As USC embarks on an encore performance of their search of a new coach in the middle of a turbulent season that they did just two years ago, the slow trickle of information concerning the seriousness of Steve Sarkisian’s problems with alcohol has caused athletic director Pat Haden to be the center of major national scrutiny.
“As a successful businessman, Haden understands accountability, and here’s a guess that he knows he must be accountable for the sorry state USC finds itself in,” wrote ESPN’s Ted Miller.
“He loves USC. So if he has his fingers on the pulse of USC, he probably knows he shouldn’t be in charge of the selection of the Trojans’ next football coach. It’s not just that public sentiment is against his doing so, it’s that his decision to hire Sarkisian should, in a moment of harsh but clear-thinking self-evaluation, make him see he’s not the best one for that job.”
Miller didn’t go as far as suggest that Haden should step down completely, but other writers like USA Today’s George Schroeder did:
“Pat Haden contributed to the spectacle. The leave of absence Haden told Sarkisian to take was about seven weeks too late,” wrote Schroeder.
“Clearly, the coach is struggling with serious issues. Let’s hope he’s able to get help and recover. But his boss either didn’t recognize the magnitude of the problem or declined to deal with it in August, when Sarkisian made that intoxicated, profane appearance at the annual “Salute to Troy” booster function.”
Not only did USC President Max Nikias reject such calls for dismissal, he double-downed on his AD.
Sep 19, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans president C.L. Max Nikias (left) and athletic director Pat Haden before the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Last Tuesday, Nikias expressed his “unwavering support” for Haden and gave him his blessing to lead the search for the next head coach.
For many in the general college football public, this faith in Haden is undoubtedly baffling. But a closer look at Haden’s track record over the last five years shows that it isn’t unearned.
First off, the prospect of Haden stepping down was always out of the question. Beyond the field, Haden has done too much for the university to leave now.
In the spirit of Nikias’ seemingly endless process of brand new buildings on campus, Haden has overseen a complete overhaul of the athletic department’s infrastructure. He’s refurbished the track stadium, football practice field, and administrative offices at Heritage Hall.
He’s rebuilt the aquatics complex from the ground-up and created the John McKay Athletic Center to get the school caught up with Oregon’s futuristic athletic complex.
That’s before we get to his biggest achievement: bringing the L.A. Coliseum under USC’s control.
With the possibility of that stadium becoming the site of the NFL’s return to Los Angeles and the 2024 Olympics, Haden has shown that he is determined to be in charge of the Coliseum’s impending modernization.
Still, how does that make him qualified to choose Steve Sarkisian’s successor?
After all, this isn’t the first hire that has fallen flat on its face. There’s men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield, whom Haden brought in after firing Kevin O’Neill – like Kiffin and Sarkisian – in the middle of the season.
Enfield arrived with glowing praise from Haden and even got to sit down with Jay Leno shortly before his first season started. Two years later, Trojan Hoops is still as moribund as it’s ever been.
Enfield has gotten into fights with Tim Floyd, the team has only won six conference games in two years, and the preseason poll has USC projected to finish tenth in the Pac-12 this year.
If that prediction proves to be true, the football team may not be the only Trojan squad in need of a new hire this winter.
But Haden’s history of coaching hires goes beyond the revenue sports. Several USC teams that were struggling for several years have become competitive again under the leadership of Haden appointees.
These include women’s basketball (Cynthia Cooper-Dyke), women’s soccer (Keidane McAlpine), and track & field (Caryl Smith Gilbert).
Mar 9, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; USC Trojans head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke holds up the Pac-12 Championship trophy after defeating the Oregon State Beavers at Key Arena. Southern California defeated Oregon State 71-62. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
None of these programs have the same gravitas as USC football, but there is one prestigious program that Haden has put on track to return to its former glory: baseball.
Perhaps that might not seem like a big deal, but it is. Once upon a time, the USC baseball team was as big as its football team.
While John McKay was racking up national championships and Rose Bowls, Rod Dedeaux was building a baseball dynasty at USC as decorated as John Wooden’s famed UCLA basketball squads.
But under previous AD Mike Garrett, the baseball team collapsed, suffering several losing seasons and failing to reach the postseason after 2005.
In his first week as athletic director in 2010, Haden made a big splash by getting rid of head coach Chad Kreuter, under whom the Trojans failed to finish higher than fifth in the Pac-10 standings.
In his place, he named assistant coach Frank Cruz the interim head coach for the 2011 season, and despite going 25-31 that year, Haden decided to promote him to full-time.
The decision blew up in Haden’s face. Cruz’s team went 23-32 in 2012, winning only eight conference games.
Then, just before the start of the 2013 season, Haden fired Cruz for violating NCAA rules concerning limitations on the number of hours players can spend in activities supervised by the coaching staff.
Suffice to say, for a school still under football sanctions, seeing the words “USC” and “NCAA violations” in the headlines again was a bad moment for Haden.
Feb 24, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; General view of the NCAA championship baseball banners of the Southern California Trojans at the entrance to Dedeaux Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
But when it came time to correct the error, Haden made another interim head coach promotion and it paid off. Haden selected assistant Dan Hubbs to be the interim head coach in 2013.
The Trojans suffered another losing season, but Haden decided to go ahead and keep Hubbs for the full-time job.
The result? In 2014, the Trojans finished with a winning record of 29-24, just one game short of reaching the regionals.
Then, earlier this year, they ended a decade-long postseason drought, reaching the regional finals and finishing the year as a ranked team with a record of 39-21.
Haden made a bad mistake when trying to get a prestigious USC program back to its winning ways, but eventually made the right hire. Now he has the chance to do the same thing on a much larger scale with the football program.
Being a Rhodes Scholar, Haden probably knows that old saying that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Haden made a bad mistake when trying to get a prestigious USC program back to its winning ways, but eventually made the right hire.
Whatever decision he makes, it’s highly unlikely that he’s going to go back to the Carroll assistant coach well to try to repeat glory days that have long gone by.
Over the next four months, USC alums and boosters will be watching Pat Haden like a hawk, and deservedly so.
When he arrived back on campus five years ago like a firefighter in a cardinal red and gold truck, his primary objective was to make sure the football program stopped landing in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
There’s no denying that so far, he’s failed in that goal. It’s unfortunate for him that all the positives of his tenure have come when nobody was paying attention.
But considering the sheer number of those positives and the fact that he’s shown the ability to rectify past errors like Frank Cruz, Nikias was right to give Haden one more chance to clean up this mess. He’s earned at least that much.
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