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Changing the heritage

Seventeen years could be boiled into two moments, the complicated legacy of Mike Garrett revealed in a final burst of arrogant bluster.

The first thing you need to know about the resume of USC’s fallen athletic director is that, at a booster club function in San Francisco this summer shortly after the football program was hit with heavy sanctions, he said, “As I read the decision by the NCAA ...I read between the lines and there was nothing but a lot of envy. They wish they all were Trojans.”

The second thing you need to know is that shortly after offering this fractured insight, he was given a standing ovation.

As the brooding, bullying boss views his beloved school today from the bottom of the curb, it is obvious to note that many thought he was a buffoon.

But it is important to remember that perhaps just as many thought he was a hero.

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He was hated. He was loved. He was loathed. He was respected.

Mostly, though, it seems, Mike Garrett was cursed.

The same traits that made him such a strong university symbol also made him such a weak university representative.

For 17 years, the Trojans’ first Heisman Trophy winner ran the athletic department the way he once ran the ball. He put his head down and chugged. If something was in his way, he rudely ran over it. If something was charging him, he deftly ran around it.

He never looked up. He never saw background. He never understood context. His only goal was reaching the end zone and, well, if he was being pushed along by cheaters into spaces cleared by con men, he neither noticed nor cared.

It will be easy today to paint new Athletic Director Pat Haden as an angel of goodness replacing Garrett’s caricature of incompetence. It will be also be careless and wrong.

If Garrett was such a clown, what does it say about the serious USC faithful who donated more than $375 million during his tenure?

If Garrett was so destructive, how did he oversee the building of a gleaming new basketball arena?

If Garrett was so dumb, how did he hire Pete Carroll?

There are many reasons why Garrett should no longer be athletic director and, in fact, he should have been nudged out the moment the Trojans’ football team was hit with a two-year postseason ban for cheating.

In the end, Garrett wasn’t accountable, he wasn’t accessible, and he never understood that being the face of a university meant more than smiling on Saturdays. In the end, he was just a 66-year-old former running back whose judgment was as bad as his knees.

But in the end, this story is not only scandalous, but sad, because Garrett couldn’t survive long enough to retire, to gain one last chance at grace, to enjoy one final moment to savor everything he did right.

Because, face it, you aren’t the athletic director at a school that wins 23 national titles under your direction if you’re not doing something right.

Haden, the Trojans’ golden child and the perfect pick to lead the school through two or three tough probation years -- it’s hard to imagine the successful businessman playing savior any longer -- has said all the right things. But some of those things, Garrett has already done.

Haden said one of his focuses will be women’s sports. Under Garrett, USC added women’s teams in water polo and soccer, elevated a women’s rowing team to a varsity sport, and added 42 more women’s scholarships, giving USC the maximum number allowed.

Haden, a former Rhodes scholar, has also talked about an increase in academic attention. Under Garrett, the football team graduated a school-record 82% of its players in 2001, and his department has helped spawn a school valedictorian, salutatorian, and, yes, even a Rhodes scholar.

Haden is a symbol of change. But remember, Garrett was one of the earliest African American athletic directors at a Division I school, helping to pave a diverse path in an

exclusionary academic world that still can’t seem to figure out how to hire African American football coaches.

Garrett was, in some ways, a pioneer. But once allowed inside the hallowed USC halls, he just couldn’t keep from tracking mud everywhere.

For every Garrett gem, there has seemingly been a Garrett goof. The crude way he fired John Robinson. The foolish way he hired Rick Majerus. The quick way he hired Lane Kiffin, who now becomes the most tenuously employed Trojan without ever coaching a game.

It was Garrett who allowed Tim Floyd to bring in that star guard dressed in a “Probation Bait” T-shirt. And it was Garrett who allowed Carroll to run a program whose swagger was so unchecked, nobody thought twice about a new rental house for the parents of a Heisman Trophy winner.

Nobody should take a bigger fall in this USC scandal than Mike Garrett, and, it turns out, nobody will. But don’t forget how the program reached those dizzying heights. And, when the booing dies, don’t be afraid to thank him for the view.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

National titles under Garrett

USC won 23 team national championships under former athletic director Mike Garrett:

MEN (13)

Football 2003, 2004

Baseball 1998

Tennis 1993, 1994, 2002, 2009, 2010

Water polo 1998, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009

WOMEN (10)

Golf 2003, 2008

Soccer 2007

Swim/Diving 1997

Track & field 2001

Volleyball 2002, 2003

Water polo 1999, 2004, 2010

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VOICES

PAT HADEN:

On sending back Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy and taking down other forms of recognition: “The subliminal message is we want to win but we want to do it right.”

On new football Coach Lane Kiffin: “I don’t think we’re going to have a problem with Lane with compliance.... He knows where we’re coming from.”

On compliance with NCAA rules: “Try to be perfect. When we make mistakes, we’re going to fess up and try to be better the next time.”

On USC sanctions: “We have a situation now where we’re on NCAA probation for four years. June 9, 2014, we come off. I’m going to wake up every day scratching off another day on the calendar.”

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ON HADEN

From Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports: “Typical that Pat would want to be there for his beloved alma mater in a time of need. His integrity, his talent and his engaging manner are just what the Trojans need.”

From Pete Carroll(on Twitter): “Wish pat haden the very best in taking over as USC AD! I’ll support in any way. Congrats!”

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ON GARRETT

From USC basketball Coach Kevin O’Neill: “I liked his no-nonsense, direct approach and appreciated his support very much so. I have nothing but great things to say about Mike Garrett.”

From incoming USC President Max Nikias: “Anyone who knows Mike Garrett is aware no one has been more passionate about the Trojan Family and our storied Trojan athletic heritage.... He will always be held in the highest esteem by all Trojans.”

From former basketball coach Tim Floyd: “I know from my latest experience at UTEP how important it is to be supported by the athletic department. I value that and hope Pat Haden does that with his coaches and players at USC.”


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