Pat Haden, the athletic director who steered USC through NCAA sanctions but was plagued by turmoil in recent months, will retire in June.
The former USC quarterback’s five-plus years leading the department were marked by improved facilities and fundraising, but also tumult on and off the field.
In a letter Friday to the USC community, university President C.L. Max Nikias praised Haden’s “Herculean effort” to rebuild the department in the aftermath of the NCAA penalties stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal.
“Our campus now bears Pat’s stamp in perpetuity,” Nikias wrote.
Haden is believed to be the country’s highest-paid athletic director, making at least $2.5 million in salary and benefits. He’ll remain at USC through June 2017 in a different role: to guide the $270-million renovation of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The venue, operated by USC, will be the temporary home of the National Football League’s Rams beginning this fall.
“I am proud of what has been accomplished here … and knowing that USC athletics is on an upward trajectory,” Haden said in a written statement.
But Haden has come under increased scrutiny — and criticism — during the past six months.
In August, Haden allowed Steve Sarkisian to continue as head football coach despite an incident at a booster event where the coach slurred words, denigrated opponents and used an expletive while on stage.
Haden, 63, placed Sarkisian on indefinite leave Oct. 11 after the coach attended a team meeting in the morning but failed to appear for practice that afternoon. The next day, Haden fired Sarkisian, saying that his conduct “did not meet USC’s standards and expectations of a head coach.”
Hours before Sarkisian’s firing, The Times published a lengthy account of the coach’s use of alcohol during five seasons at the University of Washington before Haden hired him at USC in December 2013.
Haden defended choosing Sarkisian to replace Lane Kiffin — whom the athletic director fired at L.A. International Airport in September 2013 after a loss — by pointing out that the coach was never disciplined at Washington. Haden maintained that Sarkisian had been properly vetted, and he spent an extended portion of one news conference defending his performance as athletic director.
“I believe, Pat Haden believes, our future is bright,” he said.
Throughout the crisis, Nikias remained publicly supportive of Haden. However, not all Trojans endorsed him. Riki Ellison, a linebacker on the school’s 1978 national championship team who played nine seasons in the NFL, called for Haden’s ouster in an extended Facebook post that described the athletic director’s leadership as “toxic.”
Before USC’s game at Notre Dame last Oct. 17 — USC’s first game since the firing — Haden required medical assistance after he felt lightheaded. Haden flew home on a private plane and tweeted the next day that he was “feeling great.”
Days later, The Times detailed Haden’s work for seven corporate boards and charitable foundations that pay him at least a half-million dollars per year. That’s in addition to his $2.5-million package of salary and benefits at USC in the most recent year for which federal tax records are available. The package is more than double what Haden’s predecessor, Mike Garrett, earned in his final full year, according to the records.
Haden said he spent “very little” time on the board responsibilities but worked an average of 70 hours a week at USC.
The list of outside commitments shrank Oct. 30 when Haden unexpectedly resigned from the College Football Playoff selection committee.
“I am reluctant to step down, but my doctors advised me to reduce my traveling,” Haden said in a statement at the time.
He missed seven of USC’s final eight football games.
Haden has a pacemaker and in September 2014 told The Times that he was “not in good health.” However, Haden described his health as “fine” in an interview with USC’s website three months later.
Even when Haden hired interim Coach Clay Helton to a long-term contract in November, fallout from Sarkisian’s untimely exit wasn’t far away. A week later, the former coach sued USC in L.A. Superior Court. He claimed that Haden fired him instead of permitting him to be treated for alcoholism.
“Instead of accommodating Steve Sarkisian’s disability, USC kicked him to the curb,” the lawsuit said.
USC pushed back in a response filed in court weeks later, saying the lawsuit is full of “half-truths” and “outright falsehoods.”
Sarkisian is seeking the $12.6 million remaining on his USC contract plus unspecified damages. The case is ongoing.
Haden took over as athletic director in August 2010, two months after the NCAA punished USC with some of the harshest penalties in the organization’s history. USC had been cited for “lack of institutional control” for violations that centered on Bush, the school’s former star running back.
A former Rhodes Scholar who quarterbacked two USC national championship teams in the 1970s and played for the L.A. Rams before careers as a sports broadcaster, attorney and businessman, Haden brought stability to an athletic department in turmoil.
He oversaw a slew of major capital improvements, including the $70-million McKay Center, the renovation of Heritage Hall and a refurbished swim stadium.
USC has won 10 national championships and athletic department revenues have grown by about $30 million per year since Haden took over, though some of the revenue increase is attributable to television money the department receives from the Pac-12 Conference.
Haden was an advocate for allowing stipends beyond athletic scholarships to cover an athlete’s full cost of attending school. He also encouraged the athletic department to better integrate into the broader university community. In one example, he played a postman — and sang a solo — in a campus production of “The Most Happy Fella” in 2013.
Su’a Cravens, one of the top players on last season’s USC football team, said Haden would be missed. “You could always look forward to talking to him,” Cravens said, “and when we needed anything he would talk to us and be there for us.”
Sometimes Haden’s advocacy went too far. His behavior drew unwelcome attention in September 2014. In an unusual scene, Haden went down to the field during a football game at Stanford to discuss an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty assessed on Sarkisian with game officials.
The Pac-12 reprimanded Haden and Sarkisian and fined the athletic director $25,000.
Now USC needs to find Haden’s replacement.
Steve Lopes, USC’s senior associate athletic director, has long been viewed as a potential heir.
Nikias said the school will use the Brill Neumann executive search firm to aid in the process. The athletic department previously used the Korn Ferry firm, known for its high-profile placements throughout the sports industry, to assist in the hires of Sarkisian and basketball Coach Andy Enfield.
“It has been a tremendous honor,” Haden said, “serving my alma mater, a school I love so much, as well as serving Max Nikias, our coaches and staff and, most importantly, our student-athletes.”
Follow Nathan Fenno on Twitter: @nathanfenno
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter: @latimesklein
Correspondent Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report.
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