USC’s new athletic director Lynn Swann got his drive to compete early
Lynn Swann’s first football play was a sneak.
He was in grade school at the time, living in San Mateo, Calif., and his mom didn’t want him to play. Unbeknown to her, he slipped out of the house, hopped on a city bus, rode about 15 miles to a Pop Warner practice, and joined the team.
Swann never had a burning desire to play football, it’s just that he was competitive with his older brother, and wanted to prove that he could play too.
When Mildred Swann discovered what her son had done, she didn’t punish him but used it to teach him a life lesson.
“She didn’t stop me from playing,” he recalled. “But she said, ‘If you really want to do this, go ahead. You can play. But there’s one condition: You can’t quit.’”
Swann, who starred at USC and for the Pittsburgh Steelers, said there were many times he was tempted to give up the game — including when he was essentially a tackling dummy as a freshman with the Trojans — but his mother’s words echoed in his head. His determination helped him rise to the top of the game, and later redefine himself as a television analyst, businessman, briefly as a politician, and now as an administrator at his alma mater.
New USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann speaks at a news conference Thursday in the John McKay Center.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann, shown in September 2015, has been named USC’s new athletic director.(Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)
Lynn Swann leads the Pittsburgh crowd in victory cheers on Jan. 7, 1979, in the final moments of the AFC championship game against the Houston Oilers.(Associated Press)
Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee Lynn Swann, left, stands with his presenter, former Pittsburgh Steelers’ teammate John Stallworth, during the ceremony in August 2001 in Canton, Ohio.(David Maxwell / AFP/Getty Images)
Retired Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh before the opening game against the Miami Dolphins in September 2006.(Al Messerschmidt / Getty Images)
In May 2006, Lynn Swann accepts the Republican nomination in the race for Pennsylvania governor. Swann lost to the incumbent, Edward Rendell.(William Thomas Cain / Getty Images)
Pro Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann sports a Steelers bowling ball during a Super Bowl celebrity bowlling event on Jan. 28, 2009 in Tampa, Fla.(Scott Boehm / Getty Images)
Lynn Swann prepares to lead the USC football team onto the field at the Coliseum for a game in 2014.(John McGillen / Associated Press)
Lynn Swann, a member of Augusta National Golf Club, greets Tom Watson before the par-three contest at the Masters on April 10, 2016.(Andrew Gombert / EPA)
Dr. Charena Swann touches the hand of her husband, Lynn Swann, he was being introduced as the USC’s new athletic director April 14 in the John McKay Center.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
USC President Max Nikias, right, introduces Lynn Swann as the school’s new athletic director on April 14.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
His Steelers teammates recognized there was something different about him from the day he joined the franchise as a first-round pick in 1974.
“There was a Southern California swagger he had that stood out in Pittsburgh,” former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier said Wednesday. “He always had a sense of self, a sense of running with the big boys. He had an opinion about things, too, whether it was changes to the game or rules or whatever. It wasn’t necessarily what was the most popular opinion at the time, either. That’s the sense of self; he stands by what he thinks is right.”
That hasn’t always worked in Swann’s favor. In 2006, he ran as the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, promising to cut business taxes and dramatically slash state spending. He won about 40% of the vote but lost to incumbent Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor and seasoned fundraiser.
“If you look at the big games we had, those were the games Lynn performed well in,” said fellow Steelers receiver John Stallworth, who entered the Hall of Fame in 2002, a year after Swann. “He’s at the highest level in the biggest situations. I know an athlete does that, but I think it speaks to his frame of mind in tackling big jobs and high-profile jobs. That will bode well for him at SC.”
Swann served for two years as chairman of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, and was appointed by President George W. Bush as chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. He also serves on the corporate and non-profit boards.
Immediately after his playing career, Swann was a fixture in the living rooms of millions of Americans. He worked for years as a sideline reporter for ABC on college football. He was host of “Battle of the Network Stars” and “To Tell the Truth,” played himself in “The Waterboy” with Adam Sandler and “The Last Boy Scout” with Bruce Willis, and even made a guest appearance on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“He was a fantastic teammate,” said broadcaster Al Michaels, who worked all sorts of events with Swann when they were with ABC. “I think it’s an inspired choice by USC. He’s not going to phone this thing in. He’s going to do his homework.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter: @LATimesfarmer
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.