Pat Haden goes with his gut in decision to fire Lane Kiffin


Pat Haden stood at the lectern and uttered the simple sentence that said it all.

“I believe this decision is best for USC,” he said.

The sentence wasn’t clever or sexy. It sounded like boilerplate stuff you’d expect at a news conference to announce the firing of a football coach.

The difference lies in the person saying it. It wasn’t boilerplate to Haden. It was doctrine.

To understand that, and him, opens new corridors to the future of USC football post-Lane Kiffin.


Haden needs his job like a Porsche needs a trailer hitch. He is USC’s athletic director out of passion and conviction. He used the phrase “Trojan family” several times during the news conference. With him, that’s real, not phony image-building.

He was pressed, yet again, on his support of Kiffin, the famous “I’m behind him 150%” quote. His answer was simple.

“I support every USC coach here,” he said, “until they are no longer a USC coach.”

Before he met with the media, he walked the back halls of the McKay Center, stopping in offices, soothing, patting backs, sending players home to “get some rest.” It was a family crisis and the father figure needed to reassure all.

Most of the perceptions about Kiffin’s firing are wrong.

Haden did not bow to alumni pressure, and there is as much of that at USC as anywhere. A fat cat in a Trojans blazer sidling up to him at a cocktail party to say his annual donation might be less if Kiffin were still around wouldn’t even register.

Haden could match most fat-cat checks. His business success, pre-USC, has served him well and reduced the kinds of pay-the-bills pressure faced by other ADs.

No sports talk radio noise or letters to the editor would matter. He doesn’t ignore this stuff. He just takes it for what it is. He has referred to the “toxic atmosphere” under which Kiffin was forced to work. That didn’t mean he bowed to it, just that he felt sorry for what Kiffin endured.


“Fans love you for 30 seconds at a time,” he said.

Talk that this was a big recruiting time, that it was a bye week that allowed more time for a new coach to take over, that the public pressure had just become too much, was just that — talk.

“There is never a perfect time,” Haden said. “We just weren’t making the progress I was looking for. It was just a gut feeling.”

Haden’s gut was the only one that mattered.

He is in lock step with USC President Max Nikias. He was talked out of the business world by Nikias. Nikias was the only one who could have vetoed Kiffin’s firing; probably the only one other than Haden’s best friend, J.K. McKay, even consulted.

Haden does not come from down the hall of the athletic department, but from down the street of fancy boardrooms. Because of who he is and how he handles himself, it is a perfect fit.

He was hired to navigate the school through the aftermath of its NCAA violations. USC, years ago characterized as a football factory that held occasional classes, had become a great academic institution. Nikias couldn’t afford old-time jock ways. Nor could he afford the athletic director — then Mike Garrett — telling an alumni group that the NCAA was “jealous they weren’t Trojans.”

Maybe Garrett was right, but you can’t give the NCAA bulletin board material that, to this day, may hinder requests for sanction relief.


Haden was brought in to clean up the mess and put the athletic department back on the high road with the rest of the school. That was his mandate and perhaps his legacy.

He has been instrumental in getting the funds for the state-of-the-art McKay Center, where he met the media Sunday. Old, yawning Heritage Hall is also being upgraded.

Of course, none of that matters to the guy on the 40-yard line who can’t believe that line plunge on third and 15.

Haden has a new basketball coach, and soon a permanent new football coach. The legacy takes on a different light. He could say goodbye soon, but expect nothing like that until both programs have found a good flow.

With proper respect, Kiffin was shown the door. He deserved that respect, coaching in what Haden called “tough circumstances.” The NCAA sanctions left him fewer scholarship players, fewer bullets in his gun than opponents.

Haden’s promotion of Ed Orgeron to interim coach was a no-brainer. This team needs rah-rah and energy more than analysis right now.


His role-of-the-dice with one more year for Kiffin failed, even though it wasn’t all that big a gamble. Financially, he saved USC a double salary hit — Kiffin and the new guy. Realistically, he didn’t have a good choice, anyway. Other big-name coaches, fully aware of NCAA sanctions and scholarship losses, wouldn’t have signed on.

Kiffin will be fine. So will all his assistants, who will eventually become casualties in this changeover.

Haden hates the displaced families and the uprooted lives. But his gut told him it was “the best decision for USC.”

And it was.