Will Search for New USC Athletic Director Follow In-Hire Trend?

Nov 30, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Clay Helton (right) shakes hands with Southern California Trojans athletic director Pat Haden (left) and president C.L. Max Nikias (center) at press conference at John McKay Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 30, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Clay Helton (right) shakes hands with Southern California Trojans athletic director Pat Haden (left) and president C.L. Max Nikias (center) at press conference at John McKay Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

USC football found a new head coach from within, because that’s what the Trojans have always done. Will the trend continue with the new USC athletic director? History says yes.

In the wake of Pat Haden’s decision to retire at the end of June, a history lesson on Trojan hiring policies is needed ahead of the search for a new USC athletic director.

First, a case-study.

In 1992, shortly after it was announced that USC athletic director Mike McGee had decided to leave the program to take the reins at South Carolina, the LA Times article discussing the process of selecting his replacement began like this:

“One complaint among USC alumni about Mike McGee, who announced Monday that he is leaving his job as athletic director to accept the same post at South Carolina, was that he wasn’t a member of the ‘Trojan family.’

“But former Trojan quarterback Pat Haden, a USC trustee who will lead the search committee to replace McGee, said he won’t limit himself to candidates with ties to the university.”

Times staff writer Jerry Crowe went on to quote Haden, “I think understanding the traditions of USC is important because there’s a long history of USC success and support from alumni and friends. But I don’t think it’s absolutely, necessarily a prerequisite…I don’t think we can exclude the universe of capable people out there and say, ‘It must be a USC person.'”

Flash forward to 2015, to that same former Trojan quarterback, now the USC athletic director himself, explaining the process behind a different hiring decision, that of selecting a new football head coach:

Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Southern California Trojans interim coach Clay Helton before a NCAA football game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“Clay [Helton] was not hired because his team defeated UCLA Saturday. He was not hired because many current and former players voiced their support for him. And he was not hired because he is a Trojan. He is our choice because we believe he can win Pac-12 and national championships here. Clay Helton is the right man at the right time for the USC football program.”

Haden made a point of emphasizing that Helton was not hired because he is a Trojan, but for that to be true Helton’s hiring would go against the one consistent mandate of USC’s hiring philosophy going back nearly 75 years: Hire Trojans.

Consider the history of USC coaching hires since the man who put the Trojans on the map, Howard Jones.

Jones was a Yale man when he was hired in 1925, but he was followed by a string of USC men which would go unbroken until 1987.

Sam Barry was a USC assistant, Jeff Cravath was a former USC player, Jess Hill was both.

Hill was replaced by his assistant Don Clark, who was replaced by his assistant John McKay, who was replaced by his assistant John Robinson, who was replaced by his assistant Ted Tollner.

All of that makes the hiring of Larry Smith, a man with no connection to USC, in 1987 stand out like a sore thumb. Except that it makes perfect sense, since the man who made that hire also had no connection to USC prior to being hired as the athletic director in 1984.

McGee did himself no favors in going outside of the Trojan Family when he plucked Smith out of Arizona. He was an outsider picking an outsider to lead the most beloved aspect of USC athletics. So despite three Rose Bowl appearances in his first three years in charge, it is no surprise that Smith lasted less than a month after McGee announced he was leaving for USC-east.

Smith’s departure began a whole new cycle of USC-connected hires. Robinson returned, then was replaced by a former USC assistant, Paul Hackett. The Trojans tried to draw in yet another former USC assistant, Mike Riley, to run the program in 2001 after Hackett’s firing but when he turned them down they resorted to just the second outside hire in the program since 1925.

Dec 30, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans athletic director Pat Haden reacts during the 2015 Holiday Bowl against the Wisconsin Badgers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Even Pete Carroll has been wrangled into this cycle of in-house hires. When he left for the NFL in 2009, USC turned to one of his former assistants, Lane Kiffin. When that didn’t work out, they tried on a different Carroll assistant, Steve Sarkisian. And when that didn’t work out, they promoted Helton, a man who had worked under both, from within.

The narrative surrounding USC’s coaching search focused in on the role of Haden and USC’s penchant for hiring Carroll assistants to try to “relive the glory days.” With no Carroll assistants left to hire, and a popular interim on the table, the narrative shifted to the idea that a coach who “gets USC” would be the right target.

The underlying narrative that most seem to be missing is the role of Trojan athletic directors in the perpetuation of this in-hiring trend which predates Carroll by decades.

Consider this, USC has had seven official athletic directors in its history. All but McGee were Trojans before their hiring.

The first, Willis O. Hunter, was a baseball, basketball and football coach at the school before his appointment. The aforementioned Hill was a former player and head football coach. McKay served concurrently as AD and head coach. Richard Perry had worked as a professor at USC for eight years before his promotion.

Remember that LA Times article in which Haden talked about how being a “USC person” was not a prerequisite? His search led him to hire Trojan Heisman winner Mike Garrett, who was described in that very same article as a “longshot” at the start of the hiring process.

And who would ultimately replace Garrett 17 years later? The man with more USC connections than them all, Pat Haden.

Yahoo! Sports Pat Forde penned a line, “At the very least, nobody does insular like USC. For a university with a global reach academically, the football reach doesn’t even extend off campus.”

The Trojan Family means everything to USC. Trojans take care of Trojans, that’s the deal.

He is correct in that assessment. There are 90 years of athletic director and football coaching hires to prove it.

The question USC must now grapple with is whether or not this trend is worth continuing.

After all, the strongest recruiting pitch USC has, even greater than the locale, the academics and the weather, is “The Trojan Family.” USC’s alumni network is world renowned. Recruits are pitched the idea that they will get more than a four-year scholarship at USC. They become “Trojans for life.”

The Trojan Family means everything to USC, whether inside or outside of athletics. Trojans take care of Trojans, that’s the deal. Can you fault USC for following that mantra in their hiring process as well?

Of course you can, because the world is bigger than it was in 1942 when Cravath was selected or in 1960 when McKay was promoted. There is more information available, scouting is easier, communication unlimited. The pool of candidates for head coach and athletic director is greater and more varied than it has ever been. There are unlimited options if you’re willing to go looking for them.

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That’s where USC finds itself now, with an opening at athletic director which again needs filling. Max Nikias will employ a hiring firm to help him in the search, but based on past results the net will not be cast very wide.

On the expected shortlist are J.K. McKay and Steve Lopes, both currently within the athletic department structure.

Lopes is a senior associate athletic director and COO of the department. McKay, son of USC legend John McKay and a Trojan football star himself, is also an associate AD.

Both of those two figures could make excellent athletic directors. One of them probably will. But it remains to be seen whether or not USC will look hard enough at all the options to decide if either would be the best option.

The real shock would be if the Trojans reach outside of the pool. But this is USC we’re talking about and that’s not likely to happen.