- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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While Ohio State was deservedly attracting scorn for the farcical way it handled the Jim Tressel situation last week -- a two-game suspension, and a $250,000 fine for the $4 million-a-year coach who kept a six-month silence that at least two of his football players were taking illegal benefits? -- USC athletic director Pat Haden struck a blow for anyone tired of the duplicity in college sports. He made a swift and principled decision to suspend men's basketball coach Kevin O'Neill during the Pac-10 tournament for having a verbal altercation with an Arizona booster at a hotel.
At the time, the 19-win Trojans weren't sure they would be invited to the NCAA tournament. But Haden, who rode back onto campus last July promising to clean up USC's scandal-ridden program, suspended O'Neill anyway. It was his first high-profile litmus test since he took the job, saying, "Winning any way other than the right way is not winning at all."
So where's the applause for Haden, America?
Or better yet, why don't we start a grassroots movement to draft him to fix the NCAA? Corruption-weary fans from coast to coast could be rallying right now to fill in write-in ballots, start e-mail petitions and place calls to their most grandstanding congressmen to say, "Pat Haden for NCAA President. Now!"
The sense that NCAA big-time sports are badly corrupt is exceeded only by the widespread belief that the problems are so sprawling there's nothing anyone can do about them.
Cynicism and inertia has set in, and the defeatist torpor has only deepened lately with each new affront, like the NCAA's brain twister of a ruling that upheld Auburn star quarterback Cam Newton's eligibility even though his father, Cecil, a church pastor, admitted trying to shake down Mississippi State for $180,000 to send Cam there. Tennesee basketball coach Bruce Pearl found out this week he may get get fired for lying to his school about some improper recruiting practices he was guilty of, but Thursday he at least took full responsibility, saying "I brought this on myself" when given a chance to complain about how his athletic director let the news out on the eve of the Vols' start in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State attempted to get away with suspending Tressel two games -- or three fewer than the five-game suspensions Tressel himself slapped on the same players whose acceptance of illegal benefits he covered up for months.
Then Tressel had the nerve during his apology press conference to launch into a clench-jawed mini-homily on how being a true leader means never asking for pity.
Tressel decided to let Buckeyes star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other players who committed violations play in Ohio State's Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas, delaying their punishment until the 2011 season. That decision never looked Solomon-like in the first place -- just self-serving. But knowing what we know now, conducting such a show trial after Tressel had already conspired to hide their behavior for months looks more egregiously hypocritical than ever, even after he's decided he, too should sit five games. (The way college players are often hit harder than the adults in these scandals is a rant for another day.)
Tressel's lapse could've been a firing offense at many schools. His bosses' reaction underscored how the NCAA system could use a few more leaders willing to act on principle.
Which brings us back to Haden for NCAA President.
But precisely because Haden is the upstanding guy he is, he'd almost certainly want no part of such a write-in campaign even if he could talk about it. For starters, the job happens to be filled at the moment by Mark Emmert, who just took over in November and almost immediately presided over the NCAA's contorted logic in the Newton case.
That NCAA ruling established the new and curious precedent of saying an athlete didn't really cheat if he or she just says they didn't know anything about the allegation. And how lovely is that?
We can expect Cam to have many imitators going forward.
Another thing blocking Haden's potential response to a "Haden for NCAA President" campaign is that when I tried to reach him Wednesday, a USC spokesman said Haden was traveling to Dayton for the Trojans' NCAA tournament opener, a 59-46 loss to Virginia Commonwealth. (See, the karma gods did make sure the 19-win Trojans at least got in the tournament, despite that Pac-10 tourney loss O'Neill sat out.)
Anyway, the USC spokesman added that no one at USC can comment on NCAA matters until the NCAA makes its final ruling on USC's plea for a reduction in some of the severe sanctions its basketball and football programs got for violations involving former football star Reggie Bush and departed point guard O.J. Mayo.
Haden replaced a defiant Mike Garrett as AD in the wake of those sanctions last July.
Haden demurred when first approached about the AD job by incoming USC president Max Nikias. But it's easy to see why Nikias kept pursuing Haden for the cleanup job, and why Haden initially said no even though Nikias was hell-bent on sweeping reforms and gestures like returning Bush's Heisman Trophy statue. After Haden quarterbacked USC to two national championships, he spent two years at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and then played for the Los Angeles Rams from 1976 to '81. He led the Rams to three NFC West titles in six seasons before quitting to pursue other successful careers as a lawyer, a venture capitalist and a network TV football analyst. In sum, Haden had built a pretty nice life.
But Nikias was familiar with Haden's reputation for integrity from Haden's nearly two-decade tenure on USC's board of trustees, and kept at him anyway.
"I was looking for someone that not only understood the athletic side but someone who also had a lot of experience in the boardroom, in the business world, in the media world," Nikias told the New York Times. "The more I was thinking about Pat, it was obvious he brings all the qualities that are impossible to find in one person."
The NCAA needs the same array of traits in a leader now. Emmert has been mostly a ghost in the machine since taking over for his more out-front predecessor, the late Myles Brand.
In addition to practical moves like beefing up USC's compliance department and appointing a senior-level liaison (read: watchdog) over the football program and trouble-magnet coach Lane Kiffin, Haden embarked right away on a listening tour with coaches and athletes throughout the USC program. He has said it sparked a lot of introspection about his own life as a student-athlete, and he's made a concerted effort to stress to current athletes how they should look beyond the baseline or goal line and ahead to the rest of their lives.
"I'm embarrassed I can't speak a second language fluently," Haden told the New York Times in the same story in which Nikias spoke. "I should have taken advantage more of this international population here. I wish I would have done some research in one of the labs here. I wish I would have tried out for a play. Isn't that the point of the college experience -- getting outside your comfort zone? So I'm definitely going to encourage it."
If you think about it, what Haden is encouraging, really, is a departure from how athletes are too often apart from the rest of the academy, a theme that critics of big-time college sports have been harping on for years. Beneath Haden's message is a sort of Renaissance-man twist, an exhortation to find a higher purpose. And consider the possible implications: Couldn't it follow that if you could change student-athletes' view of themselves, and their consciousness of how they fit into the bigger world around them, it might change their ethos too?
Would jocks still feel so entitled and special if they got out of their bubble a little more and got some contradictory evidence that they really ain't all that in the grand scheme of things? Might they not be more humbled when presented with flesh-and-blood proof that, yes, they may be the latest guys who arrived at USC able to juke a linebacker or throw a tight spiral, but compared to someone as accomplished as Haden -- who did all that and so much more, yet still talks with genuine humility about what's left to achieve -- there's still so much more to strive for? So much that makes a meaningful life? Is the secret to a better NCAA insisting on, not retreating from, the idea of building better people?
That's an idealistic approach, all right. And so what? What does the NCAA or scandal-weary college sports fans have to lose? Haden's tone is better than all these coaches and administrations who throw up their hands and just agree, "College sports is broken, all right."
Other people may give lip service to reform, but so far, anyway, Haden and Nikias are trying to live it at one of the most sports-addled behemoths on the college map. It's early, granted. But the way Haden handled the O'Neill situation even though the Trojans risked missing the NCAA tournament underscored that USC is serious. So why not nominate Haden for an even bigger stage?
Haden for NCAA President.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.