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USC athletic director Lynn Swann resigns

Lynn Swann was introduced as the new USC atlethic director on April 14, 2016. He’s now stepping down.
Lynn Swann, introduced as USC atlethic director on April 14, 2016, is stepping down.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

USC athletic director Lynn Swann resigned after three tumultuous years atop one of the nation’s most prestigious athletic departments.

Swann signed his letter of resignation on Monday, just two weeks into a suddenly hopeful USC football season. Dave Roberts, a special advisor to USC President Carol Folt who previously served as the school’s vice president of athletics compliance, will become the interim athletic director.

In an interview with The Times, Folt, who was hired in March, explained that Swann was “very appreciative of the fact” that she had plans to build her own leadership team at the university. Recently, USC announced the hiring of a new provost, as well as other new department heads.

Swann, as evidenced by the abrupt announcement Monday, was not a part of that vision.

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“He felt that this was the professional thing to do, to resign and allow me to build my team,” Folt said. “That really is the gist of it.”

Folt said she had no “preconceived notions” of Swann or his place in the department’s future before she accepted the job in March, after nearly six years as chancellor at the University of North Carolina. Recent hires made within the university’s leadership, she explained, were “why that’s come up this way” with Swann.

In March, Swann told The Times that he planned to do the job “for 10 years.” A few days after that interview, USC announced Folt as the university’s new president.

“I think he has the best interest of the university in mind,” Folt said of Swann’s decision, “and he thought it was time for me to allow me to continue building my leadership team.”

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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.

An 11-person search committee, which will be chaired by USC trustee Suzanne Nora Johnson and will include two student-athletes, has been formed to find Swann’s replacement.

In searching for a new athletic director, Folt noted that the search will not “necessarily” focus on candidates with experience at USC. Only once in the long history of USC has an athletic director been hired without prior ties to the university.

Given the “complex” issues at hand in USC’s athletic department, Folt said she believed a successful athletic director would have “a pretty broad set of experiences.”

“We want people with experience and a track record,” Folt said. “That really helps you know that they’ll be able to hit the ground running.”

A former Trojans football star and Hall of Fame receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Swann was hired in 2016 without any prior experience in college athletics. Since then, the department has faced constant turmoil on and off the field, while questions about Swann’s leadership and his culpability in various scandals have followed him throughout his tenure.

In the spring, the department found itself embroiled in an admissions scandal, in which one of Swann’s top lieutenants in the department, Donna Heinel, was indicted on bribery charges for her alleged role in using relaxed admission standards, designed for top athletes, as a “side door” to the university.

USC fired Heinel and legendary water polo coach Jovan Vavic for his role in the scandal. At the time, Swann told The Times he was “blindsided” by what had happened within the department during his tenure and that of his predecessor, Pat Haden.

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On Monday, Folt said that the department’s role and Swann’s handling of the nationwide college admissions scandal “was not a part of the decision for me.”

That was hardly the only turmoil the 67-year-old Swann faced in his three years as athletic director. USC found itself ensnared in a wide-reaching FBI investigation into corruption and bribery across college basketball, which led to the arrest of top assistant Tony Bland in September 2017. He was fired in January 2018 and pleaded guilty in January 2019.

Lynn Swann stepping down as USC athletic director is the first step to a fresh start for the football program and likely means the end of Clay Helton as coach.

Then, last April, as administrators gathered in Santa Barbara to discuss the fallout from a turbulent year at the university, Swann opted to forgo the retreat for a paid appearance signing autographs at a memorabilia show in Virginia. Swann later defended the decision, explaining that “as a matter of principle, I live up to my commitments.”

While the department juggled several off-field scandals during his tenure, its three most high-profile programs were marred by struggles on the field. Last season, the Trojans football, men’s basketball and baseball teams all finished with sub-.500 records.

Swann’s decision last fall to retain head football coach Clay Helton was roundly criticized as the Trojans fell to 5-7 and missed a bowl game. But according to Folt, she and Swann did not discuss the football team’s issues.

Swann’s resignation, however, puts the future of USC’s football program and its coach in question.

During his weekly radio show appearance, Helton said he has “nothing but utter faith in what [Folt] is doing and the people that she’s bringing in.” He did not comment directly about Swann’s dismissal or what it means for his future, but Helton is sure to face those questions on Tuesday, when he’s scheduled to speak with the media.

When asked on Monday if USC’s new athletic director would have the opportunity to select a new football coach, Roberts, the interim director, said they would “do anything and everything we can to make sure that Clay has the most successful season yet here at USC.”

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“I’ve known Clay since he’s been here,” Roberts said. “He’s a great guy. I think the world of him. We’re going to do everything to put him in the best position to succeed. But he’s a coach. He’s going to stand on his record. President Folt and the new AD, they’ll make that determination.”

That determination may not be made for some time, but in light of Swann’s decision, a contingent of USC alums publicly celebrated his resignation. Former basketball stars Chimezie Metu and De’Anthony Melton, the latter of whom was entangled in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, each celebrated the news of Swann’s resignation on social media.

“Just got a wonderful notification from ESPN,” Metu wrote on Twitter, followed by several smiling emojis.

Former USC linebacker Riki Ellison, who has been an outspoken critic of Swann, said his resignation was “for the good of the university.”

“I give great appreciation and respect to the new president to setting a new culture because a culture starts at the top of the organization,” Ellison said. “She is defining and putting forward a new culture for USC athletics. This is bigger than Lynn.”

Just as Swann steps down, USC’s football team finds itself at an unexpectedly optimistic juncture in its season. The Trojans are 2-0, with a renewed hope behind freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis.

On Saturday night, in the afterglow of a significant victory over Stanford, Swann stood outside of the locker room, smiling and shaking hands.

Less than 48 hours later, he resigned.

Times staff writer Nathan Fenno contributed to this story.


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