Garrett’s downfall was arrogance
LOS ANGELES — Seventeen years could be boiled into two moments, the complicated legacy of Mike Garrett revealed in a final burst of arrogant bluster.
The first thing you need to know about the resume of Southern California’s fallen athletic director is that, at a booster club function in San Francisco this summer shortly after the football program was hit with heavy sanctions, he said, “As I read the decision by the NCAA … I read between the lines and there was nothing but a lot of envy. They wish they all were Trojans.”
The second thing you need to know is that shortly after offering this fractured insight, he was given a standing ovation.
As the brooding, bullying boss views his beloved school from the bottom of the curb, it is obvious to note that many thought he was a buffoon.
But it is important to remember that perhaps just as many thought he was a hero.
He was hated. He was loved. He was loathed. He was respected.
Mostly, though, it seems, Mike Garrett was cursed.
The same traits that made him such a strong university symbol also made him such a weak university representative.
For 17 years, the Trojans’ first Heisman Trophy winner ran the athletic department the way he once ran the ball. He put his head down and chugged. If something was in his way, he rudely ran over it. If something was charging him, he deftly ran around it.
He never looked up. He never saw background. He never understood context. His only goal was reaching the end zone and, well, if he was being pushed along by cheaters into spaces cleared by con men, he neither noticed nor cared.
It will be easy today to paint new athletic director Pat Haden as an angel of goodness replacing Garrett’s caricature of incompetence. It will be also be careless and wrong.
If Garrett was such a clown, what does it say about the serious USC faithful who donated more than $375 million during his tenure?
If Garrett was so destructive, how did he oversee the building of a gleaming new basketball arena?
If Garrett was so dumb, how did he hire Pete Carroll?
There are many reasons Garrett should no longer be athletic director and, in fact, he should have been nudged out the moment the football team was hit with a two-year postseason ban for cheating.
In the end, Garrett wasn’t accountable, he wasn’t accessible, and he never understood that being the face of a university meant more than smiling on Saturdays. In the end, he was just a 66-year-old former running back whose judgment was as bad as his knees.
But in the end, this story is not only scandalous, but sad, because Garrett couldn’t survive long enough to retire, to gain one last chance at grace, to enjoy one final moment to savor everything he did right.
Because, face it, you aren’t the athletic director at a school that wins 23 national titles under your direction if you’re not doing something right.
Haden, the Trojans’ golden child and the perfect pick to lead the school through two or three tough probation years — it’s hard to imagine the successful businessman playing savior any longer — has said all the right things. But some of those things, Garrett has already done.
Haden said one of his focuses will be women’s sports. Under Garrett, USC added women’s teams in water polo and soccer, elevated a women’s rowing team to a varsity sport, and added 42 more women’s scholarships, giving USC the maximum number allowed.
Haden, a former Rhodes scholar, has also talked about an increase in academic attention. Under Garrett, the football team graduated a school-record 82 percent of its players in 2001, and his department has helped spawn a school valedictorian, salutatorian, and, yes, even a Rhodes scholar.
Haden is a symbol of change. But remember, Garrett was one of the earliest African American athletic directors at a Division I school, helping to pave a diverse path in an exclusionary academic world that still can’t seem to figure out how to hire African American football coaches.
Garrett was, in some ways, a pioneer. But once allowed inside the hallowed USC halls, he just couldn’t keep from tracking mud everywhere.
For every Garrett gem, there has seemingly been a Garrett goof. The crude way he fired John Robinson. The foolish way he hired Rick Majerus. The quick way he hired Lane Kiffin, who now becomes the most tenuously employed Trojan without ever coaching a game.
It was Garrett who allowed Tim Floyd to bring in that star guard dressed in a “Probation Bait” T-shirt. And it was Garrett who allowed Carroll to run a program whose swagger was so unchecked, nobody thought twice about a new rental house for the parents of a Heisman Trophy winner.
Nobody should take a bigger fall in this USC scandal than Mike Garrett, and, it turns out, nobody will. But don’t forget how the program reached those dizzying heights. And, when the booing dies, don’t be afraid to thank him for the view.
Pat Haden has been saying all the right things since being named as Garrett’s successor. He’s a symbol of change, but the Rhodes scholar isn’t necessarily a savior.
Mike Garrett did many things right as USC’s athletic director. But he didn’t seem to notice or care that cheating was a factor in the Trojans’ considerable success.