LOS ANGELES -- Pat Haden has been a Rhodes Scholar, lawyer, managing director of a private equity firm and football broadcaster.
His latest endeavor might be his most challenging and requires him to draw on all his previous experiences. Essentially, Haden is charged with cleaning up a mess.
The former University of Southern California and NFL quarterback was hired by his alma mater as athletic director in wake of major NCAA sanctions levied against the football and men's basketball programs. Haden said the opportunity "came out of left field," but he couldn't pass up a chance to help get USC's tradition-rich football program back on its feet.
"I never anticipated doing this," Haden said. "I was very happy with my other professions, so this was never something on my radar."
Few could have predicted the Trojans would be in such a precarious position given their football dominance the past decade. However, the NCAA took a wrecking ball to their foundation in early June when it nailed USC with major sanctions over improper benefits to Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush.
Citing a lack of institutional control under former coach Pete Carroll (and also within the basketball program), the NCAA handed the Trojans a two-year bowl ban, the loss of 30 football scholarships over three years and four years probation. The penalties could cripple the program and were more severe and far-reaching than the school and first-year coach Lane Kiffin expected.
Kiffin, a 35-year-old Bloomington Jefferson graduate, admits he took a leap of faith last winter when he left Tennessee to accept the job despite an active NCAA investigation. The allure of leading a program with the tradition, resources and national appeal of USC was too enticing, even if it meant more negative press and public scorn for a guy who has bathed in it the past few years. Relaxing in his office one afternoon this spring, Kiffin said he felt "confident" that any punishment handed down would be tolerable.
"You take everything into consideration and that was a factor," he said.
His optimism proved unfounded. The USC team that plays the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday is a shell of the one that ruled college football under Carroll. The Trojans are 2-0, but the record belies a defense that yielded 588 yards in a season-opening 49-36 victory at Hawaii and an offense that struggled in last Saturday's 17-14 victory over Virginia.
An uncertain future
As monstrous and glitzy as the program became, USC now faces a murky future that could result in a backslide to mediocrity, or worse.
Besides the sanctions, the Trojans reportedly had as few as 67 scholarship players at one point in fall camp -- 18 fewer than the limit -- because of defections and other circumstances. Cretin-Derham Hall's Seantrel Henderson, a massive offensive lineman and the nation's top recruit, was granted his scholarship release and signed with Miami (Fla).
"I told the team, and I made sure they understood, that this is something happening to them that's adversity," Kiffin told reporters after the announcement. "Football, we talk about all the time, is about adversity, as is life."
Carroll, who took over as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks this season, maintains he knew nothing of Bush's dealings with an agent, saying he was "absolutely shocked and disappointed" by the NCAA's findings.
"I never, ever thought it would come to this," Carroll said.
In wake of the sanctions, the school forced out athletic director Mike Garrett in late July and hired Haden. The school also disassociated itself from Bush, whose Heisman Trophy was removed from Heritage Hall and returned.
This is the new reality for a football program with a tradition few schools can match: 11 national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners (counting Bush, who plans to return his copy of the trophy as well), 156 All-Americas, 36 college football Hall of Famers.
That kind of success fueled a sense of entitlement that irritates rivals and left a shortage of sympathy when the ruling came down. Garrett was particularly defiant, which likely didn't help his cause with his then-employers. According to the Los Angeles Times, Garrett spoke boldly to a booster group hours after the NCAA announced its penalties.
"As I read the decision by the NCAA," Garrett said, "I read between the lines and there was nothing but a lot of envy. They wish they all were Trojans."
Haden, who played in three Rose Bowls and was a member of two national championship teams, has worked hard to project an optimistic outlook and tone as he tries to move the program forward.
"Those outside our program probably think that it's woe is me, but that's really not the case," he said. "We're going to live through these NCAA sanctions and we're going to get to the other side. There is going to be an end to this. In the meantime, we're going to do the best we can to do things right."
Kiffen under scrutiny
Kiffin knows a little something about adversity. He has lived inside a bubble of controversy -- much of it of his own creation -- in recent years, beginning with his ugly divorce from the Oakland Raiders after only 20 games as head coach.
Garrett made the controversial decision to hand Kiffin the keys to one of college football's powerhouse programs -- not to mention a reported $4 million annual contract.
Kiffin previously spent six seasons at USC as an assistant and watched Carroll build a dynasty by recruiting the best players nationally and infusing the program with a no-holds-barred swagger. But Kiffin's one-season stint at Tennessee served as a cautionary tale in the form of flaming quotes, multiple secondary NCAA violations and a 7-6 record. His abrupt departure made him about as popular as an average BP executive.
Kiffin, who sought the Gophers job in 2007, smiled when asked to describe the past year.
"Interesting," he said.
"I really enjoyed Tennessee," he continued. "Everybody has a misconception that I didn't or I was uncomfortable. No, I could have spent a long time there. This was an unforeseen circumstance of my dream job opening up. ... I think Tennessee is one of the top 10 jobs in America. I think this is the best one."
Kiffin makes no apologies for jumping at the opportunity to replace Carroll, who surprised football observers everywhere by returning to the NFL.
"I said at my (USC introductory) press conference that this is my dream job," Kiffin said. "You hear people say that sometimes. I think that's a difficult thing to say unless you've been there. So for me to say Texas is a dream job or Florida or Notre Dame or whatever, if you haven't been there and you don't know how the place works, I think that's difficult to say. I had no issue saying that because it is for me."
Controversy followed him to the West Coast. The Tennessee Titans sued Kiffin and the university for "maliciously" interfering with running backs coach Kennedy Pola, who was hired as USC's offensive coordinator a week before the start of training camp. The Titans accused Kiffin and USC of violating Pola's contract by contending that he needed written permission to discuss a job outside of the organization.
Kiffin must avoid making more ugly headlines while trying to resurrect the program. Haden expressed support for Kiffin, but he also made it clear he won't tolerate his coach skirting the rules.
"We're going to win, but we're going to win right," Haden said. "We're going to recruit, but we're going to recruit properly. I think he understands that and gets that."
Kiffin insists he doesn't feel burdened by anyone's expectations. Carroll's imprint is undeniably enormous -- seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, two national championships and seven consecutive BCS bowl games. The Trojans went 6-1 in those BCS games and finished ranked in the top 4 in the Associated Press poll seven consecutive seasons.
"I don't worry about things I can't control and that's a great example of one," Kiffin said. "People say, 'What about the pressure of following (Carroll)?' He did something unbelievable. But what am I going to do, sit and go, 'Oh boy, he did that so I need to do this?' I don't worry about it."
Change in approach
Carroll's legacy, however, also is unmistakably tarnished by the NCAA penalties. While Kiffin affectionately refers to Carroll as "Coach," his style represents a marked departure from his former boss. Carroll's program had the feel of a rollicking party. His teams won big, had fun and everyone was invited to tag along. Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell were regular guests. Carroll pulled pranks to enliven practice and once had 10 tailbacks on the roster at the same time because he craves competition.
But a 9-4 record and trip to the Emerald Bowl last season brought whispers that maybe things were too loose, too fun. The NCAA's findings supported the notion that the program became ripe for problems. "Lack of institutional control" is a label that scares college administrators from coast to coast.
Kiffin injected a more serious, businesslike approach upon arrival. He brought more rules and tightened the open-door policy at practice. Though he isn't critical of Carroll's model, Kiffin pointed to the team's collective work ethic when addressing the subpar 2009 season.
"That didn't happen on those 13 Saturdays," he said. "You went 9-4 at 6 a.m. six months before that. How hard were you working in the offseason? Those championship teams weren't built on Saturdays, they were built in the offseason by the way that they worked."
A 9-4 record at many places is celebrated. Kiffin used it to light a fire in his locker room.
"You didn't come here to do that, I don't think," he said. "So you better have a sick feeling. You better have a feeling to never let that happen again."
Kiffin understands his job performance will be scrutinized on a large scale because of his past, but the NCAA penalties put him in a hole before he even coached his first game. No one will deny that USC has natural advantages compared to others, namely the weather and massive talent pool in California. But the scholarship reductions and bowl ban are major obstacles. His program now faces a long, hard road to recovery.
"Lane has thought this thing through as best he can," Haden said. "We're going to be just fine. It's going to take a while to get through this. Lots of schools have gone on probation, including USC, and come out the other side quite well."