He wasn’t in the building.
Except he was.
He was rarely mentioned by name.
Except every other question was about him.
Urban Meyer was nowhere and everywhere Thursday in the John McKay Center, where Mike Bohn was introduced as USC’s athletic director.
The reason was obvious: Meyer is whom Trojan Nation wants as its football coach.
USC can preach the importance of integrity, but the university is about winning — in athletics, that means winning football games.
Pete Carroll’s teams are evidence of that. They were why the athletic department was sanctioned by the NCAA, but their dominance remains the standard by which the Trojans continue to measure themselves.
Probation? What probation? So long as the football team wins, everything is OK, even when it’s not.
And that’s why the question of whether to replace the still-employed Clay Helton with the win-at-all-costs Meyer is more than a football decision.
At stake is the university’s culture.
Taking on the existing culture will require conviction.
If the words spoken at Bohn’s introductory news conference are to be believed, new university President Carol L. Holt has it. So does Bohn.
They’re going to be competing for national championships in all our sports and doing it with integrity on and off the field
Folt emphasized integrity in her remarks.
That was the first characteristic of Bohn that she mentioned when introducing him. She returned to the idea when talking about what she expected from USC’s sports teams under Bohn.
“They’re going to be competing for national championships in all our sports and doing it with integrity on and off the field,” she said.
Was that a rebuke of Meyer? The three-time national champion coach protected an assistant at Ohio State who was accused of domestic violence by his wife. He coached a number of players at Florida who were arrested.
It didn’t sound like a reprieve for Helton, whose team is 5-4 entering its trip to Arizona State this weekend. Bohn made clear that Helton would need more than a nice-guy routine to remain the head football coach.
Making a ‘V’ with index and middle fingers, Bohn said, “Let me say this for the first time as your athletic director: Fight On to victory.”
Later, when talking about what he expected to see from the football team over the last three weeks of the season, Bohn said, “I mentioned Fight On and the sense of being able to do that. But it’s also Fight On to victory. It’s important to win.”
Asked if he anticipated making a coaching change, Bohn replied, “It’d be premature to be talking about coaches or any situation when I’ve just arrived.”
Let me say this for the first time as your athletic director: Fight On to victory.
While insisting that he wanted each of USC’s 21 sports teams to compete for national championships, he acknowledged, “We all understand the importance of football. It’s very similar to every institution I’ve been a part of.”
As for what he considered a reasonable expectation for the football program, Bohn said, “We want to compete for national championships across all sports and that includes, obviously, the football program. We want to be in the Rose Bowl.”
All of this talk of winning doesn’t necessarily point to Bohn pushing to hire Meyer. He stressed that any decision of magnitude would include Folt’s input.
“I have yet to see a successful athletic director or be an athletic director in an environment where the autonomy all lies with the athletic director,” Bohn said. “We’re a team. Our team of leaders will work together on that.”
Compared to the last time an athletic director was introduced in the John McKay Center, the differences were striking.
When Lynn Swann took over more than three years ago, he never presented a clear philosophy. In retrospect, his ambiguous comments were a warning about what was to come. Swann resigned in September, his ideas still a mystery.
Longtime college administrators, Folt and Bohn were able to articulate their vision for the athletic department in a way Swann never could. The newcomers are secure in who they are, as well as in what they believe. Their status as outsiders gave their messages a refreshing feel and inspired confidence they could reduce, if not eliminate, the kinds of problems that made headlines in recent years.
But their ability to choose the next football coach will be questioned. What some will describe as intellectual independence is certain to be dismissed by others as tone-deafness.
The demands for Meyer will grow louder in coming weeks. But USC doesn’t need Meyer. The thinking that the football team’s success would wipe clean the university’s shortcomings is why USC got into trouble in the first place.
This isn’t the University of Spoiled Children anymore. Over the last couple of decades, the school has evolved into a top-notch university. Its culture has to evolve, too, and the football coach Folt and Bohn hire needs to reflect that.