It was two years ago this month that I sat with Rod Dedeaux in a conference room of his Commerce trucking company, the walls plastered with letters, plaques and photographs from princes, paupers and presidents, testimonials to the man and his legacy.
He would soon celebrate his 90th birthday, and while his perpetual spirit and enthusiasm underscored a conviction that there was still much life to live, the montage of framed tributes represented the candles on an unparalleled career.
"I don't know what the future holds," Dedeaux said, scanning the walls that day, "but I've definitely had a great past."
Well, the future may have foreclosed on Dedeaux at 91 Thursday, but in the NCAA record book and the memory of anyone who ever met him, all those he greeted with a familiar "hey, Tiger" no matter what their name, occupation or title, that great past will live on.
He won 11 national titles in 45 years as the USC baseball coach, a period of dominance in which the Trojans won five straight NCAA titles at one point and served as the game's best farm system. More than 200 of his players entered pro ball and more than 50 reached the big leagues, a "Who's Who?" that included Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Mark McGwire, Dave Kingman, Fred Lynn and Ron Fairly.
It is not a stretch to say that he was a Los Angeles coaching icon in the towering context of John Wooden, the former and legendary UCLA basketball coach.
Twenty years after being forced into retirement, acknowledging Mike Gillespie's ongoing success at the Trojan helm, Dedeaux remained the face of USC baseball.
His name is on the field where the Trojans play, and he was always recognized simply as "Coach" when dropping by the Jonathon Club and other city institutions, as well as major league dugouts nationally, visiting alums. Two of his most renowned, McGwire and Kingman, had arrived at USC as pitchers before Dedeaux helped convert them into feared sluggers.
Noting how Dedeaux had also converted a $500 investment in the late '30s into a multifaceted, multimillion trucking conglomerate, former Angel manager Marcel Lachemann, who was a player under Dedeaux for three years and coached with him for five, reflected on his passing Thursday and said he was simply a great salesman.
"That was a large part of his success in baseball and business," Lachemann said by phone. "He could sell you on yourself, he could sell the program and he could sell the team on its ability to overcome any hurdle or deficit. We had a lot of great comebacks under Rod, and that was a major reason. He believed it and the team came to believe it, and he was also an unbelievable stickler on detail. He had what he called the 'Bovard Boner Book' (Bovard was the name of the former USC field) in which he fined guys a dollar or so for failing to execute fundamentals."
Dedeaux and his book affected Lachemann, one of baseball's most respected pitching coaches, and, among others who would lead big league teams, two future Hall of Fame managers: Sparky Anderson, who began his career as a USC batboy, and Tom Lasorda, a lifelong friend.
Dedeaux and Lasorda were matched bookends to the extent that Lasorda's wife, Jo, had cards made that pictured Lasorda and Dedeaux and that carried an inscription that read, "three of a kind can't beat this pair."
Indeed, they were inseparable, irrepressible buddies, and if Dedeaux had some years on Lasorda, if his hair eventually turned white and he needed a cane shaped in the form of a bat and autographed by players, actors, politicians and even sportswriters (he had several of the autographed canes), he never lost the edge on "hey, Tiger" or his love of the game and USC.
It is a mere footnote in baseball history, but it could have been much different if Dedeaux had accepted coaching offers from the Yankees in the late '50s and the Dodgers in the early '70s with the possibility of succeeding Casey Stengel in New York and Walter Alston in Los Angeles.
Dedeaux stayed at USC, producing a 70-year affiliation during which he ultimately became a pioneer, visionary and active ambassador in baseball's Olympic and international growth, and an affiliation that never weakened despite the fact that his "retirement" as coach wasn't really that or what he wanted.
No matter how many times I saw Dedeaux in recent years the cardinal and gold showed through.
He would make note of my son David's success in pro ball (he is approaching his third year with the Baltimore Orioles) and would say, "Tiger, I'll always regret that we weren't able to make him a Trojan."
The old coach fought on before ultimately bowing to a recent stroke. His great past and personality will always be with us.
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Through the years
Rod Dedeaux's USC baseball teams won five NCAA championships in a row from 1970 to '74:
* Years coaching USC: 1942 to 1986.
* National titles: 11.
* Winning seasons: 41 in 45 years.
* Record: 1,332-571-11 (sixth all-time in NCAA Division I).
* Among future major leaguers: Ron Fairly, Randy Johnson, Dave Kingman, Bill Lee, Fred Lynn, Mark McGwire, Tom Seaver, Roy Smalley.
Rod Dedeaux won 11 College World Series titles at USC. No other school has won more than six. His 1961, 1968, 1973 and 1978 teams went undefeated (5-0) in the College World Series. Mike Gillespie led USC to its 12th national title in 1998:
1948 -- def. Yale, 9-2
1958 -- def. Missouri, 8-7 (12 inn.)
1961 -- def. Oklahoma State, 1-0
1963 -- def. Arizona, 5-2
1968 -- def. Southern Illinois, 4-3
1970 -- def. Florida State, 2-1 (15 inn.)
1971 -- def. Southern Illinois, 7-2
1972 -- def. Arizona State, 1-0
1973 -- def. Arizona State, 4-3
1974 -- def. Miami, 7-3
1978 -- def. Arizona State, 10-3
SCHOOLS WITH THE MOST COLLEGE WORLD SERIES TITLES:
USC ...12 (1948, 1958, 1961, 1963, 1968, 1970-74, 1978, 1998)
Texas ...6 (1949, 1950, 1975, 1983, 2002, 2005)
Arizona State ...5 (1965, 1967, 1969, 1977, 1981)
Louisiana State ...5 (1991, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000)
Cal State Fullerton ...4 (1979, 1984, 1995, 2004)
Miami ...4 (1982, 1985, 1999, 2001)
Arizona ...3 (1976, 1980, 1986)
Researched by Bob Cuomo