5 Burning Questions: What Does USC Need in an AD?
A free-flowing weekly conversation on USC football with Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth that includes an examination of the university's AD search, where Clay Helton stands, and a prediction for USC-Arizona.
Adam Maya (1): USC is in full athletic director search mode, obviously. What are some important qualities for that role at USC?
Yogi Roth: I think a big thing, especially now -- if you think about athletic directorships, there was a world where it was, generally speaking, really talented former athletes who went into administration. Then it went to a world where I was like business people, CEOs. We've seen that. And I think it’s trending back toward people who have expertise in athletic departments. Because they are legitimate businesses, but their specialties. If you run a hedge fund or an impressive corporation and drop into athletics, organizational wise, you would be great, as a leader, you'll be great. But knowing the landscape, you won't. Just based on what the landscape is now. You have to know media rights, you have to know or somewhat be able to talk mental health and the things that student athletes go through, let alone what we're in the middle of, which will potentially be legislation specific, in California, and I would imagine everywhere else around name, image and likeness. So I think there's a ton that goes into that. So where do I net out? I net out that you have to have experience in running an athletic department, and being in that world, whether it's big media, big money, big performances, big expectations and big recruits. Because with everything that's big, you have to understand the lows. The lows of what a student athlete will go through, the lows of if you have to eliminate sport or scholarships. There's all these conversations that are going to be ongoing, and it's not like in two years, three years, when that bill would go into effect, you got to be way ahead of it. It's not like you can just figure it out when it goes into action. It's like media rights, like Pac-12 Networks. Our rights are up in a couple years. We’ve been planning for that starting a year ago. So to me, it's somebody who has vision and who really has an understanding of the landscape of college athletics. Clearly at USC, when hasn't happened, I think when Pat Haden got there initially, that was good in terms of the program needed a figurehead and needed somebody that can communicate and kind of right a ship, at least perceptually. But when you get into the weeds, you got to be able to deal with softball, track and field, soccer, lacrosse, ice hockey at certain schools. It's just more than football and basketball.
Maya: You worked at USC, so I didn't know if there were any things that you felt were specific to the school?
Roth: In L.A., it’s just so different. I went to Pitt, but I don't live in Pittsburgh, and a lot of people probably don't live in Pittsburgh anymore. But in Los Angeles, if you go to ‘SC, the number is dramatically higher of ‘SC graduates local than departing the community of Southern California. So you gotta be able to communicate with not just the high rollers and the big donors, but a lot of people probably in the middle-tier level. Whether those are people that are just renewing season tickets, let alone donating six, seven figures for different elements on campus. So I think there's a part of that gig that you have to be personable. To bring in the person that's like you're mad scientist, offensive coordinator mind, we've seen coaches like that, that's not gonna work. This person has to have a personality, has to be able to communicate, has to be out front, has to do interviews on television networks, all the things that I believe go with being an athletic director at USC.
Maya (2): So the opposite of Lynn Swann. Some of the prospective candidates I’ve been told are Villanova’s Mark Jackson, Washington State’s Pat Chun, and even former Florida AD Jeremy Foley. I know you might be a little bit more familiar with Jackson and Chun. Do you have any thoughts on those particular candidates?
Roth: Yeah. I don't know what's real or what's not, but speaking about Pat, Pat’s a big-time thinker. He's been around collegiate athletics, in big institutions, obviously at Ohio State, let alone Washington State. And then his stop (at Florida Atlantic) as an athletic director prior to Wazzu was great for him, in terms of policy and the small side of it, in terms of the budgets and operating, something not nearly like he did at Ohio State. And then you look at what he's done at Washington State and what he walked into there. He walked into a lot from coaches, to some teams underperforming, to the tragic suicide of Tyler Hilinski. There was a lot going on within his first few months on campus.
I think when you come into ‘SC, it won't be, I pray to God it wouldn’t be like what he dealt with at Washington State, from a mental health standpoint and from losing Tyler. You hate to see that, but he is gonna have to deal with a lot on his plate, just based on being in L.A., the athletic department, the expectations, the pressures to win in the two major revenue-driving sports, let alone the other ones. He’s proven he can handle it, I guess is my point, and I'm a huge fan of him, in terms of all the things that I think you need, he's done them -- fundraising, etc.
Mark is perfectly positioned for this. If you took away potentially a fundamental public thought, which is we want to get away from the Pete Carroll tree, which I understand it. I think that it's super general and not really real when it comes to this. I'm not surprised that he's on or at the very top of their list. He understands the culture, understands the people, understands the major players, understands how to communicate to everybody from the 6-year-old first time fan at a women's soccer game, to the big-time donor at the 50th football game. He can do that and everything in between. He understands that and media rights because he had to negotiate them when he became the athletic director of Villanova. And he clearly understands the landscape of Southern California and what USC is all about. To me, it's a no-brainer. When you look at him, as well as coming from a private institution with a big-time sport, which is obviously Villanova basketball. I've known Mark since I was 19 years old, and I couldn't say anything higher about anyone on the planet than Mark Jackson.
Maya (3): So I’ve gotten the hunch, I feel like the decision has already been made about Clay Helton from the administration. I thought the interview with the L.A. Times was pretty telling, they’re going to let him finish the season. But I don't believe they would keep him. Do you think there’s still a path for him to retain his job?
Roth: Yeah, 1,000 percent there’s a path for him to keep his job. I think in every argument that I see online, there's validity to it and then dramatic holes to be punched in it. To show his record with Sam Darnold and without it, it’s factual. And also, at times irresponsible when you don't show the record with three quarterbacks this year. I just think context with Clay, at times it fits and at times it's dramatically inappropriate. In the world we live in, it doesn't really matter when it's inappropriate because it gets run with. Regarding what the school has (decided), I can't cosign on that because we don't know anything. Do I think there's a world where keeps a job? Yeah. This is a defense whose ceiling clearly really high and really young. This is an offense that, all things considered, you got to give it a positive grade on the season. When you go to just the quarterbacks, it's not like guys haven't played well and the ceiling isn't high. The cupboard is not going to be bare. It's not one of those situations. Most importantly, you saw it last week on the road, last year, this team doesn't make it as close of a game as t becomes. Next year, they're going to be the favorite to win the Pac-12.
Roth: How aren’t they, right? Maybe it's Washington based on what Jacob Eason does.
Roth: That’s going to be their reality. So I think that's going to be the question, that's going to be the gamble. And we've seen this before in college football. We've seen it with Brian Kelly at Notre Dame. We've seen it with other coaches around the country at different times in college football, where you say, OK, do we do you want to restart this thing? This team is going to be its best next year. I think we would all agree with that, whether you want Clay Helton to be your coach or not. That's what I see when I watch them, this is going to be a really good team next year.
Maya: I absolutely think so, yes.
Roth: If they went out and go to the Pac-12 title, they have a bye the last week of the season. How could you even do that (dismiss Helton), prepping for a potential Rose Bowl berth? So I think there's a world that exists where Clay is the head coach next year. And personally, I support that world, as of what I've seen through the first half of the season.
Maya: So then what exactly do you think it would require in terms of wins and losses?
Roth: I think that’s too general of a question. If they lose on a trick play, like with Arizona State years ago with Jaelen Strong, what do you do? I just don't think to say they have to win every game, games are going to go different ways; I thik you have to evaluate them. That's why I hope whoever the AD is, and I expect whoever the AD is, they would understand. They're not just going to say, Well, he went this and this. That’s just super general, in my opinion. I call that playing in the sandbox. I’m not trying to defend him. I'm just trying to defend the integrity of the craft, which nobody gives a rip about when you're just throwing out half of an argument, which is the Sam Darnold argument.
Maya: I'm asking that question because I think the fact that they went 5-7 last year, and there's no sugarcoating that, they didn’t even make a bowl game, I think there's probably a hard line applied to his record this year.
Roth: Well, yeah, they can't go 5-7.
Maya: Obviously. But now they’re 3-3, and again, this is only my feeling here, they don't even have an athletic director, so there's nobody firing him right now. But they probably needed to win about 10 games, and now being 3-3 I'm assuming that they've already been working on hiring his successor and are not considering bringing him back.
Roth: I don’t think that's accurate. How can they work on finding his successor when they don't even have anybody to find the successor, let alone the philosophy they want behind that successor? Do I think the high rollers at USC people who supposedly have a large voice are discussing their opinions on Clay Helton? Of course. They’d be doing that if they were undefeated or if they were losing games. But to think that anybody's having discussions around the replacements, I think that's premature. Now, every AD in the world who's talented has a list of top coaches, top coordinators top position coaches. I've seen those lists before. Whoever comes in has a plan, but they also have a perception. For us to assume that perception, I think is irresponsible to anything that we've been told. Dave Roberts, he's not gonna do it. So why would I think that somebody’s doing it when he told us the exact opposite.
Maya: Somebody else. I don’t think he’s in power to do anything.
Roth: I don’t think anybody’s in power to do anything other than the president, who said she’s not going to do it and the AD is going to do it. And he hasn’t been hired. I just think it’s moot.
Maya (4): Let’s talk some football. In both the BYU and Notre Dame games, we saw Markese Stepp run at a high efficiency but with a modest workload -- nine carries at BYU, 10 at Notre Dame. Given how effective he was, had he been used more in those games, something between 15-20 carries, do you think USC wins those games, both of which USC lost by three points?
Roth: I don't know. I think you can say that about a lot of stuff when you watch it back. I saw what Clay said after the game and he's right, he did get an increased role. I think it's hard. No coach in the history of planet Earth says, Let's not play somebody who's going to help us win. Every coach in the country says, I'm going to play who I trust. So whether that's in pass protection, or certain run schemes, Graham Harrell’s not saying, or Mike Jinks isn't saying, let’s not put in the best guy per play.
So I think whenever that gets brought up, should he have gotten more, I think at times it’s really valid but most the time it's not. Because the coach is saying, this is what we’ve seen and how we’ve prepared. Some guys are gamers, but that's also the quickest way to have a turnover, the quickest way to have somebody miss a pass pro and get your quarterback hit in the head. I think it’s really too simple to say that now, give the big guy the ball, maybe the game changes. I kind of trust what the staff puts out there because they see it more than we do.
Maya (5): OK. Finally, a prediction, USC-Arizona. How do you see this game going and what score are you expecting?
Roth: It’s a great game. I wish I was calling it up until the game that we got, which is Utah-ASU. I wanted this game two years ago. I remember watching the second half. I was sitting with my now wife in Venice Beach, and I was like, this is gonna be awesome. Khalil (Tate) went off in the second half. He hasn't been able to play against UCLA the last two years, so now he gets to play against his hometown team, one of the two. So I think you’re going to get his best. I think you’re going to get that team's best. All the kids that are from Southern California, which pretty much happens every week, but very rarely do you see a guy like Khalil. So I think this is going to be an awesome game.
I think it's gonna come down to the end. But I think ‘SC and this team, they're more equipped to win. They're a more complete team. And I think at this stage in their season, the things that they feel, I think they’ll play their best with their backs against the wall. That's what I expect to see. I expect to see their best game. I still think it'll come down to the end, just based on EA (Palaie Gaoteote) not playing. For the first time, Kana’i Mauga is going to see Khalil Tate on the zone read in an RPO. That’s different than anybody, whoever’s playing service team for them this week. So it’s going to be a challenge. They’ll make their plays, and I think ‘SC wins this one. If I had to give it a score, I’d say 44-34.
Maya: Yeah, a shootout. I think there’ll be a lot of points, and USC wins.
-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.
-- Roth is a Pac-12 Networks college football analyst, award-winning filmmaker, scholar, New York Times best-selling author, coach, motivational speaker and world-traveler. Be sure to check out all his latest work.