On the second floor of Heritage Hall, in the recently vacated office of USC’s athletic director, the man tasked with guiding the transition of an athletic department in turmoil is reluctant to put down roots.
As Dave Roberts sees it, all of this is only temporary. One month after Lynn Swann abruptly resigned and Roberts was appointed interim athletic director, a few framed family photos are the only sign the university’s former vice president of athletics compliance has taken up residence here at all. He’s hesitant to change much else.
“If I paint the whole Van Gogh and it’s up on the wall, [a new athletic director] might say, ‘I don’t like Van Gogh,’ ” Roberts said. “I’m very aware of that.”
With the search firm “just getting underway” in its effort to find USC’s next athletic director, Roberts is still uncertain how long he’ll stay in his interim role.
But while he remains atop the department temporarily, Roberts made clear in an interview with The Times that he won’t be the one to make a decision on the future of embattled football coach Clay Helton. Or anyone else, for that matter.
To make such a major move, Roberts said, would be “unfair” to whomever is hired as Swann’s replacement.
“If a change was to be made, it would probably be the province of a new athletic director, not Dave Roberts,” the interim athletic director said of Helton. “But like I said, Clay is going to stand or fall on his record. So I mean, if he has a very successful season, I think he’ll be in good stead. If he doesn’t have a great season, the new AD is going to have to make that determination.
“I think it’s a fair statement to say that between now and the end of the season, unless something extraordinary happened, Dave Roberts isn’t going to be stepping in there, making the decision that really I think would be the province of a new AD.”
Whether new USC President Carol Folt would take that decision upon herself remains an open possibility, one many around the program have pondered. But if Folt doesn’t assert herself in athletics, Roberts’ reluctance suggests that Helton, who will lead the Trojans (3-2) on the road against No. 9 Notre Dame this week, could be safe until a new director is identified.
The same, Roberts suggests, is true for any other USC senior administrator, including Steve Lopes, the longtime senior associate athletic director who was passed over by Folt for the interim job.
“What we don’t want to do is have a situation where we’re out recruiting [an athletic director] and they feel actions taken by me, before their appointment, tie their hands,” Roberts said. “It’s kind of a unique dance.”
That dance has left the interim athletic director unable to make much change during his short tenure, outside of soliciting feedback for his eventual replacement.
Roberts has met with every varsity team over the last month in hopes of finding ways to make the department more efficient. He also hired a deputy athletic director in Paul Perrier, who worked with him for six years in USC’s compliance department. But otherwise, Roberts’ role as interim has been limited to mostly “low-hanging fruit.”
When Roberts first joined the athletic department in 2010, his vision was far more straightforward. As USC’s vice president of athletic compliance, Roberts helped rebuild a culture of compliance within a department that desperately needed it in the wake of NCAA sanctions.
His work earned him respect from many longtime administrators, among them Folt, who was inaugurated as USC’s president last month. In an interview with The Times after Swann’s resignation, Folt referred to Roberts as a “steady hand at a moment of transition.”
As interim athletic director, Roberts’ directive is far less clear than it was a decade ago. He describes his role as a “setup person” for the new athletic director, who he expects will ask for his input when the time comes to make a decision on Helton and others.
But even Roberts, who speaks to Folt regularly, wonders when that hire might take place.
“I could envision a situation where there’s a pretty quick selection,” Roberts said. “But even if the selection is made pretty quickly, when will the person be onboard? Will it be after bowl season? Or after the academic year? Those sorts of decisions play into what we’re able to do.”
For the moment, that uncertainty means not settling into his office. Or firing a football coach.
But reminders of the department’s turmoil are ever-present. As Roberts considered his role in determining Helton’s future, the brass section of USC’s marching band blared loudly outside of his window.
Still, amid all the uncertainty, the interim athletic director remained resolute on one thing: He won’t decide the direction of USC’s football program.
“The new AD should be the one to decide,” Roberts said. “But if Clay has a successful season, I think he’ll be in good shape.”