Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Haden May Have Buried USC in the LA Football Race

Ed. Note: Your first thoughts are, “why is this UCLA site writing about USC?” The philosophy of our site, and what should be the philosophy of the fan-base, is to know your enemy nearly as well as you know yourself. Thus, we have a take on our rivals’ fall from grace.

When Pat Haden came on board to fix a USC football program — one reeling from sanctions and controversy — he came with the intent to move the program forward before it had a chance to be taken aback by its penalties. In essence, Haden was brought to preemptively rebuild USC football before it broke down.

And for his first two years, it appeared as if Haden had done it. After the 2011 football season, USC sat atop the Pac-12 South with a 10-2 record, a win over top-ranked Oregon, a bludgeoning of UCLA, and a Heisman candidate quarterback returning to do it all over again in 2012. No one seemed concerned with the overall strength (or lack thereof) of the Pac-12 conference that year. No one appeared to notice that UCLA was as bad as it had ever been, that the Colorado and Washington teams USC steamrolled were awful and mediocre, respectively. No one seemed to realize that Oregon had fielded its worst team of the Chip Kelly era (having lost to LSU by a wide margin earlier in the year).

And it all came crashing down in 2012, when those Trojans came back and finished 7-6, losing to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA, capped by an embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl which reportedly saw the melting down of the USC locker room. Amid speculation that his job was in jeopardy, Lane Kiffin would be tabbed to return to coach the team in 2013.

Misstep numero uno, Mr. Haden.

Kiffin, one of the most universally hated coaches in the country, would only last five games into the 2013 campaign. While many lauded Haden for his prompt response to the Trojans losing two of their first five, what went unsaid was that Haden brought back Kiffin to coach USC in the first place. Despite knowing that firing Kiffin midseason would be a legitimate option, Haden took a gamble on letting the embattled head coach stick around the McKay Center. Despite apparently being ready to pull the trigger, Haden backed off. The reasoning behind it (recruiting, perception of the athletics program, etc) is rather moot. If firing Kiffin midseason was a legitimate option, why not fire him after the Sun Bowl and take a shot at another head coach? This conundrum was only worsened when Haden went on video to bolster his commitment to Kiffin, saying he was “100 percent behind” the head coach. Though not without pressure from a fiery alumni base, Haden didn’t have to address the issue. He didn’t have to make a public relations mess by giving Kiffin the dreaded vote of confidence prior to the season beginning.

Of  course, what’s done is done. Haden had a chance at redemption in his handling of the Ed Orgeron situation. Instead, the athletic director repeatedly went on record saying Orgeron would be a legitimate candidate for the head coaching gig. There are two responses to this, both of which don’t put Haden in a favorable light:

  1. Why would you consider an interim head coach — brought on in the middle of the season — for the permanent head coaching position? Interim coaches rarely succeed when the “interim” label is removed. If this was a legitimate option, one has to wonder why Haden thought this was feasible.
  2. If Haden never seriously considered Orgeron, then why string Orgeron along? It hurts morale when the interim coach is given false hope and, clearly, Haden destroyed his trust with the Trojan fan-base when he fired the beloved interim coach.

What followed was a disaster for USC.

While Haden and the athletic department interviewed Chris Petersen, USC fans and media stay adamant that USC passed on Petersen and not the other way around. Of course, there’s no good response to this. Either 1) this was another attempt by USC to cover up being rejected by a head coach (as has been the case all season, when the Trojans refused to admit that they had pursued Jack Del Rio and Tony Dungy), or 2) USC legitimately hired Washington coach Steve Sarkisian over Chris Petersen.

The second option puts USC in a slightly better light but not by much. If it’s true that Sarkisian was the first option, it’s rather clear that Haden is sorely lacking in sound decision-making. In essence, Sarkisian was already on Washington fans’ hot seat and Sark leaving for South Central brought more joy in Huskies fans’ hearts than it did anger. Indeed, had it not been for a late-season win against Washington State in the Apple Cup, Sarkisian would’ve finished with yet another seven-win season, his fourth. Indeed, such a record would’ve only cemented the nickname “Seven-Win Sark,” and given all the talent he compiled in Seattle, this was seen as a disappointment to the Husky faithful.

Yet Haden saw something in those five years that clearly no one else has seen. Despite having Keith Price at full health, and despite fielding what should’ve been a Heisman candidate in Bishop Sankey, and despite Austin Sefarian-Jenkins sticking with the team, Sarkisian failed every big test set in front of his team. After starting 4-0 and in the top-15 of the AP poll, Sark finished 4-4, losing to the top four Pac-12 programs by an average margin of over 15 points. And in its four final wins, the Huskies defeated teams with a combined record of 17-31, and none of the four teams (Cal, Colorado, Oregon State, Washington State) finished with a record above .500. The argument for Sark appeared to be the same argument for keeping Lane Kiffin: Sark was familiar with Pac-12 recruiting, and if the Trojans went elsewhere, recruiting would suffer.

For Haden, Sark was the safe choice.

Meanwhile, across town, Jim Mora stands with his arms folded, laughing.

Although UCLA didn’t have a glamorous season themselves — indeed, going 0-3 against Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State left many Bruin fans with a feeling of disappointment — it’s clear that the Bruins have a legitimate coaching advantage. With Washington, UCLA, and USC all fielding similar levels of talent (as all three finished rather close in recruiting rankings the past two classes), UCLA has managed 18 wins over the past two years, while the Bruins have gone 3-0 against the traditional Pac-12 co-powers.

So here the Trojans sit, with a divided fan-base: One side criticizing the missteps Haden has made throughout his tenure (and rightfully so) while the other virulently defends him. (Indeed, the same crowd that voted against firing Kiffin is the same crowd that dismissed Orgeron’s victories which is the same crowd that lauded the Sarkisian hire just minutes after the announcement.)

All the while, UCLA maintains stability and continuity. No, the Bruins aren’t coming off a banner year — not with the expectations of reaching the Rose Bowl in Mora’s second year — but they’re coming off one of the toughest schedules in the country with just three losses and a thrashing of the Trojans. They’ve managed to make it through the coaching carousel with all but one of the assistant coaches intact. (RB coach Steve Broussard was fired in favor of RB coach Kennedy Polamalu, thought to be an upgrade for his recruiting prowess.) And they’ve managed to do so while fielding the Pac-12 freshman offensive/defensive player of the year, the most honorable mentions for all-Pac-12 selections, and with a 2013 recruiting class that gained valuable experience throughout the season.

History has shown that two football teams can’t succeed in Los Angeles. Prior to USC’s run of dominance in the 2000s, only seven games separated the two teams in the all-time series, but each trades decades of superiority. (In the 1990s, UCLA went 8-2, with an eight-game winning streak from 1991 to 1998; the rivals split the 80s, USC held the 70s and a chunk of the 60s, and UCLA dominated the 1950s.) While USC was on its tear through the BCS era, pundits speculated when UCLA would “wake up” from its slumber, noting that the only team capable of keeping down the Trojans for an extended period of time was, in fact, UCLA.

And it appears we were at that critical juncture, right after UCLA destroyed USC, 35-14. With USC desperately needing to gain ground against UCLA to regain possession of Los Angeles by way of a respectable coaching hire, Haden whiffed on a fine coach in Petersen for a seven-win expert in Sarkisian. While the coaches in the Pac-12 are considered the finest in the nation, Haden chose the only coach in the conference who hadn’t yet earned nine wins in a season in his career.

With UCLA’s trajectory pointing upwards, the Trojans couldn’t afford another Pat Haden misstep.

Now, it appears the key to the city is Mora’s for the taking for a long, long time.

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