USA Today Sports

Lynn Swann: the man with the sword at USC

Lynn Swann is in a different place from where he was nearly 47 years ago when he arrived at USC and he's calling on many of the life experiences that have returned him to USC -- and Southern California. And yet . . .

It was something that just caught him, Lynn Swann says, when every day after football practice, he'd walk by the Trojan Marching Band as it geared up for practice under another USC newcomer, Dr. Art Bartner, who had arrived in 1970, the same year Lynn came to campus.

Finally he said it as Bartner was leading "Fight On" in practice.

"I can do that," the brash young Trojan said.

And so he did. During USC's 1972 national championship season, Lynn became the first Trojan football player to grab that silver sword and ascend Art's ladder to conduct the USC marching band after a victory.

And now as a gift from Bartner to USC's new athletic director, there it is, the shining silver sword, with "Lynn Swann, USC Class of 1974" engraved on the blade. And in an office with boxes of folders piled up on his big meeting table, Lynn takes a visitor around them to show it to him in its official carrying case.

Not that it's going to be there for long. The sword is going up on Lynn's wall that features a basketball backboard-size photo of athletes from each of USC's 21 sports teams looking right at him. It's there for him to point to when he talks about exactly what it is he's doing and why he's doing it.

Next to it, even larger on a plexiglass board are the numbers for the USC student body -- 54,282 is the first of them, 3,068 the second one. "Those are the numbers of the applicants to USC's freshman class," Lynn says, "and the number of those admitted."

For athletes, just as for the rest of the USC student body, getting in to USC is a very big deal, Lynn says. "We're about competing, and winning," just the way he was, we'll add. But getting in and getting that degree is just as big a deal. And his wall makes that clear.

For the College Football Hall of Famer, NFL Hall of Famer, Super Bowl MVP, national champion in college and Super Bowl champ in the NFL and then a big-time TV broadcaster, member of the board of some of the most prestigious corporations in America and Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, Lynn Swann is back home. And looking comfortable as a first-time athletic director at the highest level of college sports.

Ever since he bought his first place in Marina Del Rey a few years out of USC and then his home in Pittsburgh, he's had a life where he thinks of himself as "a California/Pennsylvanian or a Pittsburgh/California guy" he says and one who after seven months is "still looking for a house."

But in his jeans, boots and lightweight SC windbreaker, he looks like he's never left SoCal. He also looks like he doesn't miss out on those early morning workouts after beating the traffic driving in at 5:30 or 6 every day. But those early morning workouts are for more than staying in shape, Lynn says.

"They let me keep in touch with the athletes, the coaches, the staff people," Lynn says. No better time than this to stay close to what's happening, learn what people are feeling and doing as he transitions from Pittsburgh. Older son Shafer is at West Point. Younger son Braxton is a freshman at USC. His wife, Charena, with her Ph.D. in psychology, is transitioning with all the licensing and work that requires moving from state to state.

Lynn considers it a blessing to have been part of the Steelers dynasty and having gotten to live in a community on its way back although he maybe didn't realize it at the time.

"We'd just won a national title at USC and then we won a Super Bowl the first year in Pittsburgh," he says. "I just thought that was the way it was supposed to be." And then he saw how those fans, starved for 40 years without a title, reacted when the Steelers reached the Pittsburgh airport.

"I love the people of Pittsburgh," Lynn says. And he loves being part of an organization that the Rooney family made work and watching how they did it. "An iconic brand," he says, "Just three coaches since the 1960's." 

Which is probably a good jumping-off point to turn the conversation to his USC job. At the end of September of his first season back, with his coach, Clay Helton, off to a 1-3 start in his own inaugural season, was Lynn "doing his due diligence," he's asked, and figuring out what to do if things didn't get better.

He just laughs at the thought. "No, no, look, everybody knows that Clay wasn't hired by me, that he was hired by [AD] Pat [Haden] and [Pres.] Max [Nikias] . . . but football reports to me, not some assistant," Lynn says. With their regular Monday meetings, Lynn was in the loop all the way through and his own football background helped him understand exactly what Clay was trying to do.

The Alabama game came too soon, Lynn says. "We played a bad game at Stanford . . . and a good game at Utah," although losing thanks to turnovers. And then the rest of the way, it was as Clay said.

And yes, there was "luck" involved, Lynn says. But that's not a knock. "You have to have some luck. Look at our basketball team, the only team [in the Pac-12 and in the nation] to have to play the No. 4, 5 and 6 teams in the country -- twice," he says making his point. Bad luck for basketball.

"We don't waste a lot of time," Lynn says of the Monday conversations with Clay. "He's not having to educate me about the game or what they're trying to do."

But like everyone in college football these days -- with LSU paying two assistants a total of $3.3 million a year and Michigan, with a $10-million-a-year head coach also paying three assistants $1 million-a-year each -- every day brings new revelations. Like when USC lost Tommie Robinson to LSU when the running backs coach had his salary raised by some $250,000-plus with a couple of new titles.

Does a USC program that once had Pete Carroll as the nation's highest-paid coach and Monte Kiffin its highest-paid assistant still have the wherewithal to compete at the very top level where Lynn makes clear he expects USC to be when it comes to national titles?

"I have a fiduciary duty," he says. It's a word he uses twice sounding like a guy who paid attention to his corporate board duties. "It's always an individual decision. And we're not going to take our lead from somebody else," he says. "I believe in taking care of people and we have a staff of 250 and they don't work regular hours."

But then there's this. "We want other programs to come after our coaches" if they perform the way this year's staff did. That's how it works for successful programs. And then you have to go out and find a Deland McCullough at Indiana to come on board. Our comment, not Lynn's.

USC may not quite be able to match the gigantic "land-grant colleges" in every area, Lynn says, but USC has a great deal going for it. It does not, however, have the kind of TV deal, or network, that the land-grant schools in the Big Ten or the SEC do these days.

So what about that limitation for a USC that in the last eight years of the Pac-12 TV deal can expect as much as $200 million less from its conference TV revenues than say, an Illinois or Rutgers can expect from the Big Ten?

"The dollars are not quite what we're looking for," Lynn says of the Pac-12's $25 million-per-school payout with a little more than $1 million of that from the league's network where the promises "haven't come to fruition," he says. "Time will tell."

And yes, Lynn does seem to agree that with his TV experience, no one in the Pac-12 might have more TV contacts and insights into what has to happen here than the USC athletic director. When we suggest something along those lines, he doesn't say no. But when we suggest he grab that sword and start leading the way for the league to find its way out of the TV wilderness, he laughs at the thought of it.

"I've only been here seven months," he says. Not sure anyone in the league will follow the new guy, not yet. Too soon. Although like so many here, Lynn can't quite understand how the Pac-12 could have turned its back on Los Angeles, the telecommunications center of the world, and locate its TV networks in the high-priced real estate of San Francisco, a place not nearly so full of talent as LA. Again, our comment not Lynn's.

And yes, when it comes to the evolution to a world of four 16-team super-conferences that most observers see as the near certain future for the power programs in college football, Lynn agrees to part of what he sees as the kinds of changes to come.

"Every school is going to have to take a look at it," he says, "and do what's best for them."

And right along with TV, "everything keeps changing," Lynn says as he recalls the bulky tape reels some of his early broadcasts are preserved on compared to the small discs of today.

A couple of quick hits before we get to Lynn's final take on the Coliseum. No, he says, there will be no new sports the next 18 months. Sorry softball and gymnastics.

And no, he doesn't think having two NFL teams in town all of a sudden will change USC football much. "Maybe in some areas but we have a loyal fan base, a loyal following, two different groups of people. I think we'll be all right."

As to the Coliseum plan that will take out 9,500 seats for a Scholarship Tower accommodating less than 2,200 extending from one 10-yard-line to the other and filling the top half of the press box side, Lynn admits that "Yes, there is going to be pain."

Some of those people are going to lose seats they've had for 40 years. And the Coliseum itself is going to lose some 13,000 seats down to a capacity of 77,500.

"But this will be a safer place for all of our fans," Lynn says of the wider aisles, the handrails, all the improvements that are coming.

But how tough will that be to sell after a season that could, with USC projected as high as No. 2 in the nation entering the year and led by Heisman-favorite Sam Darnold, possibly produce a home-average Coliseum crowd of 10,000 more than what its new capacity will be with potential sellouts against Stanford, Texas, Utah and UCLA?

"I don't see that as a negative at all," Lynn says. He'll take the big crowds for a year or two and then a newly refurbished stadium with all new seats for starters, noting how the USC fan base is getting older -- and wider. "This is a long-term plan," he says. It's not about the next couple of years. The Coliseum needs refurbishing badly after being neglected for so long. There is no choice.

As to whether the new plan is locked into place, Lynn says that with "all the stakeholders signing off on it," it looks like that's the case. From those at USC who came up with this design on a budget of $270 million, to the architects who stuck to that limit to the historical commission people who had to pass on it and apparently have more say about this than at any other stadium re-do ever, the plan is in place. This is what you can do with $270 million the architects told us. And this is what USC is going to do.

But what if, we asked Lynn, now that the Campaign for USC has been extended for three more years and upped by an additional $3 billion to $9 billion, somehow the Coliseum could raise, or receive, another $130 million or so? What then?

Would there be a chance to re-work the luxury boxes and suites and new press box into a design that wouldn't destroy those 9,500 seats and turn one-half of a side of the Coliseum into a solid, silent glass wall and cut the potential crowd capacity so drastically?

"There are a lot of people who have their fingerprints on this," Lynn says.

But while all this was decided on before USC decided on Lynn as AD, those are Lynn's finger prints on the sword.

Is this the time for him to swing it?

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

Sign up for!
Why join?

Not a subscriber? Sign up now to get all the great information in the War Room, access to the Peristyle and all of the premium stories on! Click here to subscribe! Top Stories