The honeymoon isn’t over for Pat Haden because, well, he is Pat Haden.
He is the kind of person with whom you want to have dinner. Every night. When he speaks, everybody listens. When he is in the room, the room is worth being in.
His best friend and current right-hand man, J.K. McKay, has always had the best summary.
“He was more mature when he was 11 than I am now,” McKay says. McKay is 58.
Still, this new life of Haden’s, as athletic director at USC, is neither a popularity contest nor merely a measure of personality. It was a year ago that Haden ascended, after school President Max Niklas sent Mike Garrett away and chose Haden to lead the Trojans out of the gloom of an NCAA penalty that Haden now characterizes as “the second worst in NCAA history, after SMU’s death penalty.”
And how has that gone so far?
“I’d give myself a B-minus,” Haden says, with nary a pause.
This is a revealing measure of Haden. He can rate himself that low because he knows it’s not true, and he knows few others would agree.
He has placed a high priority on returning a sense of the college experience to athletes at a school that, in its past, has stressed winning over whimsy. Most fans are fine with the football factory image as long as the results are in line with the image. But Haden will fight on for success without cutting corners, for USC to be a place where student-athletes actually are student-athletes.
To that end, he has had posters about debates and concerts and lectures put in the players’ lockers. And not just the football players’.
“I worry about all the athletes not having a well-rounded university experience,” he says. “I know I’m not going to completely change the culture. They have to work so hard these days. But I just want them to step back every once in a while and see what is here.”
As an example of how drastically things have changed, he uses a letter, dated July 7, 1964. It is from then-football coach John McKay. It was sent to the players and encouraged them to do sets of toe-touches, situps and jumping jacks to get in shape for the upcoming season.
“Can you imagine that?” Haden says. “Jumping jacks? And on July 7, with half the summer already gone?”
The reality is that most USC football fans, while happy that their athletes are being encouraged to broaden their college life, demand a return to winning football. Haden is the steward of that, and he wants it just as badly as they do, although without the thumb-our-noses-at-the-NCAA days that preceded him. His coach is Lane Kiffin, who is young, impulsive and, apparently, behaving quite nicely under the watch of Haden and J.K. McKay.
“Losses kill coaches, and injure athletic directors,” Haden says. “I tell Lane, one or two losses are good for the soul. Four or five are bad for the coaches.”
Haden’s self-imposed B-minus rating comes partly from his inability to persuade the NCAA to reduce the tough sanctions against USC. The Trojans couldn’t play in a bowl game last year and can’t again this year. He also sought reduction of scholarship losses, and was turned down.
Haden traveled to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis several times for discussions, hoping to ease some of the pain. More than just a plea for sympathy, he has had the Cam Newton case at Auburn and, more recently, the Jim Tressel case at Ohio State as comparative situations. Neither case was exactly like USC’s, neither appears likely to result in penalties as severe as USC’s, and neither would likely be used in a direct comparison to the Trojans. Still, if there was a softening there, why not for USC?
“The meetings were good. We were treated well,” Haden says. “The body language throughout was favorable. I guess I was surprised at the outcome.”
Haden sees the hand that has been dealt his school as an 11-year setback. He says it will be that long from the start of the Reggie Bush investigations, through all the appeals and penalties, and then the time it will take, even with all the sanctions gone and the scholarships restored, to get back up to speed.
“It’s at least a full decade,” he says.
Haden, 58, is married to Cindy, whom he met in front of the library at USC some 40 years ago. The Hadens have four children, five grandchildren and another due any day. He was a high school All-American at Bishop Amat, played for two USC national championship teams and in three Rose Bowls, had a successful pro career with the Rams and somehow managed to find time to study at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. When he took over at USC, he left a lucrative career in the private equity business, a career that allowed him time to also become a nationally known network football commentator. He also practiced law for several years.
So the “little dark cloud” of the NCAA sanctions that he says hovers over him and USC teams and fans these days is not the norm for Patrick (Capper) Haden.
Nor will it remain.
On a recent warm summer day, Haden leaned against the west wall of Heritage Hall’s balcony and looked at a nearby construction site. By this time next year, the $72-million John McKay Center should be open. It is named after the late coaching legend, who was Haden’s coach and his best friend’s father. It will house most of USC’s athletic facilities and become the nerve center for Trojans sports.
It will be shiny and new, a symbol of good days ahead.
“On time and on budget,” says the smiling athletic director, who has just finished his rookie year.