The Friday before the Super Bowl is always a perfect day to release some news that might garner a mixed reaction, and there were several organizations that did just that in order to fly under the radar.
One of the more interesting bits of information that surfaced on Feb. 5 was USC's announcement that athletic director Pat Haden would be stepping down from his current role at the end of June in order to focus on the burgeoning renovation project of the Trojans' historic home at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
It was a move many observers of the school expected at some point in the near future (Haden is 63 and battling health issues), but it nevertheless failed to register among some—because of the timing—just what a big moment this was for the school.
"It has been a tremendous honor serving my alma mater, a school I love so much, as well as serving Max Nikias, our coaches and staff and, most importantly, our student-athletes," Haden said in a statement. "I am proud of what has been accomplished here the past six years and knowing that USC Athletics is on an upward trajectory. I look forward to finishing out this academic year as athletic director and then spending time on the Coliseum project."
Yes, Haden has seen his fair share of tough press over his handling of recent matters regarding the football team, but he is still a respected member of the Trojan family who did plenty to leave his school in better shape than he found it upon taking over in 2010. His departure also signals a major opportunity for the school to hire a top-notch candidate to fill one of the more attractive jobs in college athletics.
After all, one does get to live in Los Angeles, get paid handsomely (USAToday believes Haden was the highest-paid AD in the country) and run a department that finds success in just about every Olympic sport in addition to fielding top-25 teams in revenue sports such as football and basketball.
The question is, especially at this critical time in the school’s history: Where does USC go from here? Can it lure a savvy outsider to come in and provide stability, or do power brokers in LA even want somebody from the outside? According to David Wharton of the Los Angeles Times, all but one of the school's seven athletic directors since 1926 had some previous connection to the Trojans.
Hiring an insider is not necessarily a bad thing, as the recent praise being heaped on Michigan for hiring former football player Warde Manuel can attest to. Still, USC has proved to be quite insular in its decision-making the past few years, which has resulted in some issues that were likely preventable.
Complicating things might be strong-minded school president Max Nikias, who resisted plenty of alumni pressure to clean house last year when the football team was swept up in controversy and Clay Helton was eventually tapped to be the full-time head coach over the objections of many.
Interestingly, the school has retained a search firm to find its next athletic director, but it has virtually zero experience in finding candidates in the athletics realm and is typically unitized for dean and CEO searches.
With all that in mind, here are a few candidates USC is likely to consider as the Trojans try to find the perfect person to replace Haden.
The insiders: Steve Lopes, John "J.K." McKay
Lopes has been a member of the Trojans athletic department since the mid-1980s and is one of the longest-serving administrators in Heritage Hall. He’s been a senior associate athletic director since 2002 as the right hand of both Mike Garrett and Pat Haden and is currently the COO and CFO of the athletic department.
He is likely to be the top candidate if USC chooses to go with an internal hire and very likely will be named the interim AD if a full-time replacement hasn’t been selected by June.
For Lopes, who is well-respected among boosters and department officials alike, his biggest advantage—being at the school for so long—may also be one of the things that will work against him. He has not been an athletic director elsewhere at a major school and may be guilty by association for simply being around during some turbulent times.
The other internal candidate likewise has to combat the fact that he’s been around for some messy issues. McKay is a Trojan through thick and thin however, and no doubt would draw on his connections to the program as a selling point.
The son of national title-winning USC head coach John McKay, J.K. is very accomplished in his own right. He was a star receiver for two national championship teams at the school in the 1970s, played briefly in the NFL and later became an accomplished lawyer for several firms in Southern California.
McKay was brought on board at Heritage Hall when Haden came aboard and currently serves as the senior associate athletic director for football. While he no doubt has the credentials and reputation to become the school’s next athletic director, the fact that he’s been the person directly responsible for overseeing four head coaches during his six years on campus is a big hill to climb. His age (he'll be 63 next month) doesn’t help, either.
The insider with outside experience: Mark Jackson
Timing is everything in the world of athletics, and one wonders if Jackson is kicking himself just a bit for leaving last August to become the athletic director of Villanova. A former senior associate athletic director at USC, he was a big factor in building one of the best football operations buildings in the country in the John McKay Center and was instrumental in pushing through the stunning renovation of venerable Heritage Hall.
Long considered an up-and-comer in the world of athletics, Jackson would likely have been named Haden’s replacement almost immediately had he remained in Los Angeles and would have been the welcome choice for many boosters and administrators. He will likely still be a top-tier candidate for the USC job, but it remains to be seen if he’d leave Philadelphia so soon after getting his first AD job, especially with the Wildcats sitting pretty at No. 1 in the men’s basketball top 25.
The sitting ADs: Chris Del Conte, Greg Byrne, Jim Phillips, John Currie
If USC is looking to land the best candidate for its opening, it would be wise to put in a call to this group and not take no for an answer.
Del Conte should likely top the list, as he’d bring the personality needed for the job to glad-hand boosters and deal with the L.A. media while also bringing an impressive administrative record to the table. USC is one of the few jobs he’d likely leave Fort Worth for, and he has numerous connections to the state of California that could help lure him west.
He checks off all the boxes when it comes to experience, and the fact that he helped deliver on major football and basketball stadium renovations has to be a big plus for a school looking to update the Coliseum.
Byrne is familiar to USC fans from his time running Arizona’s athletic department and has about as good a resume as they come in college sports. He has a phenomenal track record when it comes to hiring coaches, and his creativity in dealing with administrative matters would serve him well at a place like USC. He’s still among the younger ADs in the country, which could be very attractive for the Trojans in charge, given how they are hoping for some long-term stability with this hire.
As for Phillips and Currie, both seem like more long shots, but a premiere athletic department like USC should likely put in a call anyway. Phillips’ next move is probably to either Notre Dame or to replace Jim Delany as Big Ten commissioner, but it’s possible that Currie would listen to a big step up from Kansas State and a chance to be even more of a player on the national stage.
The executive suite: Dan Bane, Rich McKay
It’s been a recent trend of late for schools to look outside college athletics and pick somebody with a more business-oriented approach to run their athletic departments. This has backfired tremendously at places like Michigan and Texas lately, but it’s possible that is still a direction USC could go, especially when factoring in its search firm’s lack of athletics placement experience.
That could open the door for USC to lure somebody like Dan Bane to the job, the current CEO of Trader Joe’s and a former baseball player at the school under legendary coach Rod Dedeaux. It seems like a long stretch that Nikias could convince him to give up such a high-profile job (Bane is also relatively press-shy and even older than Haden), but finding a successful businessman like that with ties to the school wouldn’t be a stretch by any imagination.
Also a possibility? Atlanta Falcons CEO Rich McKay, the brother of J.K. and son of famed head coach John. He’s both younger than his brother and, perhaps more importantly, has enough ties to the school without really at risk of being labeled as a big-time insider. He’s had success on the field as general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they won the Super Bowl, and his involvement in building a new stadium in Atlanta is also a big plus.
Either way, the search for the Trojans' next athletic director will be fascinating and capable of taking many twists and turns as the school looks to replace Pat Haden. As one of just three athletic departments in the country with over 100 NCAA titles and a very prestigious football brand, it’s a marquee job in college athletics that pays handsomely.
While it is an attractive opening for somebody, figuring just who that is appears to be a big challenge for those in charge at USC.
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Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.