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National Columnist

Pat Haden's chance to make USC sports likeable, for a change

Here's the thing about Southern California football, a thing Pat Haden started to fix -- but hasn't fixed entirely -- by getting rid of loathsome Lane Kiffin:

People don't like Southern California football.

People don't like USC sports, period, and by "USC sports" I'm referring to the revenue producers. The faces of the athletic department: football and men's basketball. People -- and I'm one of those people, though it's not just me -- don't like those teams, and therefore don't like USC, because those teams have been dislikable.

It's OK, USC fans, to admit to what the rest of us were thinking when we decided we didn't like USC because we couldn't stand the coaches there. How do you like a men's basketball team led by surly, glowering Henry Bibby or slippery, oily Tim Floyd or snarling, losing Kevin O'Neill?

How do you like a football team led by Pete Carroll when he's overseeing a program that's racking up conference titles and major NCAA violations at the same rate, and doing it with the backbone of a man who would bail for the NFL months before sanctions hit? As laid-back cool as Carroll was, how do you like a man who uses suicide as a prank by throwing a uniformed blocking dummy off the roof and thinking it's funny that his team believed the dummy was really disgruntled tailback Lendale White?

How do you like a football team led by Lane Kiffin, who silver-spooned his way into every job he ever had and made enemies at every stop -- not because he's that good, but because he acted like he invented the game?

You don't. And we didn't. People haven't liked USC football or basketball for years because their leadership was that awful.

Pat Haden, the former Rhodes Scholarship-winning USC quarterback who became AD in 2010, got half of it right when he fired O'Neill earlier this year and replaced him with the nicest, humblest rising star possible in Andy Enfield. First things first, Enfield has to win to justify the hire. But by hiring such a decent guy, Haden gave his team and his athletic department a chance to build some much-needed goodwill outside the USC family.

Now, football. The big hire, obviously. Andy Enfield is one thing, but whoever replaces Lane Kiffin is something entirely else. Put it this way: If Haden hires another Kiffin (or Floyd or O'Neill or Bibby), it won't matter if Andy Enfield is a cross between Mr. Wooden and Mr. Congeniality. If we don't like USC football, we won't like USC. They are one and the same, this football school and its football coach.

So that's the background. Going forward, who does Haden target to achieve that dual goal of winning games and people?

David Shaw of Stanford. Chris Petersen of Boise State. And if those two say no, James Franklin of Vanderbilt.

Shaw is greatness. Petersen is greatness. Franklin is the promise of greatness. All three are admirable men, people the rest of the country would -- or should, anyway -- nod at and say, "Yup, that's a great hire right there."

There are other men who are likeable and great (or offer the promise of greatness), guys like Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M, Brady Hoke of Michigan, Charlie Strong of Louisville and Mark Richt of Georgia. And more. Lots more. If your coach hasn't been named, assume he's in my head if not on your computer screen. But the names I listed above -- Shaw, Petersen and Franklin -- have the personality and the potential USC deserves, and are most likely to say yes if Haden offers.

Sumlin? He's not leaving Texas A&M for a college program on the West Coast. Same goes for Richt, Hoke and a lifelong Southerner like Charlie Strong.

Tough, smart, charming, innovative David Shaw should be the No. 1 priority for Pat Haden. Yeah, it would be sticky hiring from another Pac-12 school, but Shaw is so good -- and Stanford is so unique -- that Haden has to try. Stanford fans are telling me Shaw would say no to Haden. They're telling me there's no chance he would leave his alma mater for USC. To that I say: Haden should find out. Because Shaw is that good. Make him say no, because he wouldn't be saying no to some scrubby school; he'd be saying no to US-friggin-C.

And listen, Stanford fans, nobody's hating on your school. But the truth is, winning coaches don't stay forever at Stanford because it's just so damned hard to win there. Look at the coaches who left on their own: Bill Walsh, Dennis Green, Ty Willingham, Jim Harbaugh. Some of them were wrong to leave, obviously, but they left for other jobs because (A) maybe the other job looked better and (B) definitely the other job looked easier. Stanford's academics are so brutal, it's always a surprise when someone wins big there.

Winning big at USC? For a great coach? That would be easy.

Haden can find lots of coaches who could do it, but his task isn't just to find a great coach. As the caretaker of USC sports -- the most public marketing arm of the university -- Haden's responsibility isn't just to win games. For too long, the University of Southern California football team has been a noxious, odious beast. Also, it has been underachieving. Pat Haden can fix both with one hire by hiring a winner that the rest of us could actually like.

It wouldn't be a bad idea if people inside the athletic department liked the coach, too.

 
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