If you're a USC coach coming off a road trip in the middle of a tough season, you really don't want to hear from Pat Haden. Especially early in the morning.
Ask Kevin O'Neill. And now Lane Kiffin.
The USC athletic director has abruptly fired his two most high-profile coaches during the year. He whacked basketball coach O'Neill last January at 8 a.m. the Monday after a Trojans road trip to Colorado and Utah. And he trap-doored Kiffin before dawn Sunday at LAX when USC returned from its latest football humiliation, a 62-41 loss to Arizona State.
A Rhodes Scholar, golden-boy quarterback and longtime broadcaster, the 60-year-old Haden has always had a classy aura. But there clearly is a cold-blooded side to the man as well. As much as Kiffin richly deserved to be fired, this was a Steinbrenner-esque takedown in its bluntness.
[Related: Arizona State hangs 62 on USC in Kiffin's final game | Kiffin can't hide reaction]
Coaches never like to be fired, but in-season terminations can be taken especially badly. Prospective successors to Kiffin should enter talks with Haden with their eyes wide open – that could be you getting the next mid-year ziggy at Troy if it goes bad.
Haden could have handled both firings better by dealing with them sooner.
He held onto O'Neill after a 6-26 season in 2011-12, including a 1-17 record in Pac-12 play. Haden should have terminated him then, in March of 2012, and given the 2012-13 Trojans a better chance at succeeding.
And Kiffin should have been gone after last year's debacle. USC began 2012 ranked No. 1 and ended it 7-6, losing handily to a bad Georgia Tech team in the Sun Bowl.
It was among the biggest flops in recent college football history. And when it ended with the Trojans' fifth loss in their final six games, it seemed a pretty clear sign that the team was not buying in to the snake oil Kiffin tried selling them.
Even though Haden inherited Kiffin from previous athletic director Mike Garrett – Kiffin was mysteriously hired by two of the great crackpots of our time in Garrett and latter-years Al Davis – he was in no hurry to replace him. In hanging on to Kiffin, Haden put himself in the now-awkward position of having to explain why his declaration of "100-percent" support for the coach in late July could turn into "you're fired" two months later.
But they're pretty accustomed to awkward these days at USC. Haden had to deal with a lot of low-class tomfoolery from Kiffin in 2012, from petty warfare with the media to a manager underinflating footballs in last year's Oregon game. That stuff made Haden's tolerance of an underachieving, overly irritating coach for one more year all the more perplexing.
Then he pulled the plug after one-third of this season.
[Rivals.com: Check out USCFootball.com for more team coverage]
Now comes Haden's biggest task as an AD: finding the next great USC football coach. It's a lot easier than, say, finding the next great coach at San Jose State – but it's not without risk.
Over the last 60 years, USC's football team has had three hugely successful coaches (John McKay, John Robinson Part I, Pete Carroll) and five guys it had to fire (Ted Tollner, Larry Smith, John Robinson Part II, Paul Hackett, Kiffin). Despite the school's gilded tradition, access to talent and recent facility upgrades, success clearly is not automatic.
So Haden must choose wisely and without an obvious choice waiting in the wings. Some possibilities for him to consider, and some impossibilities:
Every AD with a good job to offer out West should make the first call to Chris Petersen at Boise State. He's turned down everything for years now, and he'd likely turn down USC, too – it doesn't fit his personality. But make him say no, and then move on down the list.
Kevin Sumlin probably wouldn't leave Texas A&M for USC – if he's going anywhere, the next stop could be the NFL. Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern would be worth the inquiry. So would Al Golden at Miami. James Franklin of Vanderbilt has the charisma to crush it in recruiting, but the rape charges that have ensnared several of his players at Vandy are a major concern.
[Dr. Saturday: USC fires Lane Kiffin]
Haden is very close to the McKay family, and that includes Rich, the Atlanta Falcons president who was there when Bobby Petrino ran out on them. If Haden seeks the McKays' counsel, you can cross Petrino off the list right now.
Charlie Strong of Louisville is a non-starter. He does his recruiting in the South and does it quite well. If Strong ever moves on, the SEC or a Miami/Florida State/Clemson gig would seem the only logical landing spots.
If USC ties are important – and without them, Haden sure wouldn't be the AD – there are options to consider.
Jeff Fisher is not exactly having the time of his life with the St. Louis Rams right now – but he's also an NFL lifer who has never recruited in his life. Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was fired in Jacksonville, but did have some success with a sinkhole of a franchise. Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who was an assistant at USC during John Robinson 2.0, seems very comfortable in Corvallis – but you never know.
There will be some clamor for Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who worked alongside Kiffin under Pete Carroll. But ties to the Carroll Era may not be as attractive this time around after the Kiffin bust. And since USC was appalled to go 7-6 last year, Sarkisian's three straight seasons with that record from 2010-12 are not a great selling point.
USC has had plenty of coaches with NFL backgrounds in the past, and there may be some interest there outside the Fisher-Del Rio alum pipeline. In fact, Haden should probably keep an eye on the NFL rookie head coach in Philadelphia.
If Chip Kelly's hurry-up revolution of the NFL continues to falter and he decides this pro thing was a mistake, USC could be a lovely bailout spot for a guy who tore up the Pac-12 from 2009-12. (Though USC would have to successfully lobby the 18-month show cause penalty the NCAA slapped on him for infractions at Oregon).
Pat Haden isn't going to advertise his coaching wish list, of course. But whoever is on it may need some convincing that he's not going to be the next USC coach to be abruptly fired one morning in mid-season.