On Tuesday, Pat Haden gave a press conference in which he defended the hire of former head football coach Steve Sarkisian.
“He was vetted. You can disagree with the vetting, but he was vetted,” Haden said.
The conference came after many called for Haden’s job in light of Sarkisian’s firing and rumored alcohol problems. It appears that for now Haden’s job is secure. Shortly before the conference, President C. L. Max Nikias released a statement supporting the athletic director. “I look forward to working with Pat Haden as our USC AD for many years to come,” Nikias said.
Though in his five years at USC Haden has overseen successes — some of which he highlighted during the press conference — such a misstep as the Sarkisian hire requires at least an internal review of the hiring and vetting process of high-profile figures at USC, as well as of the decision to keep Sarkisian on after he was intoxicated at the Salute to Troy booster event.
With Sarkisian’s termination and his history of alcohol abuse coming to light, there are questions that need to be answered. Was Haden aware of Sarkisian’s drinking habits? If so, why was Sarkisian still brought on board? If he was not aware, why was the vetting process not more thorough? Haden failed to properly oversee the hiring process and allowed a glaring attribute of a potential coach fall through the cracks.
A Los Angeles Times investigation into his time at the University of Washington indicates the coach has a history of heavy drinking. On one trip, Sarkisian and three other coaches bought eight shots and five beers before noon. On another, Sarkisian ordered a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne and six beers to his hotel room.
Yes, the L.A. Times reporters are professional journalists, trained and experienced in this, but if the newspaper could dig this up in the weeks since the Salute to Troy event, then the Athletics Department should have been able to in the months they had to choose and vet a new coach.
Haden said he spoke to “dozens of people,” none of whom raised any concerns. But, in light of new evidence, this is a little difficult to believe. Perhaps, no one wanted to cast Sarkisian in a bad light or knew that there might be a serious issue. Or, perhaps, Haden and the department didn’t look hard enough.
However, even if Haden had somehow missed any indications of alcohol troubles before the hire, the Salute to Troy must have served as a wake up call for him as it did for the public.
“[After Salute for Troy], based on the input of trusted of medical professionals and staff, it was determined that he could continue coaching while seeking treatment,” Haden said. “I felt a great deal of compassion for Steve Sarkisian. He deserved another chance. That’s what I gave him.”
But this wasn’t an issue of second chances. This was an issue of helping a potentially very seriously troubled man get the help he needs. Haden’s decision was irresponsible — both for the football team — especially for the student-athletes — but also for Sarkisian himself.
This seems more than anything to be a case of wishful thinking. Wishful thinking that Sarkisian was fine, that the Salute to Troy event was just a onetime occurrence, that no one was in danger.
But in refusing to confront reality, Haden and co. not only obliterated USC’s chances for a successful season, they also played a dangerous game in risking a man’s health.
Being the head football coach at USC is no easy task. In addition to being at the helm of a storied legacy, the coach also is responsible for whether millions of dollars in alumni donations flow into the school each year. That kind of pressure can be a lot for anyone, let alone someone with a potential health condition. Letting Sarkisian continue coaching was completely irresponsible.
This incident is not something Nikias can just sweep under the rug. Though there might be something noble about him standing by his athletic director, allowing Haden, and the department as a whole, to escape unscathed indicates that the president does not take this seriously enough. An internal, but publicly acknowledged, review of the decision will at least prove the administration intends to do its due diligence and help ensure that, in the future, character and well-being are considered in these hires.
Daily Trojan Fall 2015 Editorial Board