Six former women’s volleyball players from St. Mary’s huddled together on the Galen Center court. Instead of uniforms, they wore jeans, spectators during USC’s sweep of UCLA in September.
At the center of the huddle was USC volleyball coach Brent Crouch. The St. Mary’s athletes, whom Crouch coached as an assistant for four years, joined groups of former players who watched Crouch’s first USC team at places like Stanford, California, San Diego and elsewhere.
“It feels good to have them come support us,” Crouch said. “It’s mostly really exciting to see them be successful. Now they’re out in the world.”
Crouch has led the Trojans to a 21-10 record, going 11-7 against ranked teams, but his greatest test lies ahead: the NCAA tournament. USC, seeded 11th in the nation, hosts Samford on Friday in a first-round match.
USC has lost four regional finals since its last Final Four appearance in 2011. The school announced that Mick Haley, who led the Trojans to national titles in 2002 and 2003, would not return as coach after last season’s five-set loss to No. 2-seed Florida in the Elite Eight.
Crouch, 43, was hired by USC in January.
A college philosophy class hooked Crouch, and his passion led to a Ph.D. from Oregon in 2006. He coached volleyball during graduate school but never considered it a potential career.
“You know how it is, right?” Crouch said. “Sometimes possibilities are just not in front of you as a possibility.”
Crouch earned his first head coaching job in 2014 with Portland, inheriting a team that went 0-27 in 2013. Crouch built the players’ confidence by emphasizing improvement over winning, perfecting their technique and tracking their progress. The wins came too: seven his first season, then a 16-15 record in 2015, the most by a Portland team in 25 years.
In his third season, Portland went 17-13 while defeating a top-10 team, No. 7 San Diego, for the first time in program history. Crouch was selected the 2016 West Coast Conference coach of the year. His 2017 team went 15-15.
Crouch continued to seek improvement. He consulted senior associate athletic director Karen Peters and his fellow Portland coaches for advice.
“He was constantly looking to learn,” Peters said, “from everyone.”
After he was hired by USC, Crouch held practices with his new players even before he finalized his staff.
He first gathered the Trojans for a meeting in the team’s film room, sitting in front of the rows of players to answer questions. He asked them to trust him and worked to build the relationships by holding individual meetings between players and the coaching staff twice a week.
As the relationships grew, Crouch made on-the-court changes.
“Teach teach teach teach teach teach teach,” he said, knocking his desk with his fist.
At Portland, Crouch was known for his affinity for whiteboards, and he ramped up his use of statistics at USC, with the added resources of a larger staff. He measures the results of each hit and players’ movements before the swing.
From serving, to digs, spikes and footwork, Crouch corrected technique, backing up his lessons with data from practice and matches.
“I’ve had to change my entire game,” said sophomore Brooke Botkin, who leads the team with 481 kills after recording 151 in 2017. She added that aside from one defensive technique used by players in the back row, “there’s not one thing that is the same.”
The information-gathering continued in practice this week; a camcorder projected the plays onto a TV screen while someone kept score of the scrimmage on a smart board.
Crouch stood between the two screens with a black whistle between his teeth, as he corralled a newly healthy team that had lost four starters to concussions at the start of November. Coupled with its preparation having been limited by injuries, USC faces a tough tournament in a region with the likes of Cal Poly, No. 6 seed Wisconsin and No. 3 seed Illinois.
Challenging, but that’s why Crouch wanted to coach. Under the abundance of demands, he thrives.
“I could’ve lived my life as a professor and it would’ve been OK,” Crouch said. “But I love this.”