USC is no stranger to drama, but the twists and turns coming out of downtown Los Angeles are hard to conjure for even the best soap opera writers down the street in Hollywood.
The latest news to hit the beleaguered program surfaced on an otherwise unremarkable Sunday afternoon when athletic director Pat Haden confirmed reports that head coach Steve Sarkisian was stepping away on an indefinite leave of absence.
Sarkisian, three days after the team suffered a humiliating defeat to double-digit underdog Washington on Thursday night, failed to attend the Trojans practice in preparation for Notre Dame, and his absence set off a number of alarm bells. Various reports and several sources that spoke with Bleacher Report all said the same thing: Sarkisian showed up to work on Sunday in no shape or form to be conducting business as a head coach.
"I called Steve and talked to him. It was very clear to me he’s not healthy,” Haden told reporters about a half-hour after practice. “I asked him to take an indefinite leave of absence.”
It is the right move for the program at this time, but more importantly it’s the right move for Sarkisian. Whatever positive or negative feelings one has about him as a coach, now is the time to put those aside and hope the 41-year-old can put his life together after a year that has been anything but smooth.
When combined with an earlier incident during fall camp in which Sarkisian showed up to a booster function slurring words and uttering expletives, it’s clear the longtime coach is going through a turbulent time. Sarkisian’s wife filed for divorce in April, he recently sold his house in the area not far from where he grew up, and the team he’s been tasked with returning to glory is just 12-6 since he took over a job he very much grew up idolizing.
That’s a lot for anybody to shoulder, and one hopes time away from football will allow Sarkisian to get the help he needs. Football, in this case, is very much secondary for him.
It is not for his boss, however.
The most recent strike against the program is yet another reminder that the administration, chief among them Haden, should have taken action when Sarkisian embarrassed himself in August. If that wasn’t a wake-up call for everybody involved, then Sunday’s incident shows no one has learned, nor have they wanted to step in to do the right thing.
“I always want to do what’s right for our team and school,” Haden said in his impromptu press conference Sunday. “It’s clear the team had a great deal of concern about the health of Coach Sarkisian, so did the staff."
If that were the case, then why are we here? The buck stops on Haden’s desk as athletic director, and he's the very person USC brought in to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Remember, Haden is an alum (and Rhodes scholar to boot), former star quarterback for the Trojans and accomplished lawyer and broadcaster. He was seen as the white knight who was supposed to clean house in the wake of harsh NCAA penalties and headaches in both football and men’s basketball.
Instead, one can reasonably ask if the athletics department is better off now than when he took over. Sure, the academic numbers are up—a particular source of pride for Haden—and the updated Heritage Hall and new John McKay Center have finally given the Trojans 21st-century facilities.
Outside of that, though?
Haden inherited Lane Kiffin as football coach (predecessor Mike Garrett made that hire) but still kept him around a season too long and ended up firing him in an airport parking lot. The basketball team has been a disaster for years, and Haden even had to suspend former hoops coach Kevin O’Neill for an incident in which he got into an altercation with a booster.
At some point things start to add up. The numbers have gotten so high now, though, so who knows what the final tally is?
And the timing of the latest black eye on the Cardinal and Gold could not be worse for USC athletics, either.
Haden has indicated privately to many around the school and to boosters that he intends to stick around in his current role for several more years. The biggest reason, outside of seeing a return to success on the football field and on the basketball court, involves the large-scale renovation of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum a few minutes' walk from Haden’s new on-campus office.
While plans are still being finalized, the school is required to put up at least $100 million in renovations according to the terms of their lease, and most estimates point to a number five to 10 times that. In Los Angeles’ recent 2024 Olympic bid, the local organizing committee noted USC is set to pump at least $500 million into the Coliseum and the surrounding area over the coming years.
That’s a lot of cash, even for a school with billionaire boosters in droves and one of the larger endowments in the country. Haden will be at the center of the fundraising effort, but will boosters be confident enough in his leadership to sign a check?
That seems doubtful without significant changes being made. Given what has happened, what boosters in their right minds are going to give Sarkisian, Haden or anyone else at USC a vote of confidence?
It’s not rare for an athletic director to be more well-liked outside of his fanbase than in it. That’s the nature of the job in many cases. Haden is respected among the athletics community in general, and it should say plenty that he’s been tasked with helping reform the NCAA enforcement system and was among the first chosen to be on the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Now he needs to step aside from those duties and focus on his own house at Heritage Hall.
Pat Haden is one of the nicest and sharpest individuals you will come across in college football, but he deserves the blame for the state of the program, such as it is, right now.
He’s done a disservice to the current players by putting them through the wringer of four head coaches in three years. He’s done a disservice to Sarkisian by not stepping in and making sure he was personally OK before the rigors of the season made life even more difficult. He’s done a disservice to the coaches and other staffers whose job security is very much in doubt at the moment.
More than anything, Haden is doing a disservice to himself and the fine reputation he built over the past few decades. He clearly cares deeply about his alma mater, but perhaps that has made it difficult for him to see some of the issues festering in Los Angeles. His best friend is the one who helps him run the football program, after all.
Haden is an intelligent and savvy person. Maybe he can guide Troy out of this siege and into a new era of prosperity.
But with the latest incident on Sunday adding to the list at a drama-filled program landing right at his feet, it’s time to question whether he should get that chance first.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.