LOS ANGELES -- As Pat Haden walked through the lobby of Heritage Hall, his eyeglasses and sunglasses in one hand and a USC football spring prospectus and notebook in the other, he smiled as he looked at the throng of media waiting to talk to him.
"I promise I'm going to talk to you all," he said. "I want to meet every one of you. I'm waiting to hear back from my daughter, who is expecting to have her baby today. She promised she wouldn't have it today, but you never know."
In a matter of six seconds, Haden, who was named USC's new athletic director beginning Aug. 3, had talked to the assembled media in the lobby more than his predecessor, Mike Garrett, had in the past six months. By the time Haden's day was done (his daughter, Natalie O'Connor, kept her promise and didn't have her baby, Haden's fifth grandchild, on Tuesday), he had probably interacted more with the media than Garrett had during his 17-year tenure at the helm of the athletic department.
When Haden, a former USC quarterback from 1971-74 and television analyst for NBC's coverage of Notre Dame football games the past 11 years, arrived on campus he told USC sports information director Tim Tessalone he didn't want to hold a news conference. It was something he probably has heard in the past from Garrett, who preferred the absurdity of poorly edited online video messages to actually standing in front of the media and addressing difficult questions. Haden, however, simply wanted to meet every reporter on campus and introduce himself, and felt that wouldn't be possible with a large news conference.
So there Haden stood, answering the same compliance and investigation questions over and over again, each time shaking a different reporter's hand and thanking them for coming out before starting the process all over again.
Haden wasn't just a breath of fresh air for a program that needed it; he was an oxygen tank for an athletic department suffocating under the pressure of recent NCAA sanctions against the football and men's basketball programs. As though Garrett's incompetence as the head of a department in shambles wasn't bad enough, he handled himself like the delusional captain of a sinking ship on his way out.
After USC was put on four years of probation and hit with a two-year bowl ban along with other penalties after the NCAA found serious rules violations in the athletic department, mostly involving Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, Garrett's defiance bordered on the ridiculous. A few hours after the release of the NCAA report, Garrett told a group of boosters in San Francisco the report was "nothing but a lot of envy" and that the committee wishes "they were all Trojans."
Earlier this month, Garrett sent letters of apology to Florida, Washington, Oregon, Fresno State and Alabama regarding allegations made by USC that the five schools had made impermissible contact with running back Dillon Baxter after the NCAA announced sanctions against the Trojans.
"I apologize for any inconvenience or embarrassment this matter has caused to you and your institution," Garrett wrote.
It was a letter many associated with USC wish they would have received from the less-than-contrite Garrett on his handling of the NCAA investigation and lack of institutional control while his football and men's basketball programs ran amuck.
Ultimately it would be a letter from incoming USC president Max Nikias that would announce not only the end of Garrett's term and the beginning of Haden's tenure, but also the lengths to which the school will go to forever wash its hands of Bush and Mayo.
The school announced it will return its copy of Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy to the Heisman Trust and remove all images and references to Bush and Mayo on campus, the Galen Center and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. As significant as those moves may seem, none of it would have mattered if Garrett was still in office.
His imminent departure not only rids USC of its cantankerous athletic director who continued to contend the school did nothing wrong, but gives it a glimmer of hope in its current appeals process to get the second year of the bowl ban rescinded. At the very least, Haden will go into the hearing admitting the school has made mistakes and will make strides to correct them, something Garrett never did.
"I never think it's a good tactic to make the party to whom you are appealing to make them dislike you," Haden said. "You have to be contrite. We did some things wrong here. We know that now. But we're going to do the best job we can."
Sitting in the Varsity Lounge at Heritage Hall, Haden answered every question with the enthusiasm of Pete Carroll and the thoughtfulness of a professor, which makes sense for the Rhodes Scholar who graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
"We're going to do better," Haden said. "We have to do better. We don't have any choices here. We stub our toe, we got even more problems. I'm going to try not to stub my toe or our toes, but I read the report and there are influences out there that weren't there 100 years ago when I was playing."
This was never a job Haden wanted, even though he was always at the top of the wish list for most donors, trustees and boosters. When Nikias first approached Haden about the job six weeks ago, Haden said he wasn't interested and turned down the job a second time three weeks ago when Nikias called him again. Haden, however, reconsidered after talking to his wife of 34 years, Cindy, who thought Haden, a partner in the private investment firm of Riordan, Lewis & Haden, needed a new challenge in his life. He couldn't have picked a bigger challenge than taking over a USC athletic program entering four years of probation.
"I'm not going to wake every day and say, 'Woe is us.' I'm going to have a blast every day and try to get better," he said. "I'm going to cross off that calendar until June 14, 2014 [when USC's probation ends]; it's just right around the corner."
While Haden may be more energetic and accessible than his predecessor, he'll be the first to admit things won't always go smoothly. In fact, he guaranteed there would be bumps in the road as he eases into a role he has never had before. The difference is he won't refuse to answer questions and hide behind an in-house video camera when things don't go his way, as Garrett routinely did.
"We're going to make some mistakes, and I'm going to make some stupid decisions, and people are going to criticize me, and I've warned my family about that," he said. "But I told my family I played [for] the L.A. Rams and I got booed by hundreds of thousands of people. I can take it. When we do something wrong, we're going to fess up, take the high road and do the best we can."
As simple as it sounds, if many involved in the investigation had simply done that a long time ago, the face of the USC athletic department and the lobby of Heritage Hall would look drastically different than it will next month.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter