USC athletic director Lynn Swann was in bed Tuesday when he received the call about the college admissions bribery scandal that would rock USC and several other schools around the nation. His phone rang twice around 7 a.m. before he finally picked it up the third time.
“The head of professionalism and ethics at the university [Michael Blanton] gave me a call and obviously when you get a call this early in the morning more often than not it’s not good news and it wasn’t,” Swann said Friday in his first public comments on the story. “He explained to me what was going on and I was blindsided. I was looking at my emails and I saw that the partner of one of my senior executive administrators [Donna Heinel] had said she wouldn’t be in this afternoon and, of course, Michael explained why that was the case.”
Heinel, a senior associate athletic director, had been taken into custody after prosecutors announced a dozen indictments in U.S. district court in Boston, alleging a $25-million racketeering conspiracy. Heinel is alleged to have received bribe payments totaling more than $1.3 million while facilitating the entry of more than 24 nonathletes into USC.
Meanwhile in Honolulu, USC’s men’s and women’s water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who was on the island to coach the women’s team, was arrested for allegedly receiving $250,000 in bribes as part of the scheme. Swann fired Heinel and Vavic before the end of the day.
“I think everybody was blindsided by this,” Swann said. “The fact that it was a senior member of the staff and also our men’s and women’s head water polo coach. … These are people that have been here a long time and people who had been here during difficult times and had seen bad things done and knew better. Everyone was completely shocked, caught off guard and taken by surprise.”
Swann, who took over as USC’s athletic director a little under three years ago, has come under fire for not being aware of what was taking place within his department and for giving so much power to one person with seemingly little to no oversight.
“The reason why no one would know that this was happening is because we had one person in charge of submitting the academic records to our admissions department,” Swann said. “And that one person was in charge of getting that information back and distributing it to the coaches and letting other people know. So when there’s trust that this one person is doing the right thing, which Donna had been doing for years, there’s not a problem. … So a coach could give her a list of five names and she could add a sixth name, give it to admissions, have it go through, admissions gives it back to her, she gives it back to the coach with only the five names that the coach gave her. The coach doesn’t know, no one knows, except for the person who added the extra name.”
While other schools such as UCLA, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown were caught up in the scandal, USC was the only athletic department that had a senior administrator allegedly involved in the scheme. Swann said no one person will have as much responsibility as Heinel had in the future.
“We will work with the university to implement the best system,” Swann said. “We will work with the administration, admissions, sports administrators, recruiters and scouts so there are more eyeballs on this. Moving forward when a list of names is being put forward, the coach sees it, the recruiter sees it, the administrator sees it and others see it so we know these are real student-athletes that we’re trying to get. Whether they’re a preferred walk-on in football or someone else, we need to know these are real student-athletes. One of the first things I did after I read through the affidavit was I called Katharine Harrington, the vice president of admissions and planning at USC, and I apologized to her. The admissions department had no clue this was happening. They had no idea, and why would they?”
Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, are accused of paying $500,000 in bribes to help their daughters get into USC. Giannulli traveled to Augusta, Ga., home of the Masters golf tournament, with USC’s athletic director, according to the affidavit, but it was unclear at the time whether he was speaking of Swann, or his predecessor, Pat Haden, who are both members of Augusta National Golf Club.
“I’ve never met him,” Swann said when asked about Giannulli. “I think he was playing golf with somebody else that day.”
Swann was careful not to specifically place blame on Haden, who was his teammate when they played at USC, but he made it clear that many of the transgressions occurred before he took the job.
“I haven’t talked to Pat recently,” Swann said. “Pat had some health issues and he wanted to get away. I respect that. This is not where he wanted to be.”
Swann had never been an athletic director before being hired to replace Haden, who also had no previous experience at the job, but Swann said he believes he’s qualified to lead USC and has no intention of resigning. He says he would like to be at the school for 10 years.
“I have not considered resigning. I’m committed to this school and I’m committed to this job,” Swann said. “This was an opportunity that presented itself to me. I never went out looking for this job, but this is a job I feel I’m prepared for. Everything I do at USC, I’ve done before for someone else whether that’s raising capital, sitting on corporate boards, being chairman of the board of trustees for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, chairman of the President’s Council on Sports Fitness and Nutrition.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life that have given me experience in moving into this position. I felt like it would be a great opportunity. Do I want to do it forever? No. I would like to do it for 10 years. In corporate America they look at a tenure of a CEO and they say 10 years is about right. We have a great school and that’s why these people did what they did to try to get their kids into this school.”
In the last 18 months, three USC athletic department employees who were working under Swann have been arrested by the FBI. The first was Tony Bland, a USC assistant men’s basketball coach who recently pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery in connection with the college basketball corruption scandal. While Heinel, Vavic and Bland were hired before Swann got there, many are placing the blame on him for leading a department with so little oversight that it would be a part of two federal investigations in less than two years.
“I think the blame is being misplaced,” Swann said. “What was happening relative to basketball has happened at other schools. One person decided to do something they should not have done. We responded to that in the case of Tony Bland. He was not terminated immediately because the FBI would not share their information with us, but he was put on leave until around December . When we did our investigation and got some more information from the FBI on what was going on we terminated Tony Bland.
“We also didn’t allow De’Anthony Melton to play during the investigation because we were being conservative. We were trying to advocate for him and trying to find every reason to allow him to play and every time we tried to corroborate the good stuff, we always found something that was questionable so we waited and dug a little deeper.
“At the end we did the right thing by holding him out. The basketball team didn’t have to vacate any games because we didn’t allow a player who would have been found to be ineligible on the basketball team. In this case ... our men’s and women’s water polo coach and a senior administrator ... were terminated.”