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Column: The time is right for Pat Haden to step down as USC athletic director

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden speaks at a news conference at the university on Oct. 13.

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden speaks at a news conference at the university on Oct. 13.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

When chronicling the reasons why this would be the perfect time for Pat Haden to walk away, it’s important to remember when he first showed up.

On June 10, 2010, the USC football program was leveled by the NCAA in a disciplinary storm that placed the Trojans on four years’ probation and left the team in tatters.

Less than six weeks later, Haden was hired as athletic director.

This wasn’t the middle of the mess, it was the beginning. He didn’t walk into the rehabbing sounds of bulldozers and saws, he walked into the silence of scattered rubble and uprooted trees.

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This wasn’t about rebuilding, it was about resuscitation. His mission wasn’t about turning the Trojans back into national champions, it was about making the place inhabitable again.

Nearly six years later, his job is done, making this the perfect time for Haden to step aside and let a new era move in.

He needs to walk away before he becomes the sort of distraction he was hired to eliminate, before his presence threatens the very stability he was hired to restore.

Haden, who will be 63 next month, is battling both medical and performance issues that have alumni and boosters worried and talking and plotting. The great Trojan unifier has become a polarizing figure who surely doesn’t need the undercurrent of discontent any more than his critics want to continue it. Yet nobody in the administration would ever dare push him, so it has to be his decision to walk.

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It would be a walk with no shame. It has been a rocky remodeling ride filled with myriad construction issues, lots of hammers hitting thumbs, the most embarrassing whacks delivered by Haden himself, but he accomplished his task.

For the first time since Haden arrived, the Trojans next season are positioned to field a full roster of 85 scholarship players.

Also for the first time since Haden arrived, the Trojans will begin next season with an old-style Trojan coach hired with the endorsement of old-style Trojan greats, so the last desperate imitations of the Pete Carroll era are also gone.

The place is up and running again, which should empower Haden to drop the keys on the desk, brush the dust off his sleeves, and head out the door.

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His first issue is his health, which this fall was surely a factor in his failing to perform the most basic requirement of all USC athletic directors — attend the football games.

After Haden dropped to a knee on the sidelines before the Notre Dame game Oct. 17, he was whisked back to Los Angeles, and he hasn’t been seen at a game since. He was not in attendance at any of the last eight games, including the victory over UCLA and USC’s first appearance in a Pac-12 Conference title game.

Think about this: Haden named Clay Helton as the permanent head coach without ever seeing one of Helton’s eight interim coaching games this season in person.

Just last weekend, the great Ronnie Lott spoke for many in the Trojan family when he endorsed Haden while worrying about his future.

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“It’s always a concern, ultimately, when you see someone on the sidelines that faints, you always worry about that,” Lott said. “All of us are concerned. The biggest question for Pat is, health versus opportunity. And you’ve got to take health.”

Haden, the highest-paid athletic director in the country, entered the season already stretched thin by his work on more than a dozen nonprofit and corporate boards that pay him at least half a million dollars a year, according to an L.A. Times report. At the end of October, he took a step in reducing that workload by giving up his coveted spot on the College Football Playoff Committee because his doctors advised him to reduce his traveling. For his health’s sake, giving up an athletic director spot that President Max Nikias would seemingly never take from him would be a logical next step.

Then there’s the issue of performance. Though Haden never bargained for a job that would involve the craziness of Lane Kiffin deflating footballs or Steve Sarkisian summoning him to the sidelines, he knew there would be big moments, and he hasn’t always handled them well.

There was the firing of Kiffin at the airport, the alienation of interim coach Ed Orgeron, the quick hiring of Sarkisian without proper background checks, and the enabling of Sarkisian after the coach clearly showed the depths of his alcohol problem during the “Salute to Troy” booster event. Haden appears throughout the pages of a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed last week by Sarkisian, and if that suit isn’t settled, no matter who wins, there surely will be enough details pulled out of dark corners to embarrass everyone involved.

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It’s just time. His mission as athletic director is done. If Haden doesn’t want to retire, he could move over to lead the school’s Coliseum renovation project, or serve in some other administrative role that doesn’t involve the daily running of the most visible and high-powered department on campus.

Haden declined to comment for this column, but he pointed to a letter he wrote to the Trojan family last August, on the fifth anniversary of his official hiring. In that letter, he outlined how his administration had succeeded in the probation renewal project in ways far beyond the football field, highlighting successes in academics and women’s sports as well as the building of new facilities. If he had written that letter a couple of months later, he also could have mentioned how his controversial hiring of basketball Coach Andy Enfield was finally showing some positive signs with the Trojans winning seven of their first nine games.

All true. But based on the sort of public perception that results in rich folks donating and smart kids enrolling, the USC athletic director’s job is still basically football. And now that the program is seemingly on the solid footing he was hired to create, it’s a perfect time for the athletic director to walk.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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Twitter: @billplaschke


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