You pays your money, you takes your choice, so the old saying goes.
And as the last week has gone, that’s exactly what has happened here at USC. Two choices – Lynn Swann for director of athletics was Max Nikias’. Then this past Monday, Clay Helton made the call for the quarterback competition to continue into the fall for Max Browne and Sam Darnold.
Both choices have drawn some strong criticism and it’s not a surprise, really. Second-guessing is what sports is all about. And USC’s recent history in both areas make it almost mandatory.
Let’s look at the first one. For the national pundits, this one was shooting fish in a barrel as they mostly followed the take of persistent critic, Yahoo!’s Pat Forde, and his “University of Spoiled Children” label.
San Jose columnist Jon Wilner, who a couple of months back urged USC to go out and get the best AD available anywhere in the nation to succeed the no-experience Pat Haden because the hire would be so important to the Pac-12, was not happy. The hiring of the never-before-an-AD-or-even-an-administrator-or athletic-department-employee Swann was not the way to go.
“Not the slightest bit surprising,” Wilner wrote. “The hire is soooooo typical of the Trojans, who seem convinced it’s 1986 . . . or even 1996 . . . back when the role of an athletic director was to watch football, smile and shake a few hands and watch more football -- back when administrative experience wasn’t crucial and athletic departments weren’t big business (or not as big as they are now).”
Wilner finished with this snark: “At a time of major change in college sports, with the Trojans in dire need of a veteran administrator, with the situation clamoring for an outside-the-family hire and with the conference in need of a first-rate AD at its flagship football school, USC hires Marqise Lee . . . err, Dwayne Jarrett . . . err, Keyshawn Johnson . . . err, Curtis Conway . . . err, Lynn Swann.”
Nothing in Lynn’s “career arc,” Wilner wrote, “makes him qualified to hire coaches, navigate the legislative landscape, work the budget, identify new revenue streams and preside over a rule-abiding department. I mean, plenty of schools use the former-NFL-star-turned-broadcaster-turned-game-show-host-turned-failed-politician model as their AD. Check that: Nobody uses that model. Ever. Except the Trojans.”
Wilner pretty much sums up the critics’ takes. Although he also fails miserably, as many of them do, when he says that Swann must “avoid arrogant stonewalling with NCAA enforcement,” as if that had anything to do with the hit job the dishonorable and bylaw-breaking crew at the Committee on Infractions put on USC. Do your homework, guys. That’s not what it was about and even if he was a Trojan great, Mike Garrett understood what the NCAA’s deal was.
Could Garrett have been more adroit in dealing with what he knew the NCAA was doing? Of course. And that’s the issue here.
Which is why we’re hoping that Lynn’s demonstrated nimbleness on his feet – figuratively here for the guy who took ballet – and his Annenberg School degree in public relations, will help him avoid the early mistakes from which Pat Haden never recovered.
The “winning the right way” comment was a shot at every athlete and coach who had put together something every Trojan should have been – and still should be – tremendously proud of. Never should have been said.
Then there was the “these are honorable people” take on the NCAA crew that was anything but. And now we can document – as two California courts have ruled -- what we knew had to be the case.
All we can hope for here – and we know, hope isn’t a plan – is that a tough-minded, independent Lynn Swann is able to prepare himself by getting outside the bubble of Heritage and Bovard Halls. Talk to people who can tell him chapter and verse the last decade of the USC/NCAA story. Avoid just getting a take from inside the bubble from people whose at times self-serving actions have been proven wrong. Go one one on one with his HH staffers.
But saying that “it all happened before I got here,” as Lynn did last week, isn’t good enough. It pretty much all happened before Pat got here – officially as AD anyway – and that didn’t save him from those early damaging comments.
Nothing but a smart, disciplined, independent effort from Lynn will change these kinds of comments from USA TODAY’s national college football columnist Dan Wolken.
“They don't call it "La La Land" for nothing," Wolken wrote. "The University of Southern California exists in a perpetual state of self-glory, where its euphoria over past athletic accomplishments is viewed as the antecedent of those to come. Nothing outside the USC bubble matters to USC, which is how you end up with Mike Garrett, Pat Haden, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, Clay Helton and now Lynn Swann, who was hired as athletics director Wednesday.
“To be fair, we don't know how Helton will fare as the Trojans' football coach or how effectively Swann can manage this athletics department. Their stories are yet to be told," Wolken continued. "Maybe they'll be great. But USC's sheer predictability is comical. No school lives down to its reputation more aggressively or consistently.”
Now it’s Lynn’s opportunity to live up to his accomplishments in every other area of his life – and get up to speed quickly, and on his own, for those things he admitted last week he didn’t know very much about.
"The only thing probably someone with [athletic director] experience brings coming from the outside is their own experience, maybe, with the NCAA or things of that nature in their conference,” Lynn said. “This conference is different. This staff is different."
Get to know them – all of them -- quickly, Lynn. This staff, and the Pac-12, badly needs new blood and professional leadership.
The next decision came Monday two days after the Spring Game when Clay announced that the quarterback competition would continue. And that’s all it was – a decision to keep competing. Not a thing wrong with that.
The resulting calls that Max should transfer, that somehow this wasn’t fair, seem badly misplaced. Who tells a young man who has worked as hard as Max to become the leader of the Trojans to turn tail and take off at a sign that the competition will continue.
Was Max dissed here? Not even a little bit. Every Clay comment has been about Max's leadership and poise and ability not only to lead his team but how he’s led the competition from Day 1.
So what did Clay really say? He acknowledged to the team just how well Sam had performed in the spring. How much more he managed to do than anyone could have ever imagined. How far he’d come. How well he’d competed. How much an example that should be for everyone, no matter their experience level. You will get a chance to show what you can do – if you can do what Sam is doing.
And now it continues. Max is a Trojan. He’s planned things out meticulously. Gotten his degree in 3 ½ years, gotten into the Marshall School’s new online MBA program allowing him to focus on football the next two years.
And yet people are advising him to take off for a program somewhere, a program less likely to compete for national honors, where he wouldn’t have had a single practice before the three weeks next fall in an uncertain move that would signal he can’t handle competition. Yeah, that’s a good idea. Leave the place where you’re No. 1 and where you’ll almost certainly get to show what you can do against the best competition anyone in recent years has ever faced
Max knows he’s the leader of this team. And we can’t imagine he doesn’t trust his quarterbacks coach for his entire career up to this spring, now his head coach, to be fair and straight with him.
He also knows that keeping the competition going will probably be the best thing for him, as well as this team.
So yes, good call by Clay. And bad call by those who say it’s a signal for Max to go. There’s not a single way that makes sense.
You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.