LOS ANGELES >> The question looming over Pat Haden was a big one.
Should he resign as USC’s athletic director in the wake of the now controversial hiring and firing of football coach Steve Sarkisian?
“I know who I am at the age of 62,” Haden said. “I know what I stand for.”
Facing reporters on Tuesday morning — his first public appearance since dismissing Sarkisian a day earlier — the former Trojans quarterback and Rhodes Scholar seemed occasionally unsure, more often quietly adamant, as he acknowledged his missteps and vowed to remain on the job.
“Have we gotten everything right? Clearly not,” he said. “The idea is to do it better next time.”
The news conference offered new details regarding an alarming series of events that began in August when Sarkisian appeared intoxicated at a gathering of alumni and supporters, slurring his words and shouting an expletive on stage. He later promised to seek professional help to determine if he had a drinking problem.
Haden said he had not spoken with the coach since placing him on indefinite leave Sunday.
“I called him, I texted him, I called three different numbers of his agent, I called his sister,” Haden said. “I finally got ahold of his brother-in-law.” Haden fired Sarkisian by sending him and his agent a termination letter.
Sarkisian has entered a rehabilitation program, a close friend said.
Expressing sympathy for “someone I sincerely like as a person,” Haden refused to discuss financial terms of the dismissal. Sarkisian was believed to rank among the highest-paid coaches in the Pac-12 Conference, earning at least $3.4 million a year in total compensation, the amount his predecessor — Lane Kiffin — was making.
The athletic director revealed more about his decision-making process, starting with the incident at the “Salute to Troy” two weeks before the football season opener.
While some people believe that Sarkisian should have been fired on the spot, Haden said that “based on the input of trusted medical professionals and staff, it was determined that he could continue coaching while seeking treatment.”
“I felt a great deal of compassion for Steve Sarkisian,” Haden added, tapping the podium for emphasis. “He deserved another chance and that’s what I gave him.”
But the university also laid down a detailed set of conditions for the coach to remain employed.
Reacting to a media report, administrators banned coaches from bringing alcohol into the coaches’ locker room after games. More issues surfaced in the following weeks as Sarkisian acted strangely on the sideline against Arizona State, then seemed out of sorts at a team meeting Sunday morning before not showing up for practice a short time later.
Still, it took a while for Haden to change Sunday’s suspension to a termination.
“Over the next 24 hours I was able to look further into the situation, gather facts and determine that Steve’s conduct did not meet USC standards and the expectations of a head coach,” he said, adding that Sarkisian “violated those agreed-upon expectations.”
Although much of Tuesday’s news conference focused on incidents at USC, there were questions about the coach’s behavior at a previous job.
The Los Angeles Times reported Monday about Sarkisian’s use of alcohol while at the University of Washington for five seasons, through 2013. Accounts from former players and documents obtained by Times reporters in public records requests portrayed a man who favored tequila and beer as he, sometimes with acquaintances, on occasion ran up huge tabs while traveling for recruiting and other business. He also frequented a handful of Seattle-area bars with staff members. And one former player said the coach arrived at some morning team meetings acting hung over and smelling of alcohol.
Asked repeatedly about whether he conducted a thorough background check before hiring Sarkisian in 2013, Haden was resolute.
The athletic department hired a “respected national search firm” to screen Sarkisian as a potential replacement, he said. The school and the NCAA conducted additional checks.
“We talked to dozens of people including head coaches, staff members, friends and people who knew Steve well for many years,” he said. “None raised a concern.”
Asked about the information contained in The Times story, Haden answered: “The university doesn’t do public records searches.”
If nothing else, Tuesday’s event appeared carefully orchestrated. Moments before it began, USCPresident C.L. Max Nikias issued a statement that addressed at least some of the uncertainty about his athletic director’s future.
“He cares deeply for our student athletes, and he always makes their well-being his highest priority,” Nikias said of Haden. “I look forward to working with Pat Haden as our USC AD for many years to come.”
Clay Helton, the team’s interim coach, took the podium first to talk about this weekend’s game against rival Notre Dame.
“I’m not one that kicks a man when he’s down,” Helton said. “I will not comment on any personal things dealing with Coach Sark. It’s my job right now to get the football team ready.”
Sitting to the side in a dark suit and tie, Haden flashed the school’s trademark victory sign to reporters, then stepped to the microphone looking almost professorial with reading glasses perched midway down the bridge of his nose.
Referring often to prepared notes, he said that in hindsight the decision to hire Sarkisian “did not work out, and I own that.”
But he also recited a list of accomplishments during his tenure, including USC’s 10 national championships in various sports, better classroom performance by athletes and $300 million in fundraising to improve facilities.
“I obviously went to school here, met my wife here … I love the place,” he said. “This job means a lot to me.”
Still, there was a sense that 12 minutes before the cameras did not remove all doubt. Haden said: “I know there’s lots of people in this room and outside the room questioning my leadership.”