Jason Gill leaned forward in his office and contemplated the weight of his words.
“I know it might sound funny,” USC’s new baseball coach said, explaining his core consideration for taking the Trojans job last summer, “but for me, it was all about winning national championships.”
In the context of USC’s storied history, this shouldn’t seem strange: The Trojans have 12 College World Series titles, double the amount of the next closest schools in the country. They have 21 CWS appearances and 2,858 wins, both fifth-most all-time. They have a historic alumni list that includes MLB legends Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson and Mark McGwire. Most of all, they are situated in arguably college baseball’s most fertile recruiting landscape.
“It’s U-S-C,” Gill continued, emphasizing the three-letter acronym that for so long was synonymous with baseball excellence. “It’s like, this is the best job in the world.”
Only, this century, it hasn’t been. Instead, a program once perched on the sport’s mountaintop now finds itself far from the summit, almost 20 years removed from its last CWS berth and facing a steep climb to reach Omaha again.
“I feel the same way [about USC],” said Gill, a 49-year-old Southern California native who spent the last 11 seasons coaching Loyola Marymount into a mid-major contender. “But I don’t know if everybody else does.”
There is no one diagnosis for USC’s decades-long decline. After the retirement of national-championship-winning coach Mike Gillespie in 2006, the Trojans suffered through a string of ineffective hires. Its recruiting tailed off (between 2011 and 2019, the Trojans signed only three national top-25 classes, according to Perfect Game) and its pipeline to the MLB draft dried up (since 2010, only four Trojans have been selected in the top-five rounds). Its home facilities at Dedeaux Field have been surpassed by renovated and revamped complexes at other programs, too, especially within the Pac-12.
Then there is college baseball’s recent transformation. In 2009, the NCAA adopted new roster regulations (limiting roster sizes at 35 players and capping the number of players allowed to be on scholarship at 27) that dispersed the player pool and promoted sport-wide parity. In the years since, blue-blood programs such as USC have been put on a far more equal playing field.
When Gill arrived following his June 14 hiring, he honed in on smaller symptoms he deemed to be equally problematic. For example, the clubhouse was left by last year’s team in an “unacceptable” state of disarray. In Gill’s office, a corner of the wall was chipped. The carpet beneath his desk was stained.
“I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus,” he said, “but there’s a lot of that around here.”
It was the opposite of what he was used to at LMU, where he won 322 games and eclipsed the 30-win threshold six times in 11 seasons.
“Not that LMU is a better brand than USC, but what I had going on at LMU was a well-oiled machine,” Gill said. “Towards the end, I wasn’t having to do a lot. Everybody knew their role. Everybody understood it. Everybody was getting their stuff done. So then I walk out of that to something that has been dysfunctional … you can see things right away.
“I know that sounds really minuscule or not relevant, but believe it or not, those are the things that, when you start paying attention to winning, you lose focus of.”
It’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument. To Gill, on-field success can only be hatched once off-the-field habits are properly cultivated. At LMU, that philosophy helped the Lions tie for a conference championship in 2017 and reach an NCAA regional final last spring. Now at USC, on a team picked by the Pac-12’s coaches to finish seventh in the conference this season, Gill’s new players have learned the line of thinking as well.
“Even since Day 1, we had our first meeting the Sunday before school started … and after the first 15 minutes, he had us all ready to run through a brick wall,” junior pitcher John Beller said. “He talked about how the culture was going to change, and how he was going to put it on himself to make that happen. I think him being able to take ownership of the program right away, immediately, helped us feel comfortable following him.”
This offseason’s rebuild started from the ground up. Gill and his staff, which includes 10th-year USC assistant Gabe Alvarez and newly hired pitching coach Ted Silva, retaught defensive fundamentals almost from scratch — “starting with catch,” junior Jamal O’Guinn joked. For much of fall practice, pitchers were only allowed to throw fastballs in scrimmages until they demonstrated command of the strike zone.
And, as promised, the clubhouse was cleaned up.
“The locker room has been spotless,” Beller laughed. “They took everything out, they took the furniture out. It’s just super clean. There’s not even an excuse to have food or trash or anything, because it gets noticed.”
Long-term, Gill is confident his other coaching tools — he has been a lifelong recruiter in Southern California and put together a pitching staff at LMU that ranked 14th in the country in ERA last season – will help a program with only two NCAA tournament appearances since 2002 rediscover a level of consistency that has been lacking for too long.
“I took the job knowing what the standard is,” he said. “The standard is winning national championships at USC. That’s pretty much in every sport. You come to USC to play baseball. That’s the standard. Now it’s about us upholding them, or just reminding ourselves of how to get to that point. I just think they need some direction on how to do that.”