unfolded, did you think you would end up winning the national championship?
Gillespie We went into the year feeling like we had a team that would have a chance, if we were still close at the end, of being in the mix among the best teams in the country. Yet, we had really experienced some great highs and lows, primarily as a result of serious injuries to key players. We just couldnt quite get to the point where we thought we would be.
Even though we were winning, we were sometimes winning ugly, sometimes playing great and winning, sometimes playing pretty well and losing. There were conspicuous inconsistencies. It was certainly not a year that would lend anybody to think, This is a team thats going to be playing for the national championship.
TF Most fans recall the clutch performances in the College World Series, such as Morgan Ensbergs steal of home and Wes Rachels seven RBIs in the final against Arizona State. What were some of the less dramatic but equally critical moments through the series?
Gillespie Theyre not plays youd see in the box score. We skillfully executed the game about as well as it could ever be executed, certainly at our level, and I think at any level. We pitched awfully well, but for the most part we played extraordinary defense day after day. Rachels, for example, won the College World Series MVP award by virtue of his offensive play, but in fact he made five tough, diving plays on ground balls during the week where he had to come to his feet quickly, make the throw and get an out. We had five different guys get bunt base hits in critical times. We had five different guys execute the hit-and-run successfully.
It was almost a miracle performance in terms of what we call the short or inside game. What I want to remember most about last years team is that it played to the absolute maximum level of its abilities. Every one of our regular players did something to contribute to this win, that win, or this and that win. There were some guys who repeatedly did something big, but everybody did something.
TF How would you describe your coaching style?
Gillespie Well, theres no substitute for good players. The better they are, the less you have to do. If your personnel simply overmatches the other teams personnel, youre ahead right there. We say on a very simplistic level that in order to succeed in the game as a team you throw strikes, play catch and put the ball in play. If you have superior players who can do that then you win the game, say, 7-1.
Unfortunately, I find that theres very little difference, in terms of ability, between our players and players from 50 different schools. And what looks like the rather straightforward sport of baseball mushrooms into a much subtler, strategic guessing game.
What Ive come to believe is that there are a number of situations that come up a few times a year that we want to be able to exploit, whether on offense or defense. We think, for instance, that there are probably five outs a year to be had on the hidden-ball play. That doesnt sound like a lot, but if over the course of the whole season we can also get 10 outs on a variety of pickoffs of baserunners, run the delayed steal five times, succeed with the conventional hit-and-run 10 times, and steal home once or twice, we will improve our chances of winning significantly.
It kills me when a situation comes up that were not ready for because its not in our bag of tricks, so to speak. I want us to be prepared to deal with any and all eventualities that come up in the game. I like us to be aggressive and confident. Offensively, we certainly want to force the action. Were not typically a team that just waits to hit home runs.
TF So recruiting players who can execute a full bag of tricks must be important?
Gillespie Its paramount. With average players we might look good in our uniforms, be competitive and win some games but we wont win enough. Were greedy. We want the complete package in a player: big, strong, hits with power, fast, plays great defense, can hit any kind of pitching and is smart. [Laughing.] Of course, usually those guys are making $9 million a year in the major leagues.
TF Which players remain from last years championship team?
Gillespie We return five position-player starters, so its a strong nucleus. Eric Munson is a left-handed, power-hitting catcher who is arguably the best player in college baseball. Our shortstop, Seth Davidson, is a polished defensive player. Two of our starting outfielders, Greg Hanoian and Brad Ticehurst, are proven hitters. And Jason Lane is our designated hitter, as well as an effective relief pitcher.
Our pitching staff was hit harder we lost five pitchers who are all in professional baseball now. But Rik Currier, who pitched so phenomenally against Mississippi State in the College World Series, is a sophomore. Lane and Steve Immel also return on the mound. But with transfers like senior Justin Lehr, junior Barry Zito and sophomore Steve Smyth, and freshmen like Jeff Bruksch, Peter Montrenes and Tim Petke, weve recruited well.
TF As someone who has been part of the USC baseball heritage as both a player and coach, what does it mean to you?
Gillespie The history of baseball at USC almost defies description and understanding. Weve done reasonably well since I came here, but what were really talking about are the Rod Dedeaux years.
Theres no debating the fact that USCs great history was accomplished between 1948 and 1978, with 11 national championships in that time. I think USCs accomplishments in baseball rival UCLAs 10 national championships in basketball as the most remarkable feat in college athletics history. Given what Ive experienced as a coach so many other excellent teams around the country scratching and clawing just to get to the College World Series the fact that USC won five in a row from 1970 to 1974 is nothing short of miraculous.
To attend this university, play here on a national championship team, and now repeat that as coach, have been unbelievable opportunities. The game and this place appeal to me a great deal.
I often wonder when Im going to grow up. Dealing with young people all the time and continuing to compete in baseball as a coach enables me to stay somewhat fresh. [Smiling.] And in a Trojan uniform I can delude myself that Im still young.