It has largely been 66 years of cheers for University of Southern California athletic director Lynn Swann, a life played out to a soundtrack of standing ovations. From high school in the Bay Area to starring at USC to his Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, there’s been little public adversity.
Swann has hosted game shows, appeared on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and served as a prolific sports broadcaster. He’s dabbled in politics and had a failed run at owning an Arena League team. But for the most part, he’s lived a sun-kissed and celebrated existence.
That all changed on Sunday, as Swann went against the wishes of both his fan base and the logic of recent history by keeping Clay Helton as the head coach at USC. Swann didn’t hire Helton and has rarely showed any public affinity for having him as the coach. After all, Helton’s low-key demeanor and regular-guy vibe are the antithesis of USC. You know, USC, the kind of place so star-struck with itself that it would hire a famous former player with no significant collegiate athletic administrative experience to be its, um, athletic director.
Swann is now stuck in lockstep with Helton in the wake of this 5-7 season, which puts him squarely in the crosshairs of a controversy born of his administrative ineptitude and lack of experience. Helton will start 2019 as the face of college football’s hot seat lists.
For Swann, that means a new role – unpopular administrator with a fan base simmering with an anger level destined to manifest itself through attendance apathy. Swann needs to get ready for a season of boos, a season of self-inflicted storm clouds at a place that craves a sunny-and-70s ethos. And 12 months from now, no one will be surprised if we end up at a crossroads similar to what he faced this weekend.
As the Pac-12 has slipped away from college football’s mainstream, desperately attempting to keep up with the coaching contracts and conference television cash, its flagship school is a mess. There’s no president at USC in the wake of a searing controversy that underscores an overall leadership void. The athletic director’s first major decision has backfired spectacularly, as Swann bid against himself this winter to keep Helton and extended him through 2023, showing no feel for the market nor particular care for USC’s budget. Had Swann bothered to do a few simple Google searches, he could have found out that no other Power 5 job was sniffing at Helton.
Helton had won the Rose Bowl and then the Pac-12 in back-to-back seasons, but Swann’s error was mistaking the obvious market sentiment that Helton’s success at USC was because he had a Cadillac job, not because he was a Cadillac coach.
This means Swann will be facing hailstorms of boos and cat-calls at the Coliseum. That is, at least by the fans who even bother showing up. It appeared more Notre Dame fans did than USC fans on Saturday night, a harbinger for a season of apathy in Troy. Fans in Los Angeles have a plethora of sports teams and can vote with their wallets, and here’s guessing that those votes are headed toward Sean McVay, LeBron James and, perhaps, even UCLA coach Chip Kelly.
Maybe Swann’s most difficult accomplishment this year was somehow helping turn 3-9 UCLA into the hot college team in the area. The Bruins have all the momentum with little on-field success. Other than, of course, beating USC. It will be fascinating to see how that translates to recruiting, as Chip Kelly has been judicious about taking the right fits.
And he may have just been coyly waiting out his rivals to see if he can make a strong final push with local kids that didn’t realize how poor USC’s leadership was all across campus, from the president’s office right to the athletic director. USC is just No. 32 in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings for 2019, meaning the Trojans are failing in the few rankings they’ve managed to dominate over the years.
Instead of encouraging the Trojans to Fight On, the real battle cry from the USC fan base was to Move On. Move away from USC’s cycle of recycling its own. Move out of the shadow of Pete Carroll and his failed disciples and their assistants into a new era with new ideas.
Is there hope for Helton at USC next year? The Trojan roster remains the envy of much of the Pac-12. Their true freshman quarterback, J.T. Daniels, struggled at times this season but ended up with similar numbers to former USC star Matt Barkley as a freshman – 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns and completing a shade under 60 percent of his passes. He’s flashed enough arm talent to be a program linchpin the next two seasons. (Barkley had 2,735 yards, 15 TDs and just under 60-percent during his freshman year).
But the question remains whether Helton can maximize the roster, which finished No. 122 nationally in total penalty yards and got blown out by Texas, failed to score a touchdown against a mediocre Stanford team and got a moral victory in not getting blown out by Notre Dame.
Swann saw all this and decided to Fight On with Helton. That left USC relying on the decision of an unqualified former star, who just invested millions in a coach virtually no one else wanted and extended him so far out that the school, essentially, made a decision that it couldn’t afford to fire him. Or, perhaps, USC was just too embarrassed to pay that much money – well north of $15 million for just Helton, never mind the coordinators and staffers with guaranteed deals that would send that number pinballing higher.
On Sunday, Swann faced his second major decision as USC’s athletic director. And it amounted to him failing to own up to his disastrous decision to place Helton in diamond-encrusted handcuffs in the head coach’s chair at USC. In the wake of a self-inflicted administrative debacle, USC chose hoping for a reversal of recent history instead of addressing its grim reality.
A charmed life of standing ovations and relentless cheers is about to take a hairpin turn for Lynn Swann. He’s now become the object of ire of the USC fan base. Or, at least what remains of it.
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