An address to the most devoted supporters of the USC football program transformed into … well, what exactly was this?
Lynn Swann, the school’s athletic director, was breaking into song.
“The sun will come out tomorrow …”
The show-tune jingle was the punchline of a story about a breakup Swann experienced while in college. The audience members in this Costa Mesa banquet room, many of them USC donors, presented him with an opportunity to offer them something other than a nonanswer about how the Trojans would return to the national prominence and Swann was making the most of it.
Which was entirely expected.
Instead of hiring administrators to run its athletic department, USC turns to its former football heroes.
Mike Garrett. Pat Haden. And, now, Swann. There’s probably a parallel universe in which O.J. Simpson holds the position.
All of this is fine and dandy when the football program is winning. Smile, take pictures and shake some loose change from the pockets of alumni.
But in times like these, when the fans look to the athletic director for leadership and words of comfort, jokes from football legends suddenly feel inadequate.
Swann’s speaking engagement Wednesday night at the Water Grill started with some words from the event’s organizer, Andrea Casaw, the president of the Trojan Athletic Fund Club of Orange County.
“There’s a crisis of confidence at SC,” Casaw said. “That’s why we’re here tonight. We’re all worried.”
Worried enough to pay $85 or more per ticket to hear what Swann had to say.
Swann was warm, even charming, but he did almost nothing to alleviate the concerns of USC fans who watched in horror as Clay Helton finished last season with a 5-7 record and was retained as coach. The program’s most promising addition of the offseason, offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, bolted for the NFL before calling a single play for the Trojans.
“As long as our program stays compliant, as long as our coaches are doing it to the best of their ability, working hard, as long as we recruit and treat our players with respect and help them grow and graduate and have a great college experience and we have a good culture at USC, then I’m going to give them an opportunity to do the things they need to do,” Swann said.
Translation: The football’s primary objectives are to stay out of trouble and graduate its players.
Swann has kept a low profile in the wake of his decision to retain Helton. A fan who said he traveled from the Los Angeles Westside to listen to Swann told him the program’s supporters wanted to hear more from the athletic director.
“Nobody really wants to hear from the athletic director,” Swann replied politely. “No, you don’t. You only want to hear from the athletic director when things are going bad. OK? Then you want the athletic director to come out and say, ‘It’s your fault,’ or what you’re going to do about this. If the football team was winning, you’d be sitting here going like, ‘Where’s the coach? I want to talk to the coach again.’”
Only the Trojans aren’t winning. Who knows what point Swann was trying to make. The same was true of most of what he said in the hour or so that he spoke, the majority of which was spent answering questions from a discouraged audience.
Swann promised more physicality on the team’s offensive and defensive lines, neglecting to mention how the Trojans don’t have a strength and conditioning coach at the moment. He did point to the Seattle Seahawks’ hiring of Ivan Lewis in a more convenient time, when he was asked about the school’s lack of investment in areas such as strength and conditioning, nutrition, recruiting support staff and analysts.
“If we were doing such a bad job in our strength and conditioning, then we wouldn’t be looking for another strength and conditioning coach at the moment because the Seattle Seahawks came in and hired away Ivan, who was the head of our program,” Swann said.
“Let’s cross that one off the list.”
Swann went on to reiterate his faith in Helton.
Swann raised examples of championship football teams, including the New England Patriots, as well as the USC and Pittsburgh Steelers teams on which he played.
One audience member pointed to how each of those dynasties had a top-shelf coach and asked Swann what made him believe Helton could be such a coach.
“I think he’s got the football sense and IQ,” Swann said. “He understands what he wants to get done and how he wants to get it done. Now he’s got to communicate that to everybody across the board.”
Swann said he was calling on Helton to delegate more responsibilities to his assistants.
Ignoring how USC’s latest recruiting class was ranked 20th in the country and third in the Pac-12 by 247 Sports, Swann added, “He recruits extraordinarily well and he recruits the right way.”
Said the same audience member: “Everything indicates he’s a great human being, a great man …”
“I know where you’re going,” Swann said. “You may not think he’s a great football coach …”
“I don’t,” the fan said.
“… but I think he can get the job done,” Swann said.
How long would Helton have to do that?
“I’m not going to get into how long,” Swann said.
Swann continued, “All I know is whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. And hopefully he’s extraordinarily successful because I want him to win, he wants to win, and everybody wants him to win.”
The crowd looked unconvinced.