Pac-12 bringing back glory days

There was a time, if you can believe it, when the SEC was a second-tier baseball league, not the indomitable force it's become today, powered by football wealth.

Mark Marquess knows. He lived it.

He became an assistant coach at Stanford in 1972 and the head man in '77, and the power structure of college baseball leaned west as if it were the Tower of Pisa. There was a centralized superiority, much like the current college football landscape, and it existed mostly on the West Coast.

"Thirty years ago at the beginning of the season, you could say four of five teams could win the title, and you'd be right," Marquess says. "USC was the dominant team then, and Texas, Arizona State and Arizona were also consistently in the mix."

Under legendary coach Rod Dedeaux, USC in the 1960s and early '70s was college baseball's equivalent of Alabama football today. From 1958 to '74, over 17 College World Series, the Trojans won nine titles, including five consecutive beginning in 1970. Arizona State won three of the remaining eight available during that stretch.

There were no scholarship limitations then; teams could gobble up recruits like they were shopping at a dollar store. Parity? Can you use it in a sentence, please?

"It was very different then," Marquess says. "A lot of coaches were alumni of their schools, which doesn't happen much now. Recruiting wasn't done as much nationally. The biggest thing was the dominance of a few teams. That changed when scholarships changed."

The crackdown came in 1974, when the NCAA limited baseball scholarships to 19 per program, which was lowered to 13 two years later. Baseball budgets would be squeezed again when Title IX emerged, settling at the current 11.7 scholarships per program.

This didn't immediately begin to drain the batteries of the Western giants. Texas won the 1975 national title, and it was the only championship east of Arizona between 1967 and 1981.

But then the Pacific Conference's lights began to dim. Talent leaked east, and the Miami Hurricanes arrived on the national scene with a title in 1982. They'd pick up another in '85, and while Arizona would win in '86 and Stanford would go back-to-back in the two seasons after that, there was an abrupt shift in the sport's tectonic plates. That LSU, or anyone else not associated with the Pacific Conference, would become a dynasty program in the 1990s was no real surprise.

"[Limited scholarships] opened the door for many teams to win, and the Miamis and LSUs did a great job of taking advantage," Marquess says.

Arizona coach Andy Lopez arrived in the South as college baseball's culture was changing. Lopez won a national title at Pepperdine in 1992 and moved to Gainesville, Fla., in 1995 to lead Florida. He would spend seven seasons in the SEC before going to Arizona, where he is now in his 12th year.

"If you put an SEC team and a Pac-12 team on an empty lot and had them play, there's not much difference," Lopez says. "But the culture is different. In the SEC, they have tremendous facilities and unbelievable fan bases. It's almost mind-boggling, the fans out there."

Sure, the West Coast had its name-brand schools with big football programs too, but it couldn't monopolize the sport any longer. "As a coach, that can be frustrating," Marquess says. "You can still dominate, but it's much harder now."

After the Cardinal won the national title in 1988, it would be a decade until another team from the conference won it all -- USC in 1998. And then it would be another eight seasons before Oregon State won its first of two consecutive championships in 2006.

"In 2000 and 2001, we started creating a presence and then started getting guys like Darwin Barney and Jacoby Ellsbury," Beavers coach Pat Casey says about OSU's rise in the conference. "When you start winning and sending guys to the big leagues, kids start identifying with that."

While the conference continued to produce a great volume of individual talents who would become major leaguers, the rate of great teams slowed. USC hit a lull and is still trying to recover. All this history, all these championship banners from a different time -- the Trojans have become something of an afterthought on the national scene in the past decade despite a beautiful ballpark and fertile recruiting soil.

Stanford kept its momentum, finishing second at the CWS in 2000, 2001 and 2003, but it's still chasing Marquess' third ring. Arizona State remained a national player but hasn't been able to finish a season with a dogpile in more than three decades. UCLA struggled before John Savage arrived and changed the program's momentum. When the Beavers won it all in 2007, the Oregon Ducks didn't even exist as a college baseball program.

In major ways, the past 25 years for the Pacific Coast Conference have been different than the first dozen that Marquess was at Stanford. But as things changed in the '80s, they're changing again, with the pendulum swinging in a positive direction for the Pac-12.

"It goes in cycles with your pitching, but this looks like a strong year for us," Marquess says.

The elite programs of the Southeast have become machines that relentlessly churn on, but there is a sense, at least on the surface, that the West Coast is on the rise entering this season, building off Arizona's national championship run a season ago.

According to Collegiate Baseball's preseason rankings, the Pac-12 has four teams in the top 10: No. 5 UCLA, No. 6 Oregon, No. 9 Stanford and No. 10 Oregon State. No. 16 Arizona State and No. 18 Arizona are in the second 10.

The SEC isn't chasing anybody, with five teams in the top 10 and eight in the top 25, and North Carolina and NC State represent the ACC in the top 11.

College baseball feels like a true tug-of-war again, with a rope that reaches to both coasts and has an equal number of hands pulling on each end.

It has the feel of two eras, separated by change and joined by championships, culminating in one fight for college baseball's balance of power.

Friday nights in Baton Rouge

There isn't much of a question what LSU's identity will be when it opens the season against Maryland on Feb. 15. With JaCoby Jones, Ty Ross, Raph Rhymes and Mason Katz, there is a core of position players around which these Tigers are built.

But on the best teams, there is something resembling a certainty on Friday nights. Not a certainty of winning, but a certainty of having a starting pitcher who gives you a great chance. Alex Box Stadium was spoiled on Friday nights last season, with eventual No. 4 overall pick Kevin Gausman leading LSU's staff.

He's gone, creating an opportunity or a hole, depending on your perspective.

"[Gausman] had such a big impact on our staff," LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn says. "We knew he'd set the tone for a weekend on every Friday night. That's tough to replace."

The Tigers have two candidates to fill that role, and both are quality arms. Junior right-hander Ryan Eades is a preseason All-American and a likely first-round pick in the 2013 draft, and he'll run his fastball into the mid-90s, complementing it with an above-average curveball that has sharp 12-to-6 break. Sophomore right-hander Aaron Nola can't match the pure stuff of Eades, but he's a relentless strike-thrower who walked only seven batters in 89 2/3 innings last season.

"They're like our 1A and 1B guys," Dunn says.

Nola will start on opening night, with Eades pitching Game 2 of the Maryland series, and it's possible that order flip-flops during the season. But the outcome of that competition will define LSU's staff to some degree. Gausman gave the Tigers a confidence to cling to, a patch of swagger they could stitch on their sleeves. What will Nola, Eades and the others bring? Who will the Tigers become?

"It's important to have an identity as a pitching staff, and we're trying to figure that out," Dunn says. "I want our guys to be aggressive, know what their strengths are and pitch off those. You have to do things with confidence. You have to know who you are."

Louisville lives by the book

Dan McDonnell has always been a voracious reader and believer in words. He played at The Citadel in the late 1980s and early '90s, and coach Chal Port would read his club short stories or passages after practices. "I enjoyed that as a player," says McDonnell, who is in his seventh season as Louisville's head coach.

McDonnell adopted that practice. He often buys books for players, and they can always come into his office and grab something from the shelves. Each season, he designates two books -- one for the fall and one for the spring -- for his players to indulge.

Last summer, McDonnell visited some of his players in the Cape Cod League and handed them "The Gold Standard," a book about USA Basketball and building an international power with a three-year plan under coach Mike Krzyzewski. That became the book of the fall, as the Cardinals -- Baseball America's preseason No. 4 team -- returned to campus with expectations that haven't been associated with the program before.

"We've been on a three-year cycle here, which is why I thought 'The Gold Standard' was a good book for this season," McDonnell says. "We went to Omaha in 2007, were really good in 2010, and now 2013 is that third year again."

The books are just one chip McDonnell uses to place a heavy bet on the power of visualization. During the summer, he also sends a weekly letter to his players around the country. It will have a few words of motivation or a quote from a book. But the words are just the pocket square of the suit. McDonnell draws his players' attention to a picture, and almost every week, that picture was a past Louisville team dogpiling. "We're big on dogpiles here," McDonnell says. "Kids emulate what they see."

With his spring selection, McDonnell tries to pick a book with a deeper message, and this spring Louisville is reading "Help the Helper," a basketball-related text about creating a culture of teamwork. McDonnell chose it with his 2010 team -- a national seed with the talent to get to Omaha that came up short -- in mind.

"I learned from the 2010 team that when you get older, the pressure does still get to you, because this is it; it's your last run," McDonnell says. "It's hard not to get caught up in your own world. But a culture of teamwork can take away some of that pressure. That's important for this team, as a group that could get back to Omaha and lay a foundation for the future here."

The Erstad-ization of Nebraska

Darin Erstad used the term "sweat equity" in a sentence. He didn't coin it -- he credits associate head coach Will Bolt for that -- but he loved it so much because there is no better marriage of words than "sweat" and "equity" when describing Erstad, the former big leaguer who is in his second season as Nebraska's head coach.

I grew up in Southern California watching Erstad patrol center field for the Angels. He was a superb athlete, a terrific player, but not an effortless one. Every movement, every action he made appeared to come with a great deal of labor. He ran hard and dove all over the place. He was 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, a twister of dirt, chewing tobacco and blue-collarness. He was every bit of the grinder archetype, and that's every bit of what he wants his Cornhuskers to be.

"You're a creature of what you've been through, and I'm looking for the guy who gets dirty, who loves being out there," Erstad says. "It's how you approach your work, and the right kid takes that as a challenge. Over time, you embrace that."

Erstad is in the early stages of molding the Nebraska program around his baseball spirit, and 2013 could be a turning point for the Cornhuskers. Last season -- their first in the Big Ten -- they won 35 games and made the conference tournament, but they missed the NCAA regionals for the fourth season in row. Nebraska returns first-team All-Big Ten shortstop Chad Christensen, outfielder Rich Sanguinetti and DH Michael Pritchard and will have a deep stable of arms from which respected pitching coach Ted Silva can work.

There are pieces to build something with in Lincoln, and an NCAA regional should be well within range for Nebraska this season, another ripple in the program's changing tide under Erstad.

Mississippi State meets the SEC gauntlet

These are riveting times for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. They won the SEC tournament in 2012. In 2011, they won a regional at Georgia Tech and were close to advancing to Omaha. Now they open 2013 ranked No. 5 by Baseball America, the highest preseason ranking since the program was No. 1 in 1989.

"Our program is [close] to something great, but the SEC can humble you in a hurry," coach John Cohen says. "And I think we have the toughest schedule in the SEC this year."

In the season that could be a program changer for Mississippi State, its difficult schedule is part of the conversation. The Bulldogs play (according to Baseball America's preseason rankings) No. 7 South Carolina, No. 10 LSU and No. 17 Florida at home while making trips to No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 3 Arkansas, No. 11 Kentucky and No. 13 Ole Miss. That's 21 games -- about 38 percent of the regular season -- against top-17 teams, with a Tuesday night nonconference game against No. 23 Southern Miss dropped in right before going to Baton Rouge to open league play March 15.

"We'll ultimately be a better tournament team than a weekend-to-weekend team in the SEC," Cohen says. "Teams run out of pitching in the tournament, and that's where we'll be deep."

The benefit of a stacked schedule is that it's conceivable for Mississippi State to finish .500 in SEC play -- and maybe even below that -- but have a top-20 RPI, which is given heavy consideration come tournament selection time. In 2011, Cohen points out, the Bulldogs went 14-16 in league play and ended the season on the cusp of the College World Series.

I don't think it would shock anyone if MSU, or another SEC team, slogged its way through the conference, got into a regional and beat everyone in its path. The league has that much talent.

Cal State Fullerton's new gatekeeper of arms

Jason Dietrich grew up around Cal State Fullerton baseball, frequenting Goodwin Field to watch Titans games when he was a player at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. He knew about the history when he played ball at Rancho Santiago College and Pepperdine and then in the minor leagues.

When the Titans began making regular trips to the College World Series under former coach (and current Oregon lead man) George Horton in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dietrich paid attention. By then, he was bouncing around Southern California building his own coaching career, going from high school to junior college to eventually UC Irvine in the Big West. He'd come across Horton and Fullerton pitching coach (now Tennessee head coach) Dave Serrano in coaching circles and pick their brains about their pitching philosophy.

So Dietrich is quite familiar with the turf he now stands on as Fullerton's new pitching coach. "I learned the importance of detail and doing little fundamentals right [from Horton and Serrano]," Dietrich says. "And I know how good they were. That's the challenge I'm trying to live up to."

Fullerton's best teams in the past decade have been defined by superior pitching, and Dietrich wants to reinforce that. The Titans are ranked No. 22 by Baseball America and have depth on the mound if not experience.

"Who says freshmen can't come in right away and get it done?" Dietrich says. "It comes down to the little details: shut down the running game, win the 1-1 counts, field your position. That takes time and pride."

Today in Omaha: High of 44 degrees, 10-20 mph winds out of the northwest, 128 days until Game 1 (as of Feb. 7)

Teddy Mitrosilis is an editor for ESPN.com. He played college baseball at Long Beach (Calif.) City College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating with a degree in journalism. You can follow him on Twitter here.