Mike Bohn is ready to join USC family, but decision on Clay Helton can wait

USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn speaks at his introductory news conference on Nov. 7.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Mike Bohn stood at the dais, an unfamiliar face in a place so profoundly predisposed to the familiar. He wasn’t a former USC football hero, nor had he won a Heisman Trophy. There were no statues or buildings or plaques which bared his name on campus.

Outside of the cardinal and gold tie he wore to his introductory news conference, there were no discernible ties between Bohn and the “Trojan Family” from which USC has hired its athletic directors for a quarter century.

In a stark departure from the traditions which long dictated its direction, USC introduced Bohn as its athletic director on Thursday. He is the ninth ever to assume the role and first to lead the department without previous ties to the school since Mike McGee, who left in 1994 and was succeeded by three former football players.

But as he addressed a room full of administrators, alumni, and coaches, Bohn did his best to ingratiate himself into an institution otherwise leery of outsiders, hitting all the right notes. He talked about the magic of walking on campus and the “gleam” in the eyes of an athlete he met that morning.

As he spoke passionately about the tradition of USC and past glories of the athletic programs he’s now tasked with leading, his voice rose to a boom.

USC is about to hire an outsider in Mike Bohn as its athletic director and that’s a good thing. What won’t be good is if Bohn pursues Urban Meyer to be the football coach.


“You like to talk about the Trojan family here, right?” Bohn said, gripping the podium as he spoke. “Well, it’s real. I feel it.”

A longtime administrator with deep experience leading athletic departments at Idaho, San Diego State, Colorado and, most recently, Cincinnati, Bohn is no stranger to stepping in as an outsider. He had no ties to any of those schools before taking the reins, and that “fresh perspective,” Bohn noted Thursday, could be “very, very powerful.”

That is the bet that new President Carol L. Folt is making in Bohn, as she attempts to usher in a new era at USC, where turmoil has been a constant visitor over the past decade. It was Bohn’s vast experience elsewhere, in stark contrast to some of USC’s past athletic directors, which gave her confidence that he is up to that task.

“He has real integrity,” Folt said. “He has run class acts and done it really well in some difficult situations.”

At USC, Bohn steps into a situation that will surely test that mettle. Not only will he be charged with restoring the reputation of a department scarred by recent scandals, but he’ll also soon have to assess the direction of USC’s flailing football program.

Bohn said that he’d yet to meet with coach Clay Helton, whose job, with three weeks remaining in the football season, is believed to be in jeopardy.

New USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn, left, chats with Rick Caruso, Chair of the USC Board of Trustees, center, following a news conference on Nov. 7.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

When asked if he anticipates making a coaching change, Bohn noted that any conversation about Helton or other coaches was “premature.”

“It’s important to win,” Bohn said. “You heard the president talking about winning. I’m not trying to add more pressure to him or the student athletes that represent him, but we always want to finish strong. Good programs finish strong.”

Still, the specter of Helton’s status and the football program’s direction loomed over the proceedings Thursday, as speculation over a potential, high-profile replacement continued.

The conversation on Urban Meyer, the former Ohio State and Florida coach, isn’t likely to cease in the coming weeks, as prominent boosters continue to push for USC to passionately pursue him as Helton’s successor.

Bohn categorically denied a report that his hiring had been held up because of a disagreement about pursuing Meyer, who has three national titles to his name, but also a record of integrity questions in his past.

Later, when Folt was asked if Bohn had any limitations on a future search, she said, simply, “No.”

Any coaching decision, Bohn said, would not be made alone. As he inherits the stakes of that decision, though, his history of hiring coaches remains decidedly mixed.

His hiring of Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell at Cincinnati has proven to be a success. But over nine years at Colorado, Bohn hired and fired three coaches, while his last hire, Mike MacIntyre, lasted six seasons before his ouster.

In light of those failed football hires, Bohn was forced to resign in 2013. But where that history might cast doubt on his handling of a possible coaching search, Folt said it was how Bohn bounced back from that failure which impressed her.

“What I look for is the person,” Folt said. “You face disappointment. He talked about loving it there. What did he do? He turned around, took another place, and loved it. He took what he learned there and made it even more effective at Cincinnati. That’s the person I want, one that builds from mistakes.”

Atop a department in desperate need of a new direction, Bohn will have plenty of rebuilding to do. But on Thursday, as he was introduced, Bohn held up two fingers in the “Fight On” symbol in a nod to the tradition he was inheriting.

“I didn’t talk about coming in here and, ‘Let’s change this, let’s change that, let’s move this, let’s move that,’ ” Bohn said. “I think that’s why I introduced the concept of fight on to vic-to-ry. It’s more than fight on. It’s fight on to victory.”