No scandals. That should be the primary job requirement for the athletic director of the University of Southern California. He or she can be a member of the Trojan Family or have never set foot on Trousdale Parkway. They just need to avoid the dreaded “s-word” that seems to plague the University at every turn.
Yet under Athletic Director Lynn Swann, who took up the mantle from Pat Haden in April 2016, there’s been scandal after scandal after scandal in USC Athletics — and few victories to match.
Last fall, USC football’s downward spiral culminated in the program’s first losing season since 2000. Even the undermanned, bowl-banned Trojans under Lane Kiffin never finished worse than a 7-6 record. Yet, Swann voiced his support for Helton following the trainwreck of the season, likely saving face after extending Helton’s contract until 2023 the previous offseason.
The athletics department looked to be righting the ship, making a move to hire wunderkind Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator. But of course, all those glitters would never coach for the cardinal and gold. Kingsbury left quickly after to become the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach. The Cardinals only had to pay USC a $150,000 buyout to land Kingsbury. I’d like to think they asked Swann, “Cash or check?”
In 2017, USC basketball embarrassingly lost in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament. This was perhaps understandable, as the team was coming off as a major snub from the NCAA Tournament. But this season, USC missed the tournament for the second consecutive year with no argument for getting to the Big Dance. And not to mention — former assistant coach Tony Bland pled guilty to bribery and wire fraud in January, basically admitting he facilitated payments to recruits. The NCAA has yet to punish schools involved in that scandal, but they will. And when they do? Yeesh.
Of course, USC football and basketball don’t make up the entire athletic department (even though they bring in most of the dough). USC’s men’s and women’s water polo teams have been the crown jewels of Swann’s tenure. The women’s team has won two of the last three national championships and the men’s team took one home last fall.
But in March, the water polo program went from national powerhouse to national embarrassment. Legendary coach Jovan Vavic (of both the men’s and women’s teams) was indicted for allegedly taking bribes to lie about recruits in the now-infamous, Aunt Becky Admissions Scandal. The school fired Vavic immediately, ending his 16-time national championship tenure. So much for Swann’s crown jewel.
Not all of the aforementioned scandals or mishaps are directly Swann’s fault. But he certainly bears responsibility for the admissions disaster. His department clearly lacked oversight over athlete admissions and failed to properly vet recruits. Swann’s response to the scandal was more uninspiring than a Steve Sarkisian speech at a booster event.
“I think everybody was blindsided by this,” Swann said to the Los Angeles Times. “The fact that it was a senior member of the staff and also our men’s and women’s head water polo coach. … These are people that have been here a long time and people who had been here during difficult times. Everyone was completely shocked, caught offguard and taken by surprise.”
Everyone was also shocked, caught offguard and taken by surprise when they found out Swann still had a job in the wake of recent events. (Also why use basically the same, identical and alike phrase three times in a row? I mean it’s not like he was trying to reach a word count, but I digress.)
When Swann took over after Haden’s resignation in 2016, the program had successfully moved beyond NCAA sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush, pay-for-play scandal. At the time, the program’s biggest embarrassment was retaining Sarkesian after he spoke drunkenly at that booster event in August 2016. Now the department is staring sanctions straight in the face, from multiple incidents, and they’ve almost all happened under Swann’s purview.
Swann also told the Times that he wanted to be USC’s athletic director for the next 10 years. For an administrator whose hardly gone 10 minutes without a public relations nightmare, I’d pump the brakes a bit.
Trevor Denton is a junior writing about sports. His column, “T-Time,” runs every other Wednesday.