Pat Haden puts it all on the line for USC

Last year Pat Haden was guiding a private equity firm and a college football analyst. AP Photo/Eugene Tanner

LOS ANGELES -- Pat Haden knew he was in for tough times when he agreed to become USC's athletic director just as the crisis bells started going off around Heritage Hall four months ago. He knew they were coming, but he didn't know where to look.

"In this job, I never know what's around the next corner," Haden said.

Of all things, the first test was an inside job.

Everyone in USC's athletic department has the same nightmare. It's an agent dangling a sack of money in front of an eager USC football player. If the NCAA found out, that could spell doom for USC football, and that's like saying doom for USC athletics, if not campus morale in general.

The last thing Haden feared was that the agent would be a USC undergraduate. This first little brush with NCAA scandal under his watch -- freshman tailback Dillon Baxter associating with a certified agent/USC student named Teague Egan -- sent those worries racing through Haden's mind like a gasoline fire.

A year ago, he was helping successfully guide a private equity firm through a troubled economy and broadcasting Notre Dame home games for NBC, seeing his grandkids virtually every day. That was like retirement compared to this gig. To think he took a pay cut for this grief?

When you have Haden's résumé, you probably have more to lose from USC's current situation than you have to gain. That's why he looks at this job as a "higher calling."

"I have my own reputational risk," Haden said the other day in his office, where there's a putter tucked in a corner, some golf balls scattered about, a newspaper poking out of his briefcase. "I'm proud to say I have a very good ethical reputation and I'm not going to do anything unethical, but you can be cast in a light that's not what I want. So, yeah, there is anxiety."

What made Haden the perfect fit for USC in this moment of crisis makes him all the more ripe for a tarnished reputation. The cleaner the shirt, the more somebody wants to soil it.

He wasn't just an All-American quarterback at USC in the early 1970s, he was an academic All-American. He didn't just win national titles, he won a Rhodes scholarship. At Oxford, he got a bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics and economics. He might need all three to last through this job.

If he didn't know it before he saw Egan riding by his office in a golf cart emblazoned with his agency's name, the stereo blaring, he knows it now. This scare turned out to be a mere flutter of the heart. What's the next one going to be?

"It is going to be difficult, but I'm a very optimistic person, and there is the end of sanctions to look forward to," Haden said. "We're 25 percent through them, at least in terms of being on NCAA probation. We're going to get to the other side."

When Haden, 57, was hired just days before the football team opened fall camp, it looked like a classic odd-couple pairing. Haden has the squeaky-clean reputation. Coach Lane Kiffin, 35, was hired by outgoing AD Mike Garrett and already had garnered a reputation for reckless statements and push-the-envelope-until-it-breaks recruiting.

The NCAA had a file on him. One Tennessee newspaper headline writer dubbed him "Lane Violation" for his accumulation of secondary infractions. The arrangement has worked better than both men had envisioned.

Haden's office keeps a steady eye on Kiffin's just down the hallway. USC had three compliance directors when university president Max Nikias brought in Haden and created a new compliance position for Dave Roberts. Since then, Roberts has hired two more people and is about to hire a third whose sole responsibility is raising the awareness of NCAA rules around Heritage Hall.

That's about eight people, including Haden and associate athletic director J.K. McKay, looking over Kiffin's shoulder. The coach swears that he doesn't mind the scrutiny even though he might have more of it than any coach in America.

"I would think a lot of coaches would not like where we've put ourselves necessarily," Kiffin said. "I think it's great because we are so proactive. We're so far ahead of it. [Baxter's situation] is something that very easily at a lot of places could have been missed or overlooked: five dollars, a cart ride. … We're so proactive that, yeah, he missed a game, but now we haven't played somebody who would have been ineligible."

The Baxter affair went away with a $5 donation to charity, but what if Haden hadn't stamped out the relationship so early? What if Egan and Baxter had grown tight, and favors beyond a golf-cart ride had been exchanged for a promise of future representation? Haden can't afford to ignore any compliance issue these days.

Kiffin describes his relationship with Haden as "phenomenal." Haden says Kiffin has done an "amazing job," to guide the Trojans to a 7-4 record heading into the back-to-back rivalry games that end the season. In Alabama's two years under a bowl ban, 2002 and 2003, the Crimson Tide went 11-14.

When you sit down to talk to Haden, you get the impression he sometimes pines for the days when market fluctuations and production meetings were his greatest sources of stress. A year ago, he was nearing the end of his 12th season broadcasting Notre Dame games.

For a long time, Notre Dame week brought up warm, fuzzy memories. He helped beat the Irish in memorable USC victories in 1972 and 1974. They lost in 1973. In those days, it meant something more than bragging rights. All three years, the winner of that game won a national championship.

Then, for a while, Notre Dame-USC week became awkward.

"The Notre Dame folks didn't like me because I was an SC guy. The SC folks didn't like me because I was broadcasting Notre Dame games," Haden said. "It was one of those things where you couldn't please anybody. I probably bent over backwards to make sure I was more than fair to the Irish."

He doesn't have to do that on Saturday. At long last, he can put on a pair of cardinal-and-gold glasses and root like crazy. For the first time in more than 40 years, he lives and dies with the wins and losses of the USC football team. It's like a sanctuary from the rest of his job.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.