by Steve Bisheff
The news about Steve Sarkisian was as stunning as it was sad, and after it was all absorbed and digested on Sunday, the one question everyone involved with USC football wanted answered was this:
What is Pat Haden’s status now?
Does the sport’s most beleaguered athletic director want to stick around and make the next crucial head coaching decision, the one that unquestionably will dictate the future of what was, not too long ago, one of the most successful and storied programs in the country?
You certainly had to wonder after watching Haden’s brief media conference with interim coach Clay Helton Sunday afternoon. I’ve known and covered Haden a long time, since his prep glory days at Bishop Amat High School, and I’ve never seen him look more tired, frazzled and frustrated.
Right now, the T in Trojans stands for turmoil, and amid the incredible circumstances of having to hire five head football coaches in the past 25 months, Haden has been in the midst of it all, in the eye of an almost surreal athletic storm.
He fired overmatched Lane Kiffin in that infamous LAX early-morning incident. He made popular Ed Orgeron the interim coach but then told him he wouldn’t be considered for the fulltime job. Orgeron left, and Helton guided the team through the Las Vegas Bowl.
And now this, the worst of it all, hiring Sarkisian when so many advised against it. Forget that he wasn’t a proven commodity. There were strong whispers about a possible drinking problem when he was at Washington. Haden either didn’t investigate it thoroughly enough or knew about it and dismissed it. Either way, it turned out to be a disaster.
Sarkisian survived through a rocky 9-4 first season, then showed up drunk at a preseason “Salute to Troy” banquet, in front of boosters and players. Haden should have put him on an indefinite leave of absence at that point, but he didn’t. Sark promised he’d get help, but five weeks into a disappointing early season, it was clear that he hadn’t.
If the reports are true, and Sarkisian walked into a Sunday morning team meeting clearly under the influence of some sort, it is obvious that the coach needs professional help. Here’s hoping that those close to him make sure he gets it.
Putting him on “an indefinite leave of absence” is a politically correct way of stating the real truth: Sark is not likely to ever coach again at USC.
A lot of angry fans out there will be screaming for Haden to be fired, too. That won’t happen anytime soon. Max Nikias, the president of the university, is an unabashed fan of Haden. He doesn’t just like him, he almost reveres him.
If you’ve spent much time around Haden, it’s not surprising. He is a bright, charming, witty man, a former Rhodes Scholar, who spent some of his formative years in the same house with his close buddy and assistant AD, J.K. McKay. You may have heard of the head of that household – John McKay, the Hall of Fame coach most consider the finest in the history of USC.
Make no mistake, Haden dearly loves this university and, especially, this football program. If he didn’t, he never would have left the lucrative job he had in Los Angeles to accept the position of athletic director.
But now it has worn on him. He seemed to be carrying the weight of the Trojan nation on his slight shoulders at that media conference. It should also be mentioned that he has had health issues of his own in the past year or two. Whenever questioned about it, his answers are uncharacteristically vague and abrupt.
So you can’t help but wonder whether he wants to face this huge. new cardinal and gold burden. He screwed up when he hired Sarkisian. He would be the first to tell you that now, off the record, of course. But he knows.
He also knows there will be even more pressure to make the next hire. There can’t be a mistake this time. There will be no hiring of “a young, promising coach with great potential,” as they tried to sell it when Sarkisian was named the head guy.
This time, the head coach has to be a proven commodity. Someone who already has run a winning program and thrived at the major college level.
Does Haden want to put himself through that ordeal again? Or would he rather spend more time with his grandchildren? Does he want to enjoy Saturday afternoons at this point in his 60s, or have his stomach tied up in knots for 3 ½ hours every week?
Does he want to try to see this through and possibly risk health issues of his own? Or does he want to kick back, relax and enjoy his large group of family and friends?
It seems strange to put it this way now, less than 24 hours after the fact. But as difficult as it might have appeared, this latest decision he made regarding Sarkisian was a relatively easy one.
Clearly, one way or another, the next one he has to make won’t be.