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Garrett is what USC needs

Mike Garrett is telling a story. He tells stories the way he once carried a football, the way he now carries an athletic department.

Hard.

“The NCAA said that while they were investigating this Reggie Bush thing, it would be appropriate if we kept our distance from him, because they didn’t want the appearance that we were condoning anything,” Garrett says. “I thought that was a reasonable request. So I agreed.”

There it is. The truth about why Reggie Bush was denied a sideline pass at the Rose Bowl. The truth has set USC free to become one of the best athletic departments in the country.

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Mike Garrett doesn’t care what outsiders think. He doesn’t listen to what outsiders say. His heart is with the Trojans family. His face is stone to everyone else.

And if he must temporarily disown one Heisman-bearing member of the family for the protection of that family?

He’ll do it in a minute, and apologize for nothing.

“Reggie Bush is a quality person,” Garrett says, “but we need to do the appropriate thing for our program.”

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Garrett is speaking Wednesday morning by telephone from a New Jersey hotel, where he traveled with the USC basketball team in preparation for today’s Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina.

The Trojans now have a basketball jab to complement their football roundhouse. They now have a basketball mansion to accompany their football castle.

Both teams could be national championship contenders next season. Both programs should be consistent winners for the foreseeable future.

Neither team was in great shape when Garrett became athletic director 14 years ago. The football team had just lost to Fresno State in the Freedom Bowl. The basketball team was playing in front of a handful of fans in the aging Sports Arena.

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He rushed into the situation like he was running off tackle, knocking things over, drawing blood, collecting bruises.

He would put down the newspaper filled with critical columns, and hang up the phone ringing with angry alumni, and give his staff a speech that it still remembers today.

“It may not feel like it, but we are winning,” he preached.

Nobody seems to want to say it, so I will.

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Today, it feels like Mike Garrett has won.

Not only are his two marquee sports thriving, but his teams have won 16 national titles in everything from men’s water polo to women’s golf, he has raised money at a record level and he has built a strong and diverse staff that spawned two of the nation’s top young athletic directors in Syracuse’s Daryl Gross and Arizona State’s Lisa Love.

“He has such passion for that school, such a passion for winning, all of his success comes from that passion,” Gross says.

It is passion with a paradox.

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Garrett allows unmatched media access to his teams. The Trojans sports information department is considered the most accommodating in the nation, and the athletes and coaches are generally thoughtful and well-spoken.

Yet Garrett rarely does personal interviews to explain his actions, grumbles when he does them and always ends them by vowing to never do them again.

“I think the media is part of the educational experience for my athlete,” he says. “But there are a lot of people out there promoting themselves, and I hate that.”

Garrett has also done much to push the idea of a Trojans family, unfailingly promoting and crediting his staff, refusing to take personal credit for success.

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Yet alumni and fans are constantly complaining that he often seems gruff or unapproachable and, indeed, he is as blunt as a Trojans helmet.

“People who criticize me sometimes don’t know their butts from a hole in a ground,” Garrett says.

Yeah, OK, he can be like that.

But in an era where big-time athletic programs are threatened by agents and gamblers and con men, in a town where glamour can drag around an athlete by his diamond earrings, USC needs a leader like Mike Garrett.

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An open and friendly athletic department needs somebody to snarl at strangers. Teams run by two former pro coaches need someone to remind them they are still in college.

With apologies to Jack Nicholson, USC fans should want Garrett on that wall, because they need Garrett on that wall.

One of the reasons the Trojans have had such success without NCAA sanctions? Garrett won’t stomach the notion, and discusses this with his coaches every day.

“The biggest fear we have in our business is to get fired over a non-compliance issue, and I do not want to be fired,” Garrett says.

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The reason that Pete Carroll and Tim Floyd have been able to quickly build such impressive programs? Garrett gives them the tools and then gets out of the way.

“That’s what he does with all his employees,” Gross says. “He’s gives them the ability to create. In return, he expects results. But he allows them to create.”

It was this freedom that allowed Gross to essentially hire Carroll and Floyd. Neither man was first on Garrett’s list. But when their top choices declined or withdrew, Garrett called Gross, who was waiting with backup plans.

“Some things happen serendipitously, and I won’t complain,” Garrett says.

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Who would have thought one of those things would be him?

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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