In June 2002, the old man moved through the coveted blue lower-level seats of Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, smiling and greeting fans and coaches as if they were his royal subjects.
Rod Dedeaux leaned with his left hand on a walking cane fashioned from a wooden baseball bat, its barrel covered with the signatures of his former players at USC. There were the scribblings of Dave Kingman, Roy Smalley, Bill "Spaceman" Lee and dozens of others who had played on the field that lay before him, all in the cardinal and gold. With his right hand he signed "Fight On!" autographs, his College World Series championship ring glistening in the sun. He wore one, though he owned enough for all 10 fingers.
"I've spent so much time here," the retired head coach said of Omaha, "I always felt like someone might come and tell me that I needed to apply for a Nebraska driver's license."
Indeed, the Trojans used to own Omaha. More accurately, they co-owned it, sharing the deed with their biggest hardball rivals from throughout Southern California and Arizona. But for far too long, the college baseball loyalists of SoCal and the Grand Canyon State have been forced to watch what was once their personal playground become the host of championship celebrations for teams from the Southwest, Southeast, Northern California and even (gulp) the Pacific Northwest.
Now they want to take the Big O back. And one side of this year's College World Series bracket would seem poised to make a run.
Arizona and UCLA, who faced off in Game 6 and could meet again in Thursday night's Game 11, find themselves in a unique position. They're not just looking to win a title for themselves, but also as representatives of a baseball-proud region somewhat desperate to recapture old CWS glory.
"That's certainly something that we have heard a lot of ever since we knew we'd be coming to Omaha," Arizona coach Andy Lopez admits. "Kind of a, 'Hey guys, go win one for our program that has such a rich College World Series history. Go write a new chapter.' But also, 'Hey, let's win for our corner of the country as a whole. It's been a while.'"
Back in the day "it's been a while" would have meant a year, two at the most. From 1958 through 1986, teams from Arizona and Southern California won a mind-bending 20 of 29 College World Series championships. USC kicked off the era with Coach Dedeaux's first (official) title in '58 and wrapped it up with Jerry Kindall's third championship with Arizona in '86. During that stretch four different schools won it all: USC with 10; Arizona State 5; Arizona 3; and Cal State Fullerton 2.
At one point Arizona State and USC combined to win eight in a row, including the Trojans' legendary five straight from 1970-74. Two of those titles, 1972-73, came via the defeat of, naturally, the Sun Devils.
When the College World Series celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, a panel of coaches, media and NCAA baseball brass selected five CWS All-Decade teams. The 1970's squad comprised of 11 players. Seven of those hailed from USC, Arizona State and Arizona. They also selected five all-time coaches. Three of those were Dedeaux, Arizona State's Jim Brock and Fullerton's Augie Garrido.
"It was a pretty amazing time," recalls USC outfielder Fred Lynn, a member of that '70's All-Decade team and a CWS participant in 1971, '72 & '73. "When I was playing, none of those other schools were in our conference yet. It was still the Pac-8 then. But we played each other all the time and then always seemed to meet up again in Omaha. And then when I got to the big leagues it was like, 'Man, these are all the same guys I saw in college!'"
But after Arizona's third and final title in '86, the CWS well began to run as dry as the landscape that separates Los Angeles from Tempe. In the 25 CWS completed since, the Southern California region has won just four titles: Pepperdine in '92, Fullerton in '95 and '04, and USC in '98. Schools from Arizona are still seeking their next championship. The Wildcats are making just their second appearance since '86 (the previous was a 1-2 effort in '04) while the Sun Devils have come up empty in nine Omaha visits since their fifth and final title in '81.
Meanwhile, schools such as LSU, Miami, Stanford and even Oregon State have racked up multiple championships.
"There's no doubt the landscape of the game changed tremendously during that time," Lopez explains. "The same time that the schools in our part of the world seemed to stop winning the championship every year was when the Southern schools started really focusing on baseball. So did West Coast schools to the north. The competition got better and the field got more crowded."
Lopez was part of that geographic shift. Two seasons after leading Pepperdine to their improbable '92 title, he moved from Malibu to Gainesville, Fla. In his second season with Florida he led the Gators to Omaha for only the third time in school history. Two years later, he did it again.
But in 2002 he moved back west, and in just two years had Arizona back in Omaha for the first time in nearly a decade. The revived energy he brought to college baseball in Tucson coincided with the rebuilding job Pat Murphy was doing up the road at Arizona State (albeit amid eventual controversy). And now a new program has risen to take USC's spot as L.A.'s most notable NCAA postseason representative.
Lopez's alma mater, UCLA, has made it to Omaha twice in the past three years, making it all the way to the championship series in 2010. That equals the number of CWS trips they made in the five decades before that, posting a combined 0-4 record in their 1969 and '97 visits.
"We didn't win a game, but there was some real pride in making it to Omaha in '69," former Bruins first basemen Chris Chambliss recalled during a 2010 conversation as he served as manager of the Class AAA Charlotte Knights. "We got there and USC didn't, so that was a big deal. We kind of broke their blockade on the place. But, of course, then we were eliminated by dang Arizona State."
Chambliss smiled and added, "Now they are playing some serious baseball at Jackie Robinson Stadium. They're the best college team in L.A. I love it. Just as much as I know all my USC buddies hate it."
There's no doubt about that. But even though they'd never admit it, even those loyal to UCLA's and Arizona's biggest rivals would quietly enjoy it if one of those two schools were able to end the CWS title run of those other regions, particularly the Southeast. You know, regional pride and all?
"I don't know about all that," UCLA coach John Savage said with a laugh. "But what I do know is that, as far as I'm concerned, coming out of the West is the toughest route to Omaha. That's never changed. It's been that way since long before I got here. Now one of us needs to step up and make that jump to the next level."
It's actually more of a leap. One made into a once so-familiar place that has become all-too foreign. Atop a dogpile in the Omaha infield.