Over at the college football website I run, CrystalBallRun.com, I brought up what I thought to be a very interesting talking point yesterday afternoon: Has USC’s Pat Haden evolved into the best Athletic Director in college sports? Well, after thinking about it some more last night, doing some research, and talking to a few folks who’ve spent time around USC’s athletic department, I’ve decided to take this conversation one step further and say this: As of right now, Pat Haden is the best AD in college sports. Period. End of story. Thanks for coming, and drive home safely.
Phew, I’m glad we got that out of the way. And now that we have come to the broad, big picture conclusion of this article, let’s work our backward to the beginning, to see how we got there.
Of course before I get started, I should get one pretty big caveat out of the way: I do understand that in this case, “the best” is something that’s impossible to prove. It’s impossible to say that Haden is the “best” AD in college sports right now, in the same way it’s impossible to say that Nike makes the “best” shoes, pecan is the “best” pie, or that Kourtney is the “best” Kardashian sister. I may think it. I may feel it in my gut. But it is impossible to prove, especially with so many other really good AD’s out there. You know the names just like I do, and as college athletic departments have evolved into the multi-million dollar corporations that they are today, the men and women who are running them have evolved just the same. Guys like Mal Moore at Alabama, Jeremy Foley at Florida and DeLoss Dodds at Texas, are as bright and intelligent as anyone, in any field.
Then again when it comes to Haden and all his contemporaries, there is one major difference between the USC AD and everyone else: All of the others I just mentioned either walked into an already good job and made it great, or took a great job and made it elite. But Haden? He walked into the Roman empire, but did so after the fall had already begun.
Think about Haden relative to those guys I mentioned above. Everyone is quick to praise Moore at Alabama, and rightfully so. He’s great at what he does, and his school is coming off four straight 10-win football seasons. At the same time, how much of his “worth” is tied to his hiring of Nick Saban? Yeah, exactly. As for Jeremy Foley, well, he has proven to have a strong eye for coaching talent, thanks to his hiring of Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer, each of whom won multiple National Championships in Gainesville. Then again it probably didn’t hurt that Foley also inherited some guy named Steve Spurrier (at the height of his swag-a-licious super-powers) to help ease the transition as well. And DeLoss Dodds? Well, he’s built Texas into the premiere brand in college sports… something that I don’t remember really taking off until Mack Brown started winning 10 games a year as easily as you and I put on socks in the morning.
So to use another bad analogy (and don’t worry, I’ve got plenty more to come), those guys walked into some really nice houses in really nice neighborhoods, and to their credit, have made a ton of improvements to significantly raise their property value. They’ve added a back deck for summer barbeques, redesigned the kitchen and even put in a below-ground pool too, just to show off. As for Haden? Well, he walked into a big house in a nice neighborhood… but also one that needed so many repairs that Bob Vila would’ve fainted simply from the sight of it.
Now, given all the coverage of USC’s problems the last few years, I won’t waste anyone’s time or energy looking too deeply into what Haden inherited. Just know that when he did arrive at USC, the athletic department was engulfed in the most dire circumstances an administrator could ever imagine.
No really, it was that bad. His two flagship programs (football and men’s basketball) had both been hammered by the NCAA, and- as you’ve probably heard- the football team was banned from bowl games for two years. His compliance office- the folks that were supposed to be overseeing everything- was as understaffed as any in the country, at least relative to the needs of the particular school. And oh by the way, the most successful football coach in all of college football over the previous decade, and the guy who was supposed to help see ‘SC through it all, had just taken a job in the NFL. Forget walking into an “ideal” situation. From Day 1, it was simply about survival for Haden.
And to bring it back to the point I made with the other AD’s earlier, it’s not even like Haden had a Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier or Mack Brown to take the pressure off. Nor a John Calipari, Bill Self or Roy Williams in the basketball offices either. Instead, he inherited a football coach who might be more reviled than anyone else in the profession (for reasons that I don’t totally understand) and a basketball coach (Kevin O’Neill) who might be less liked by his peers than anyone in his profession too. Not exactly an easy transition, huh? Heck, forget well-liked coaches, how about the fact that Haden’s been on the job for just under 24 months now, and his football team still hasn’t even played in a BOWL GAME yet. Still, here Haden is, moving and shaking, and helping set up USC to become a college sports super-power for the next century to come.
Wait, a second, did I just say… century? As in the next 100 years? You better believe I did, my friends.
That’s because if you haven’t been paying attention, it was announced earlier this week that USC just acquired one of the biggest assets any college program in America can claim: On Monday, the school took over the day-to-day operating rights to the Los Angeles Coliseum. For those of you keeping score at home, the lease on the stadium runs through 2054, and at some point could be extended straight through 2111. That’s right, long after you and I are both buried six feet under, ‘SC football will continue to play their home games at the LA Coliseum. And the school will just so happen to get all the revenue that comes with it too.
Now first, let’s chat about a couple of important things here. For starters, I’m in no way giving Haden all the credit for making the Coliseum-to-USC transaction happen. The truth is that USC has been trying to get control of the Coliseum for decades, since long before Haden ever took over the AD’s chair. Also, I’d remiss if I didn’t mention that in the early going, this acquisition will likely kick USC in the teeth financially as well. According to some published reports, repairs and upgrades at the Coliseum could skyrocket as high as $70 million when all is said and done. Then again, that number isn’t totally surprising. Yesterday I asked a friend who has covered a number of games at the Coliseum about the state of the venue, and he was quick to reply, “It’s a sh**hole. The worst stadium I’ve ever been too. By far.” Well then!
At the same time, this situation isn’t nearly as bad as it seems either. From all the reports I’ve read, it appears as though most of the money needed for repairs could come from a corporate licensing deal on the stadium’s name. How much, nobody knows at this point. But if you think USC is paying all $70 million out of pocket, well, you’re out of your mind.
And once those repairs are made? Can you say “cha-ching?”
Truthfully, the more I think about it, the more I’m pretty sure that once the revenues kick in, it will permanently put USC’s athletic department into the Texas-Ohio State-Alabama realm of “My God, we’ve got so much money, we don’t even know how to spend it all!!” stratosphere of major college athletic departments. As a newly renovated, 100,000 seat stadium in one of the nation’s biggest cities, there’s little reason to think that the Coliseum can’t attract concerts, expos and other events, in addition to the six or seven home football dates every fall. Plus, there’s also a real shot that the Coliseum could host an NFL team for a year or two if needed, while a new downtown stadium is being built. Think ‘SC won’t be glad to share the building for a while, when they’re reaping all the rewards? Yeah, me neither.
And actually, that brings me to the best part of the whole deal: The school didn’t even have to buy the stadium outright, and instead they’re just footing the bill for the $1 million a year lease! I’m hardly Warren Buffett, but that sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.
In the grand scheme of things though, Los Angeles Coliseum is just the Roth IRA of USC’s long-term investment portfolio; the biggest asset that will pay the largest dividends later. In the short-term, USC has plenty of other cash streams to hold them over as well. You can go ahead and thank Haden for most of those as well.
Maybe the most significant one also came recently, when USC partnered with ESPN Radio to broadcast every, single USC football game nationally. Yes, you read that correctly: Every time USC plays football, it will be broadcast in every corner of the country. From Maui to Maine, get ready for Saturday’s with Kiffin! It’s a radio deal that’s completely unique to USC, with Notre Dame the only other school in the country with a national radio contract. And even Notre Dame’s isn’t really the same, since their radio deal isn’t with ESPN, but instead, IMG. And really, let’s get real here for a second: Who’s ever heard of IMG radio? Yeah, me neither.
As for the financials of the radio deal, well, they’re not great (all that’s been reported is that it’s a “multi-year deal, in the six figures), but at the same time, it’s impossible to underestimate the amount of exposure it could bring the school and program. After all, can you imagine Lane Kiffin going into the home of any kid, in any part of the country and saying, “Mom and Dad, I know you’re worried, but don’t be. Even if we’re not on TV around these parts (which we will be), you can still listen to all our games on the radio!”
How can you beat that? You can’t really, and I’m guessing little nuggets like are a big reason as to why USC’s recruiting profile has expanded across the country in the last six or so months. While most of Kiffin’s first signing class at USC was from Southern California, of USC’s top signees in the 2012 class, two were from Florida, and in the class of 2013, the Trojans also have commitments from the top quarterback, running back and defensive end in the country, a trio which also happens to hail from Washington, Illinois and Maryland respectively. Maybe it’s all a coincidence, and maybe it’s not. But the radio deal probably didn’t hurt things either.
And while we’re on the subject of secondary streams of income, this also might be a nice time to reveal that USC has two separate licensing agreements (one with Nike, the other with Jerry Jones owned “Silver Star Merchandising”) and that USC will also be getting a boring, old check for $22 million every year from the new Pac-12 TV deal. Simply put, money is growing on trees at USC. And while Haden can’t take credit for all of it, he can take credit for a lot.
Maybe the craziest part of it all though, is that in a business run by the slimiest conference commissioners, board members and fellow AD’s, Haden (at least on the surface) appears to be one of the good guys. Good or not, at the very least he does seem to be doing it the right way.
After all, this is a guy who walked into a grease-fire with the NCAA, and instead of running from the problem, embraced it, and is now working with the NCAA to help clean-up their outdated rule book. He’s the same guy who took one of the most underfunded and understaffed compliance departments in the country, hired a bunch of new people, pumped nearly a million dollars of salaries into it, and has now made it a model for schools everywhere. Heck, forget all that stuff. How about the fact that with a potential NCAA Tournament bid on the line, Haden actually suspended his basketball coach late in the season, nearly costing his school a tourney bid and the millions of dollars that come with it? It didn’t end up mattering (USC was one of the “first four” in the 2011 Tournament), but the question needs to be asked: How many other guys would’ve made the same decision, under the same circumstances?
Add all this up into the neat little package that is Pat Haden, it’s clear to me that above all, Haden understands what being a modern-day athletic director is about. It’s not just about sports and it’s not just about fund-raising, but also about being equal parts politician and shrewd businessman, while also acting as a full-time overseer, strict dad and friend to hundreds of athletes and coaches. In a lot of ways, being a modern college athletic director is a lot like being the “CEO of an athletic department,” and it’s a role nobody handles better than Haden.
It’s also why he’s undoubtedly better at what he does than anyone else in the business.
And the scary part?
Imagine what he’ll be able to get done when his teams start winning big?
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