Haden: Notre Dame in class of its own

LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans athletic director Pat Haden has always had an affinity for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, dating back to his high school days in Southern California.

Even though he played quarterback for the Trojans and now serves as the athletic department boss at USC, Haden still believes Notre Dame is in a class of its own in college football.

"There's only one brand name in college football, and that's Notre Dame," Haden said in an interview on ESPN Radio on Wednesday with host Colin Cowherd. "I think it's good for all of us when Notre Dame's playing really well and people are following them."

Haden, who spent several years as a color analyst for Notre Dame television broadcasts before taking his current post at USC, also said he was a "little surprised" the Irish are undefeated this season.

"I thought they had a very daunting schedule when I looked at it," Haden said. "They've navigated their way through a difficult schedule remarkably well.

"They are deservedly the No. 1 team in the land."

Of course, Haden's unranked USC Trojans take on No. 1 Notre Dame this Saturday at the Coliseum (5 p.m. PT, ABC). And he has come under fire in recent days for supporting his embattled head coach, Lane Kiffin, despite the Trojans' 7-4 record and variety of off-the-field issues.

Haden admitted Wednesday that Kiffin's squad wasn't as good as expected this season.

"We were probably overhyped at the beginning of the year, being perfectly honest," Haden said. "But right on our doorstop we have a good opportunity this Thanksgiving weekend.

"This could be a great, great moment for us. This season of discontent for some people is not quite over, yet. Let's just see how this thing turns out Saturday."

Haden said he understands why USC fans are upset at his continued support of Kiffin. But, he said, they're not thinking about it rationally, as he is.

"That's my job, really, to make rational decisions," Haden said. "Lots of people are going to disagree with those, and I completely understand that.

"What we have to do is do the right thing, and win games and win them in the right way, such that those fans will come back on the bus. And they jump on and they jump off with great regularity in cities like Los Angeles, and I understand that."

Haden said he has a "pretty thick skin" from his days in the NFL. Still, he said, some of the hateful calls, tweets and emails from fans of late have amazed him.

"I love the people's passion," he said. "They are very passionate about USC. But sometimes the rhetoric, the tenor, the tone surprises me."

Haden said he plans to meet with Kiffin after Saturday's game to talk about potential staff changes and what the two men can do differently to better support each other.

But he won't be making any decisions on the futures of assistant coaches like Monte Kiffin.

"That's Lane's job," Haden said.