Here's USC's path to instant credibility and perhaps an Urban Meyer hire

The search for USC’s next athletic director is the buzziest topic in college athletics, mostly because it’s the precursor to the opening of one of college football’s most coveted coaching jobs.

The fate of embattled coach Clay Helton was further sealed late Saturday at Notre Dame, as USC fell to No. 8 Notre Dame, 30-27, to slide to 3-3. USC’s AD search effectively has become a search for the candidate who can land the best football coach, the easiest pathway for USC to re-establish itself as a national power.

This summer, the search to replace Lynn Swann began unofficially. In a clunky and awkward manner true to USC’s administrative identity, the Trojans conducted a failed shadow search to land an A-list athletic director. After a bunch of swipe lefts, USC jettisoned Swann in early September and finally did something sensible.

They brought in a search firm – Gene DeFilippo of Turnkey Sports and Entertainment – to run the formal search. It was a basic acknowledgement by USC president Carol Folt that USC wouldn’t be luring a top candidate like Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione, Florida’s Scott Stricklin or Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick. They needed help. Between the shadow search before Swann’s firing and interest expressed since, they’ve sent feelers out to accomplished potential candidates like UNC’s Bubba Cunningham, Clemson’s Dan Radakovich, Baylor’s Mack Rhoades, Alabama’s Greg Byrne and a few others. All declined to seriously engage.

With the formal search in its early stages, here’s a simple and clean hire that would be both lauded publicly and effective in reality: former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

To bring in Foley, 66, would provide exactly what USC’s beleaguered athletic department so desperately needs – an accomplished outsider who can rebuild credibility and accountability within the department. And, yes, by hiring Foley, USC would have the best chance to hire Urban Meyer or another established and accomplished coach. Foley hired Meyer at Florida from Utah in 2004 and traveled lockstep with him to the highest levels of college football. That included two national titles together in Gainesville.

Then-Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley (L) is shown with coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Tim Tebow at a news conference in 2009. (AP)
Then-Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley (L) is shown with coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Tim Tebow at a news conference in 2009. (AP)

The hiring of Foley would be a glaring sign that USC’s athletic department is breaking away from the self-sabotaging pattern of hiring unqualified former players.

Foley is a Florida lifer — he started as an intern and got hired in the ticket department there, working his way up to becoming one of the most respected voices in all of college sports. He stepped down in 2016 after back-to-back underwhelming football hires – the unprepared Will Muschamp and overmatched Jim McElwain.

But the breadth of Foley’s entire tenure shouldn’t be defined by his football hiring fumbles. Florida won 27 national championships during his 25 years in charge, and Foley’s hires of Meyer, Billy Donovan and current basketball coach Mike White were all inspired. There are few in the history of collegiate athletics more accomplished than Foley, as Florida won three football titles (1996, 2006, 2008) and two basketball titles (2006, 2007) under his watch.

Foley did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo Sports about USC. But it would be surprising if he didn’t at least listen, as people who’ve spoken with Foley have indicated that he’d be open to discussing the job.

I’ve been critical of Foley in the past, especially with his ham-handed execution of the hiring of McElwain. And, of course, there are still scars from the Ron Zook era. But there’s also a baseline competence that he’d be able to bring to USC, a far cry from Pat Haden’s scandal-defined tenure and Swann being hopeless from the moment he was handed the job. (This well-done Los Angeles Times piece deftly lays out that Swann was essentially handpicked by a billionaire overlord).

Foley’s value is two-fold. USC could well be on the cusp of high-profile coaching searches in its two most important sports – football and men’s basketball. (USC is among the schools expected to eventually receive a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA from its ties to the federal basketball scandal.)

“He’ll go in and put a structure in place of accountability and demand results,” said an athletic director familiar with Foley. “He’ll build the infrastructure and put the resources in place to help achieve those results and build a really good culture. He’s a presence.”

Meyer would have to at least listen to Foley if he became USC’s athletic director. Meyer has stuck to the party line that he’s enjoying life on television at Fox, and the rave reviews he’s received for his performance there can be directly tied to the energy and preparation he’s put into it.

But there could be some tug of sentimentality, as any return of Meyer would inherently be accompanied by familiar faces. He and Foley had a great relationship at Florida, and it’s easy to see a staff of former assistants coming together anchored by former Rutgers coach Chris Ash and, potentially, Boston College coach Steve Addazio if he doesn’t survive after this year. (The Eagles are in a tailspin, having lost five of six ACC games and suffering a blowout home loss to Kansas.)

If Meyer sticks to television, USC still would be in a much better position in hiring a football and basketball coach. Foley knows all the big players and has the gravitas to sit down and engage a Hall of Fame coach like Bob Stoops, as Foley worked with him when Stoops was an assistant and had multiple dalliances with attempting to hire him. Foley also would get the attention of established coaches like Penn State’s James Franklin, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal or Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck. These caliber of coaches crave stability and alignment, something USC has lacked for a decade. (The only assistant who’d likely be considered is Clemson’s Tony Elliott, but USC is a tough starter gig.)

USC basketball could also dare to dream of Billy Donovan on the sidelines at the Galen Center. If not, Foley’s hoops track record is impeccable.

There are plenty of bright Power Five-level ADs that USC could theoretically lure to Los Angeles – Washington’s Jennifer Cohen, Boston College’s Martin Jarmond, Utah’s Mark Harlan, Washington State’s Pat Chun, Virginia Tech’s Whit Babcock or Colorado’s Rick George. There’s a crew of sharp smaller school AD’s like Temple’s Pat Kraft, UNLV’s Desiree Reed-Francois, Villanova’s Mark Jackson and Nevada’s Doug Knuth who’d likely sprint to Los Angeles.

But there’s no name on the board with the time served, moxie and breadth of varying experiences like Foley. At a place that values star power and desperately needs credibility, Foley would bring it.

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