LOS ANGELES -- It wasn’t as shocking as the all-time comeback he engineered to beat Notre Dame in that unforgettable game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum so many years ago. It wasn’t as dramatic as the fourth-quarter touchdown pass he threw to his best pal, J.K. McKay, to win a theatrical Rose Bowl.
But on a warm, breezy, winter day in Los Angeles, Pat Haden managed to do what he’s done so often in his distinguished career.
He made the right decision.
It was time, and Haden knew it. Time to put his health and his family first and his beloved university second. Time to make the announcement so many of us were hoping would come.
It was time to retire after nearly six crisis-filled years as USC’s athletic director.
His legacy is secure. He was, and always will be, the Trojans’ ultimate student-athlete. The quarterback who starred on the football field and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, a Pro Bowl player with the original L.A. Rams, who retired from the game and quickly became a successful businessman and broadcaster.
But when USC reached out to him in 2010, imploring him to come back as the athletic director, he couldn’t resist. He loved the school too much not to take on the challenge, as imposing as he knew it would be.
His critics would be quick to tell you Haden had some stumbles along the way. Talk to him privately and he would likely admit as much. He knows he mishandled parts of the Steve Sarkisian situation. If he had to do it over again, he probably wouldn’t have fired Lane Kiffin on the tarmac at LAX. And he certainly wouldn’t have rushed down from the press box onto the field to help Sarkisian complain to the officials during a game.
But through it all, Haden was there, navigating his way through the stormy waters of NCAA sanctions, helping with the transition from the dedicated but brusque manner of his predecessor, Mike Garrett, by being the bright, smooth, glib person those of us who have been around him always knew him to be.
Even his fiercest critics can’t deny that, above all, Haden was always a glittering representative of the university. Whether he was speaking at a solemn educational function or sitting around joking with writers, he was always comfortable in his own skin.
But in the past year, you could see that the job's overwhelming stress was taking its toll on him. It wasn’t enough that his choice of Sarkisian as head football coach was being second-guessed. Then Sark showed up apparently inebriated at a preseason function, which was followed by a damaging home loss to Washington after which the coach arriving for a practice in which he was physically unable to participate.
Haden finally fired Sarkisian, but the following week suffered a fainting spell on the sideline at Notre Dame. For a 63-year-old with a history of heart problems, it seemed like a clear sign at the time.
It would have been easy to call it quits at that point. But Haden didn’t take the easy way out. He hung in and made the decision that eventually will define his time as AD -- he hired Clay Helton, who had been the interim football coach, as the Trojans' full-time head coach.
It remains to be seen how well Helton does at the job, although that move, too, was criticized by some. So was the hiring of head basketball coach Andy Enfield before the 2013-14 season. Funny how those critics aren’t saying much these days, with Enfield's Trojans 18-5, near the top of the Pac-12 standings and owners of a season sweep over the crosstown rivals famous for their basketball exploits.
You don’t hear much either about Haden overseeing 10 national-championship teams in his time at the university, second nationally only to Florida. Let’s not forget he was also a prime force behind the building of the $70 million John McKay Center, widely considered a state-of-the-art athletic facility.
It will be interesting to see whom will USC turn to as Haden’s successor. President Max Nikias has indicated a national search will be conducted. Haden’s closest friend, J.K. McKay, almost certainly will be considered, along with Steve Lopes, the associate athletic director in charge of finances.
Most felt Mark Jackson, another associate athletic director, was the heir apparent before he left to become the AD at Villanova. It wouldn’t come as a complete surprise if he returned should he be offered the job here.
Whatever happens, those closest to Haden will be relieved to know that his main priority now will be overseeing the renovation of the Coliseum. The pressures that often consumed him, especially on Saturday afternoons and evenings in the fall, will finally dissipate.
He will be free to attend games with his wife and family and play with his grandkids. The decisions and the controversies are someone else’s business now. It seems only fitting.
After six difficult but satisfying years on the job, Pat Haden has earned the right to relax.