The amazing thing is that, through all of this, USC football has thrived.
A top-five program has not just survived in the wake of crippling NCAA penalties and two coaching changes. Since 2010, there have been three (at least) nine-win seasons and a Pac-12 Championship out of Los Angeles. By any measure, USC football has more or less been USC football — even factoring in that NCAA probation — since Pat Haden became athletic director in August 2010.
At least on the field.Off the field? Well, that’s the reason applications are currently being accepted for Haden’s job. The 63-year-old AD announced last week he was stepping down effective June 30. An articulate, smart, compassionate man, Haden’s missteps cannot be discounted. The awkward firing of Lane Kiffin. The (perhaps) lack of vetting of Steve Sarkisian. The eventual firing of Sark was followed by the coach’s lawsuit against the school.
Haden’s legacy will continue to be shaped with Clay Helton, who was promoted from his interim title and will start his first season as USC’s coach in 2016.
That’s three head coaches for the Trojans in 71 months, marking the most coaching changes in that short of time at least 106 years at the school.
Haden’s role was defined by those NCAA penalties. He could calm the waters or make waves. Some supporters wanted him to sue the NCAA. That wasn’t going to happen, but Haden did lash out at the organization during Todd McNair’s ongoing defamation lawsuit.
Perhaps it is best to consider Haden a competent caretaker of the USC flame during a turbulent time. Was he the best administrator or scout of coaching talent? No, but he wasn’t a failure because, through it all, football thrived.
Here’s a look at the top five candidates, in descending, order to become USC’s next AD.
1. Steve Lopes, USC COO and CFO: Lopes is probably the front-runner having been senior associate AD since 2002. That means Lopes has been through pretty much everything in recent years — the mercurial Mike Garrett, a football dynasty, a crippling NCAA probation, Kiffin, Sark and Haden. This is Lopes’ 32nd year with USC. Yeah, I’d say he’s qualified.
2. Mark Jackson, Villanova athletic director: This might be a case of bad timing for USC’s former senior associate AD. Jackson took the Nova job in Aug. 2015. Had he hung on in L.A., he might be the top choice to replace Haden. Jackson originally came to USC has a Pete Carroll assistant before switching over to administration. The one-time director of football development with the Raiders under Kiffin returned for a second stint with USC in 2008. Jackson had a direct hand in overseeing the renovation of Heritage Hall and construction of the McKay Center . At 43, Jackson’s career is just beginning to take off. USC will almost certainly call, but would Jackson leave after spending one academic year at Villanova?
3. J.K. McKay, USC senior associate athletic director: Haden and McKay were as much a pair as administrators as they were as Trojan teammates 40 years ago. McKay became Haden’s right-hand man and thus popular with virtually everyone in the McKay Center (named after his father and former USC coach John McKay). Because of Haden’s missteps off the field, fair or not, McKay could be perceived by some as part of the problem instead of the solution. Whatever the case, McKay is imminently qualified. He’s been an attorney since 1982 and bleeds cardinal and gold.
4. Bernard Muir, Stanford athletic director: This is where it gets interesting. If USC is determined to go outside the family, Muir would be a logical recipient of the first phone call. The 47-year-old former NCAA basketball tournament director of operations currently operates the most successful, broad-based — and clean — athletic department in the country. Muir would have to be interested in overseeing a top-five football program and all the glory that goes with USC. Not to say Stanford’s athletics run themselves but there certainly is a lot less drama. Muir also serves currently as a member of the powerful NCAA men’s basketball committee. There aren’t many AD jobs better in the country than the gig at Stanford. USC might be one of them.
5. Greg Byrne, Arizona athletic director: Byrne’s name now comes up regularly for big-time jobs. The 43-year-old has done a great job of keeping Sean Miller in the fold for this long. Rich Rodriguez has been a success in football. Byrne could be much more influential at a bigger Power Five job. He has done wonders with a mid-level (in the Pac-12) operating budget. I said when the Texas job came open that Byrne’s next stop may be in the SEC or Big 12. Don’t rule out the Pac-12.