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USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett opens up, just a bit

Garrett's gruff manner has made enemies, but now he might need every friend he can get as NCAA storm clouds gather above his successful program. So he's making a try at letting his guard down.

February 14, 2010|By David Wharton

The frown that Mike Garrett often wears in public, an expression made of blunt features set hard as stone, gives way to something unexpected. His eyes glisten with tears.

"I frankly don't know why I'm being so emotional," he says.

This is not the USC tailback from the 1960s, bulling his way to a Heisman Trophy. Not the gruff athletic director who has presided over sports at his alma mater for two decades, winning championships by the fistful.

Garrett reaches for another tissue and says, "I guess I don't usually talk to people."

All these years, he has remained stubbornly guarded, reluctant to grant interviews or speak in public, but times have changed.

The university's multimillion-dollar sports enterprise has suffered a black eye over allegations that star athletes in football and basketball received gifts from agents. Later this week, administrators will face an NCAA committee that wants to know if Garrett let his department veer out of control.

USC has already announced self-imposed sanctions in basketball, including forfeits, a postseason ban and recruiting restrictions. Its cherished football team, which slipped last season and lost coach Pete Carroll to the NFL, could face similar penalties.

Garrett acknowledges feeling "terribly embarrassed" by the stigma of an NCAA investigation.

"It's just not in our nature," he says more than once. "And I can't convince anyone of that until we go to the NCAA and present our case."

This turn of events has emboldened his enemies, some of them Trojans fans, who call him arrogant and blame him for what happened on his watch.

With so much at stake, his wife and a top administrator encouraged the 65-year-old to consider a new approach: speaking up.

Feeling the heat

During a lengthy interview in his Heritage Hall office recently, Garrett ranged from lighthearted to somber, those tears rising when he talked about family and the university.

As for the NCAA investigation, he spoke generally, not discussing details or strategy for the hearing.

"I do have a law degree and we do have general counsel," he says. "We're waiting for that day."

The Trojans face multiple allegations, the most serious involving football player Reggie Bush, basketball player O.J. Mayo and former basketball coach Tim Floyd.

Bush, a running back who won the 2005 Heisman, and his parents allegedly took benefits from would-be sports marketers in 2004 and '05. Mayo, a guard who played one season at USC, allegedly received gifts funneled to him from a Northern California sports agent in 2007-08.

Floyd resigned last spring after reports that he had paid one of Mayo's handlers, Rodney Guillory, to steer the prized recruit to USC.

The athletes and coach have denied wrongdoing. Floyd has said he feels abandoned by his former boss, telling The Times in December: "Mike's reputation took precedence over the truth."

Any athletic director is somewhat removed from his teams' daily operations, and the NCAA places ultimate responsibility on university presidents.

But to the public, the buck stops with Garrett.

He has never explained why he allowed Floyd to associate with Guillory, whose involvement with another USC player resulted in NCAA trouble years ago. Also, Trojans fans wanted more than his two videotaped statements about the allegations, posted on the Internet.

"We were still researching and investigating," he says sharply. "So you don't go spouting off when you don't know what it's all about."

His silence -- in this and other circumstances -- may trace back to a kid growing up poor in East L.A.

'Like dirt'

His stepfather taught him to work hard, he says, and his mother insisted upon tidiness. "If you weren't rich," Garrett says, "at least you could be clean."

Coming out of Roosevelt High, he hoped to play for UCLA, but the Bruins considered him too small. USC coach John McKay swooped in.

College was daunting -- "I didn't read or write so well," Garrett says -- especially amid a privileged student body that, in 1962, did not welcome minorities on fraternity row. McKay drew no such distinctions.

"He treated everybody equally -- he treated us all like dirt," Garrett says with a grin. "When I saw that, man, I turned on. I said it's not about anything but performance, so let's get it on."

Garrett made himself into an able student while hammering toward USC's first Heisman in 1965. Teammate Dave Moton says, "Size didn't mean a whole hell of a lot to him. He practiced hard, he played hard."

One more thing: Garrett studied his coach. Though McKay could be witty in public, with players he was demanding, often distant, always fair.

"Even now, his thought processes, I incorporate them," he says. "I ask myself, 'What would Coach McKay do?' "

A winding path

After college came eight years of pro football, including two Super Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs, before Garrett retired at 29.

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