One hit, one miss.
And if USC fans had to have a hit Tuesday getting into Notre Dame week, this would be the way it should go: With interim coach Clay Helton sounding strong and solid and exactly like the coach the Trojans need to take them into South Bend Saturday (4:30 p.m., NBC) after Steve Sarkisian's Sunday no-show and Monday firing..
Athletics director Pat Haden, on the other hand, did not -- sound solid or strong, even with the strongest of endorsements from University president, Max Nikias, issued just before the press conference saying Haden "has been doing an outstanding job" and he has "my unwavering support . . . and I look to working with Pat as our AD for many years to come."
Still, Haden sounded a bit besieged as he followed Helton at the packed press conference at the McKay Center with a endorsement of his leadership and a defense of his handling of the Sarkisian hiring -- and firing.
But then he admitted that "At the time of Steve's hire, I firmly believed he was the right choice and fit for USC . . . the decision didn't work out, and I own that."
But Haden was Tuesday's second act. A confident Helton went on first and fired up a media crowd not often impressed in such moments. He talked about how he's done this before and knows how to do it -- and as a two-time interim coach at USC, there's no arguing that.
He talked of the way he "was humbled" by the players greeting his naming Sunday with an ovation he'll "never forget as long as I live." Said his team has "an unbelievable opportunity Saturday" as part of "the greatest college football rivalry anywhere" against archrival Notre Dame.
And of how he's "confident in my ability to do it," thanks to a "tremendous staff" and his players. "They are a good football team" he said, "good men, good players. We will compete every day like Trojans."
Said "what an unbelievable opportunity" it is to be part of a rivalry with two teams that each have "11 national championships and seven Heisman Trophies," which interestingly still counts Reggie Bush's.
Talked about "Competition Tuesday." Been a long time since we heard that. Talked of "the Trojan family" on the day, literally, Trojan family members were allowed back in at practice after having been banned by Sark.
Talked of how he "learned a great deal from Coach O [Ed Orgeron] and how you bring people together" when Ed took over two years ago under similar circumstances after Lane Kiffin's midseason firing. And how "it's not all Xs and O's," it's about putting your arm around someone or having the team together for a family dinner, which USC was scheduled to do Tuesday evening.
Said that since "I can't do it all," he's asked "Coach Tui [Marques Tuiasosopo], one of the greatest quarterbacks ever in this conference" to take over the QB coaching duties. And longtime staffer Lenny Vandermade, "a true Trojan," will step up and become the tight ends coach replacing Tuiasosopo with Clay retaining the offensive coordinator's role.
Went down the injury list, noting that All-American center Max Tuerk is out for the season with impending ACL surgery. Said that senior D-lineman Claude Pelon will almost certainly be out this week with wide receiver Steven Mitchell doubtful after not practicing Tuesday. Both Iman Marshall and Darreus Rogers practiced well and should be ready to go.
And then came Haden, having to follow Helton's strong performance, which he could have done if he'd stood on his "interim" coaching picks, Orgeron and Helton. Between them they were 7-2 with a severely limited team in terms of scholarship numbers in 2013 when they became the only USC team to win six straight Pac-12 games in the last seven years.
But he was forced to talk about the Sarkisian situation. "I was able to gather facts and determine that Steve's conduct did not meet USC standards and expectations of a head coach," he said of his decision to fire Sarkisian 24 hours after finding out about his Sunday failure to show. "He knew those expectations and failed to meet them, so we made a decision in the best interest of our student-athletes, and that was to terminate Steve."
But that wasn't the end of it. Haden also had to defend his choice to allow Sarkisian to return to his coaching job after the Aug. 22 Salute To Troy alcohol-fueled embarrassing performance saying he "deserved a second chance."
"I felt at that time, it was in the best interests of our players, who had been through an incredible amount of adversity during the sanctions and the coaching changes they had gone through, and to Steve, not to suspend or fire him . . . Based on the input of trusted medical professionals and staff, it was determined he could continue coaching while seeking treatment. I felt a great deal of compassion for Steve Sarkisian."
And then seven weeks later, he was forced to fire him.
But that isn't the extent of his five years as AD, said Haden, who also had to fire his previous football coach and Sark's good friend, Kiffin, on the tarmac at LAX in the middle of the night just over two years ago.
"I know a lot of good things have happened here," Haden said, citing in order how: 1) USC had navigated severe NCAA sanctions; 2) Only two Pac-12 schools have won more football games over that time; 3) USC has won 10 NCAA championships the last five years, with only Florida winning more; 4) that athletics has had the all-time best GPA in USC history and 5) there has been record-breaking fund-raising of $300 million the past five years, although that seems to be the number USC has been citing for years now and without any major gifts announced in a long while.
Asked how he could not have known, with the revelations in the LA Times of Sark's issues with alcohol when he was at Washington, Haden said "a lot of people use alcohol." Indeed.
And he pushed back on the notion that Sark wasn't vetted. "It is accurate . . . he was vetted . . . you may not agree . . . ." And then he seemed to point a figure at Korn-Ferry without naming the headhunting firm that vetted Sarkisian.
Haden said that "Twenty college football coaches will be fired this year," and how "this is an inexact science, hiring a high-profile football coach . . . a lot of people get it wrong," including himself, Haden said.CHECK THIS OUT: For Tuesday's practice report, check out TUESDAY ND WEEK GHOST NOTES.
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