LOS ANGELES >> With Heritage Hall undergoing a yearlong face-lift, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden and other department officials set up offices last month in a university-owned shopping center across the street from campus.
A tobacco shop sits directly across the walkway, a nail salon and food court across the courtyard.
The situation is clearly temporary.
And that’s how Haden, who oversees 21 sports and a program that generates more than $80 million in revenue, views the recent fortunes of USC’s high-profile programs.
After opening last football season No. 1, the Trojans stumbled to an embarrassing 7-6 record under embattled Coach Lane Kiffin. Haden last week fired basketball coach Kevin O’Neill midway through his fourth season. And the once-dominant baseball program has been absent from the NCAA tournament for nearly a decade.
Asked to describe the state of USC athletics, Haden says, “The sky is not falling, in spite of what some people read and think and write.”
Haden mentions the men’s water polo and tennis programs – dynasties that have won five and four consecutive national titles, respectively. The four-time NCAA champion men’s volleyball team played for another title last year, and the women’s golf and tennis programs could contend this spring. The $70-million McKay Center is a showpiece, a new sand volleyball stadium is ready to host matches and the Heritage Hall renovation and a new aquatics complex are under construction.
In addition, Haden says, the athletic department enjoyed a record year for fundraising and USC athletes last month completed the best academic semester in school history.
“I know there’s a bunch of people out there – all they care about is football,” he says. “But I’m the athletic director. I love ’em all. I love all 650 athletes. And so the state of USC athletics is excellent.”
Haden, however, acknowledges receiving a steady stream of negative letters, emails and Twitter messages. He says his car was recently keyed off campus – “I don’t know if that is a result of this,” he says, laughing – but he sees better days ahead.
After USC’s football team lost to UCLA in November, Haden went on record saying “Lane Kiffin is my head coach 150%.”
Last week, he quipped, “I guess the math doesn’t work.”
Asked if there has been an adjustment in the percentage, he says, “137.5%,” adding, “I understand people disagree with me. . . . But in my judgment, and I get paid to make the best decisions I can for USC, there’s no reason that Lane Kiffin shouldn’t be our coach.”
Haden acknowledges that the Trojans “played horribly a couple times,” and “got shredded on defense a couple times” and “turned the ball over way too much.”
But . . .
“These are things that all can be fixed,” he says. “And they all can be fixed by Lane Kiffin.”
So too, he says, can “some of Lane’s slip-ups,” several of which had little to do with the Xs and O’s of football.
In September, a reporter was banned from practice after he accurately reported that a player underwent surgery. Kiffin also abruptly bolted from a post-practice news conference when asked about a player returning from injury.
In October, a USC quarterback was instructed by coaches to wear another player’s jersey number on special teams in the first half against Colorado, and then played later in the game in his usual number. In November, the Pac-12 Conference fined USC $25,000 after it was discovered that a student manager intentionally deflated USC footballs before a game against Oregon. The season ended with the embarrassing Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech, punctuated by news stories last week that portrayed a heated postgame locker-room scene.
“His reputation,” Haden says of Kiffin, “it’s going to be really hard to sanitize that over time unless he kind of wins a lot of games and does things right, which we plan to do.”
But Haden says that Kiffin suffers from what the coach has described as “the Kiffin factor.”
“He’s anti-Teflon,” Haden says. “I mean, stuff sticks to him that doesn’t even belong on him.”
Haden says Kiffin had nothing to do with USC’s not allowing visiting teams to conduct walk-throughs at the Coliseum the day before games, or with the deflated-footballs incident. But, he acknowledges, “we messed up on the jerseys, there’s no doubt about that. Could he have handled the media better? No doubt about that.”
Asked to list three of Kiffin’s strengths, Haden offers work ethic, recruiting and play-calling.
“Now, again,” he says, “that’s going to raise, with some people, some rawness.” But Haden says offensive production during Kiffin’s tenure has been “pretty good, some of it sensational, now not all the way through.”
Asked what Kiffin needs to do to keep his job, Haden demurs.
“I’m not answering that question,” he says, adding, “Sometimes when you’re calling plays . . . you don’t sense maybe the whole team. So I think he has to really sense the whole team and feel and have the relationship with the whole team. . . . Secondly, ’Don’t sweat the small stuff, Lane.’ Don’t worry about injury reporting at practice and whatever other things we kind of trip ourselves up on – jersey numbers and things.
“Let’s just focus on ourselves and not focus on anything else but us getting better.”
ESPN college football analyst Mike Bellotti, a former Oregon coach and athletic director, says USC is suffering from the NCAA sanctions related to former Trojans running back Reggie Bush that have limited its recruiting classes to 15 players and its roster to 75.
“It’s not like the NFL,” where teams can sign replacements for injured players, Bellotti says. “One of the things that was very apparent when USC was going very, very well was that they did have the best players, but they also had three- or four-deep of the best players.”
In the last three months, several high school players who made oral commitments to the Trojans reopened their recruitment. Haden, however, remains confident that USC will once again finish with a top class on national signing day next month.
Last Friday, USC announced the hiring of Clancy Pendergast as defensive coordinator. And more changes could be coming.
“I’m a paid optimist,” he says, “and I think we’ve got a great opportunity to rebound and have a terrific season next year.”
USC once recruited Jay Bilas to play basketball.
The former Rolling Hills (Calif.) High standout signed instead with Duke and played for three NCAA tournament teams, one that reached the 1986 championship game.
Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, says “the pieces are there” for USC to be “consistently excellent and contend annually.” The school’s location in Los Angeles, the Galen Center and a chance to make a move in the Pac-12 Conference make it “a very coveted job.”
“In the last 10 years, they’ve had some really good teams,” Bilas says of the Trojans, “but I don’t think people have looked upon it as having a program.”
Haden agrees – “I think it’s perfectly accurate” – and aims to change that. To replace O’Neill, he says he will seek a “proven winner” who understands Los Angeles. Longtime USC assistant Bob Cantu is interim coach.
Haden says money will not be an issue in wooing a permanent replacement.
“Every sports administrator, one of their tasks is to think, ’If your coach gets hit by a bus, who’s next?’” Haden says. “So this isn’t something we’re just beginning to think about. I’ve thought about this for two years.”
Although the USC men’s team last made the NCAA tournament in 2009, the women’s team has not qualified since 2006. Fourth-year Coach Michael Cooper, a former Lakers star and NBA and WNBA coach, began the season with a 61-37 record at USC. The Trojans are 7-10 this season and 4-2 in the Pac-12.
Asked if Cooper must make the NCAA tournament, Haden says, “I’m not going to say that.”
Meanwhile, a baseball program that has won a record 12 College World Series titles continues to languish. The Trojans last went to the World Series in 2001 and have not reached the NCAA tournament since 2005.
“Right now, USC is an afterthought in college baseball,” says John Manuel, editor of Baseball America magazine. “It’s really hard to imagine. It’s like imagining Alabama as an afterthought in football.”
USC’s slide started when former athletic director Mike Garrett ousted coach Mike Gillespie in 2006 and replaced him with Gillespie’s son-in-law, former major league catcher Chad Kreuter, who had no college head-coaching experience.
In August 2010, Haden fired Kreuter and appointed assistant Frank Cruz as interim coach. After a losing 2011 season, USC did not appear to seriously pursue coaches such as UCLA’s John Savage, Oregon’s George Horton, then-Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano or Arizona’s Andy Lopez – all of whom guided teams to the College World Series – and Haden named Cruz to the position.
Last season, USC was 23-32 and 8-22 in the Pac-12. Haden points to challenges that expensive private schools face in a sport that allows only 11.7 scholarships. But Manuel identifies Rice and Vanderbilt among private schools that win consistently and advance to the postseason.
Asked if he would cast the net wider if he were to conduct another baseball coaching search, Haden says, “I just hope Frank has a great season this year.”
USC opens the 2013 football season at Hawaii on Aug. 29.
That gives Haden seven months to work with Kiffin to ensure that the Trojans do not repeat their struggles.
“We need to earn our fans’ respect back,” he says, “and the only way you can do that is win.”
USC will remain on NCAA probation through June 2014. Football scholarship reductions and roster limits are in effect through the 2014 season. Last fall, the NCAA also began investigating possible violations related to former football player Joe McKnight, former basketball player Davon Jefferson and Scott Schenter, a man who is at the center of a scandal in the Los Angeles County assessor’s office.
Meanwhile, Haden and USC are monitoring a lawsuit filed against the NCAA by former running backs coach Todd McNair in the aftermath of its Bush investigation. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled in November that emails between an investigative committee member, an NCAA worker and a person who works in the agency’s appeals division “tend to show ill will or hatred” toward McNair and that McNair has shown a probability that he can win his defamation claims. The ruling is under appeal.
“If the facts come out as have been suggested we would probably reconvene and have a look,” Haden says.
For now, Haden is beginning the basketball coach search, looking forward to football signing day and preparing for USC’s inaugural women’s lacrosse match Feb. 9 against powerhouse Northwestern at the Coliseum.
But he knows that all eyes are on football.
“I love USC football, so I understand the disappointment,” says Haden, the starting quarterback on USC teams that went to the 1974 and ’75 Rose Bowls. “But my goodness, the sky is not falling. We lost football games. We’re not happy about it.
“We’re going to get back and get better and we’re not afraid of the hard work in getting there.”