USC could go ‘outside the family’ for Pat Haden’s successor as athletic director

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden talks with university President C.L. Max Nikias and, at the time, new football coach Steve Sarkisian, left, during his introductory news conference.

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden talks with university President C.L. Max Nikias and, at the time, new football coach Steve Sarkisian, left, during his introductory news conference.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It was a dark time for USC athletics.

The football and men’s basketball teams were facing some of the harshest sanctions in NCAA history, the athletic director was gone and university administrators needed someone to stabilize the situation.

So the school did what it has almost always done, turning to one of its own.



An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the athletic director before Pat Haden had been fired. Haden’s predecessor, Mike Garrett, left but was not fired.

When Pat Haden took over the athletic department in the summer of 2010, he became the seventh man to hold the position since 1926, all but one of them hired from within.

Six years later, with Haden announcing his impending retirement Friday, USC has plans to launch a search for his replacement.

“The process will be national in scope,” President C.L. Max Nikias stated in a letter to the university community.

But after decades of sticking to the familiar — and with at least two potential candidates currently part of the athletic department staff — will USC hold to tradition or follow a more recent trend?

“There used to be a tendency among schools to hire someone who had been an assistant for a long time, and that worked well,” said Jim Livengood, a former athletic director at schools such as Arizona and Washington State who now consults with search firms.

“The AD game has become so national,” he said. “It’s very different.”

At USC, records are not entirely clear on who originally oversaw athletics. There are references to an “athletic manager” and various “graduate managers.”

This much is certain: In 1926, Willis O. Hunter was promoted from his position as head of intramural sports, charged with running a nascent sports program at the school. He would remain in the job through the late 1950s.

The next two directors — Jess Hill and John McKay — were football coaches. Richard Perry was a physical education professor and faculty senate member.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the school hired from outside, bringing Mike McGee from Cincinnati. That anomaly lasted all of 10 years.

When McGee left for South Carolina in 1993, the list of potential candidates included former USC quarterback Craig Fertig and then-basketball coach George Raveling.

A search committee led by Haden ultimately selected Mike Garrett, the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner.

“Mike Garrett not only knows the great Trojan athletic tradition, he helped create it,” said Steven Sample, president of the university at the time.

Almost two decades passed before Garrett was undone by the violations that prompted those NCAA sanctions. It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise when the university replaced him with Haden.

“Familiarity makes for a comfortable fit,” said Livengood, who was a candidate for the USC job in 1993, when the school chose Garrett. “Alums like it … and alums play a huge part.”

Now, the list of potential candidates includes several people who have strong connections to the university.

Steve Lopes has been at USC for more than 30 years and is currently the chief operating officer. Another man on the staff, J.K. McKay, arrived with Haden and has a family name that would resonate with fans.

Mark Jackson worked his way up through the department but left to become the athletic director at Villanova last August; it remains uncertain if he would consider leaving that post so quickly.

As one of Haden’s most-vocal critics, Riki Ellison wonders if the school should start fresh.

The former linebacker has voiced his concerns about a series of public missteps in recent years, including the hiring of Steve Sarkisian despite prior questions about the football coach’s use of alcohol.

“This is not about winning games,” Ellison said. “It’s about changing a dysfunctional culture that has existed.”

Controversy isn’t the only catalyst for looking elsewhere. The trend toward hiring outside has been accelerated by the shifting nature of the job, Livengood said.

Universities that used to simply promote the football coach now want someone who has the business knowledge to manage multimillion-dollar budgets and the public relations savvy to handle a world of 24-hour news cycles and social media.

Major schools often search for someone who has experience running a program somewhere else.

“It’s a much more of a political game than it has ever been in the past,” said Livengood, who in 2013 retired from his last AD job at Nevada Las Vegas. “University presidents and chancellors look at the job differently.”

USC possesses enough allure to attract talent from other major schools around the nation, Livengood believes. He said alumni at even the most tradition-bound universities have grown sophisticated enough to accept an athletic director from “outside the family.”

“Sometimes there is a feeling that you want to turn a new page,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s better, but people want a different perspective.”

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