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Dashing figure

At this juncture in his life, Pat Haden thinks about tombstones. Thinks about them a little too much, maybe.

Morbid preoccupation doesn’t fit the man.

Sure, the years have rolled by since he was a football hero at USC -- not to mention a Rhodes scholar -- but Haden still looks the part of the golden boy with a chipper smile beneath that thinning blond hair.

The 57-year-old seemed especially energetic last week, bouncing around the athletic department at his alma mater where he is the new boss, introducing himself to players, corraling employees for quick chats in the hallway, joking with reporters.

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On his first, unofficial day as athletic director, he wore a bright blue tie that showed a swimmer diving headlong into the water.

“This is going to be fun,’ he said. “This is joyful.”

Which doesn’t make sense either.

Dark clouds have settled over Heritage Hall since the NCAA placed USC on four years’ probation. The football team is hobbled by sanctions that will linger for seasons to come. Same with basketball.

Why would a man whose legacy is already etched in stone want the hassle? Why would he leave a successful investment firm and a prime weekend gig doing television for Notre Dame games?

Tombstones are a big part of the answer. Also, motherly advice and something he calls “the dash.”

Early lessons

No conversation with Patrick Capper Haden, born in New York to working-class Irish parents, would be complete without mention of his mother, a subject that still causes him to choke up.

The late Helen Haden bestowed many lessons upon her children -- Pat was the fourth of five -- including an adage: “Live your life so that you have standing room only at your funeral.”

As Pat explains: “She knew how to treat people right.”

Not that compassion precluded hard work or achievement. For Haden, that meant a boyhood paper route followed by a job in a shoe store, making sure to suggest a matching handbag for those black pumps because accessories paid an extra commission.

“You work your tail off,” he recalled. “Work harder than the next guy.”

This mentality carried over to sports, where he relied on smarts -- and toughness gained from keeping up with older brothers -- to compensate for physical shortcomings.

When the family moved to Southern California, the kid who enrolled at Bishop Amat High in La Puente soon became starting quarterback. He also found an unlikely ally in J.K. McKay.

The son of legendary USC coach John McKay, J.K. was quick-witted and easy-going, everything Haden wasn’t. And vice versa.

“Most kids at that age are a little flaky, but you didn’t see any of that in Pat,” McKay recalled. “He was more mature at 11 than I am now.”

If nothing else, McKay got his pal to loosen up. Haden lived with the McKays after his parents moved again, then headed for USC with J.K. where they joined a group of friends in commandeering an apartment building near fraternity row.

“Like a lot of students, we had a good time,” said Chris Bitterlin, now a real estate developer in San Diego. “Pat had fun too, he participated.”

But unlike the others, Haden often slipped away to study for class or watch extra game film. He could put on blinders when work needed to be done.

On the field, there was no question about who ruled the huddle.

“He’d nudge me and say, ‘Get up in there. We need a couple of yards,’ ” former tailback Anthony Davis recalled. “When he told you something, you’d listen.”

Through the early 1970s, the Trojans played in three Rose Bowls and won two national championships. Haden graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, earning that prestigious scholarship to Oxford University in England.

“We were just college kids trying to get through our classes and figure out what we were going to do with the rest of our lives,” said Nick Brown, a friend. “Pat had a plan.”

Career path

Everyone knows the curriculum vitae after USC, a season in the World Football League, six more with the Rams, vacations spent studying economics at Oxford. If that weren’t enough, Haden also earned a law degree.

Lying in a hospital after the 1981 season, recovering from knee surgery and contemplating retirement, he got a call from CBS about a broadcast job.

“I thought I might give it a try,” he said.

Two or three years turned into yet another career, NBC hiring him to provide color commentary for the Irish. Between weekend games, Haden practiced law for a while before joining former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan at a Westwood investment firm.

“If we wanted to impress somebody, we brought Pat along to dinner,” Riordan said. “He could open doors to the top executives in the country, but he also has a great analytical brain. The guy is brilliant.”

Not that Haden turned everything to gold.

His NFL career did not go as expected, not with the Rams falling short in the playoffs. He still talks about his rookie season and a fourth-quarter interception that stopped his team one game shy of the Super Bowl.

“Not only that play but other times,” he said. “I did not play well enough for my teammates to get what they deserved, which would have been a Super Bowl win or two. We were good enough defensively, we weren’t good enough at quarterback.”

The Rams finally reached the title game after the 1979 season, but an injured Haden had to watch Vince Ferragamo run the show. By that time, fans regularly booed the former Trojans star.

“I’ve always wanted people to like me,” he said. “So that hurt.”

Away from football, Haden suffered another glaring defeat while serving on the board of directors for IndyMac Bank, a Pasadena savings and loan that failed spectacularly in 2008.

Federal regulators have accused former IndyMac executives of acting negligently by granting loans to developers and home builders who were unlikely to repay the debts. Citing the lawsuit, Haden commented only in general terms.

“I didn’t do anything wrong there and I have no regrets,” he said. “I’m disappointed that it happened and I was a shareholder too, but it wasn’t by the actions of the board members.”

USC could bring more heartache. The athletic department needs a cultural overhaul -- no easy task -- and Haden sees difficult times ahead.

“I’m just warning you,” he told Cindy, his wife of 34 years. “There are going to be bad things said about me in the paper.”

Digging dirt

This part of Haden’s story makes some people cringe: Even with his stumbles, he seems a little too perfect.

Friends talk about his honesty, his neat appearance, acts of kindness that would have pleased Helen. Ask for a major fault and they come up empty.

“I wish I could give you some dirt,” Riordan said. “If I think of something, I’ll call you back.”

After spending more than a decade beside Haden in the broadcast booth, play-by-play man Tom Hammond offers one suggestion.

“How about corny jokes?” he asked. “Told over and over so that we had to number them. Here comes No. 7.”

Even his wife was leery of the squeaky-clean image when they first met in front of the library at USC. She had been seeing McKay, nothing serious, so she agreed to go out with the quarterback.

After the first date, he wrote her a romantic poem. The next time he brought flowers.

“I said this guy is too nice, but after that I started to like him,” she said. “He’s got a great heart.”

Dash to the finish

Back to the original question: Why would Haden risk this image of his?

At least one friend has noticed a difference in him lately. The college buddies still gather to play golf -- and needle each other -- on a regular basis.

“Pat has been talking about how he’s going to die one of these days,” Brown said. “It’s the only negative thing I’ve ever heard him talk about, but he said, ‘It’s not negative, it’s a reality.’ ”

Haden consulted a website that estimates life expectancy.

“I know this sounds really perverse,” he said. “My friends kid me about it.”

His mortal demise figures to be 26 years away and he has begun ending personal e-mails with the date “2036.” If this seems morose, try looking at it from the opposite direction.

Haden talks about “the dash,” the glyph etched into your tombstone between the day you are born and the day you perish. To him, the dash represents all the living that takes place in between.

“So I’m not really thinking about dying in 2036,” he said. “I’m thinking about living between now and then. There’s a difference.”

Seven weeks ago, USC’s incoming president, Max Nikias, called to propose another career change, replacing Mike Garrett as athletic director. Though Haden loves his alma mater and had spent many years on its board of directors, his answer was “no thanks.”

Cindy got her husband to reconsider. She was thinking about the cushy life he’d been living. In a way, she was thinking about “the dash.”

“I’m not a pushy person, but I pushed hard for this,” she said. “I just thought, Pat needs a challenge.”

New team to lead

People close to Haden say they have never seen him so energized. Talking to a visitor at his investment firm, broad windows offering a city panorama, he punctuates important thoughts by slapping the arm of his chair.

Don’t mistake this latest move for whimsy or a mid-life crisis -- he has a history of reinventing himself, ever hungry to fill in the dash.

“He’s saying that he has a lot of fuel left in the tank,” Brown explained. “He can make a difference.”

USC fans probably will give him an extended honeymoon, but he will need all of his public relations savvy, a trait that puts him in stark contrast to the gruff, intensely private Garrett. So far, he has said the right things.

In the aftermath of scandals surrounding former star athletes Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, playing by the rules is essential. McKay will come aboard to help watch over football.

“We have to do better,” Haden said. “We don’t have any choices here.”

There is also talk of continuing Garrett’s efforts to raise money and expand women’s sports. And one more thing.

Each year, the campus offers scores of theater plays and music performances. The student body includes a large foreign contingent that can speak of other cultures.

Haden wants his athletes to sample from all this, a college experience that extends beyond the confines of the football field or basketball court.

“This really is Pollyanna,” he said. “Probably will never happen.”

But the new boss vows to try. He wants an entirely new atmosphere around Heritage Hall.

It’s all about motherly advice, tombstones and something he calls “the dash.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

USC athletic

directors

Pat Haden’s six predecessors, with USC’s 113 national titles tallied on the right.

*--* Willis O. Hunter 1925-57 29 Jess Hill 1957-72 31 John McKay 1972-75 6 Richard Perry 1975-84 20 Mike McGee 1984-93 4 Mike Garrett 1993-2010 23 Pat Haden 2010- *--*


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