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Dashing figure

Haden has done a lot in his life, and he wants to do much more in his latest challenge at USC

July 25, 2010|David Wharton

At this juncture in his life, Pat Haden thinks about tombstones. Thinks about them a little too much, maybe.

Morbid preoccupation doesn't fit the man.

Sure, the years have rolled by since he was a football hero at USC -- not to mention a Rhodes scholar -- but Haden still looks the part of the golden boy with a chipper smile beneath that thinning blond hair.

The 57-year-old seemed especially energetic last week, bouncing around the athletic department at his alma mater where he is the new boss, introducing himself to players, corraling employees for quick chats in the hallway, joking with reporters.

On his first, unofficial day as athletic director, he wore a bright blue tie that showed a swimmer diving headlong into the water.

"This is going to be fun,' he said. "This is joyful."

Which doesn't make sense either.

Dark clouds have settled over Heritage Hall since the NCAA placed USC on four years' probation. The football team is hobbled by sanctions that will linger for seasons to come. Same with basketball.

Why would a man whose legacy is already etched in stone want the hassle? Why would he leave a successful investment firm and a prime weekend gig doing television for Notre Dame games?

Tombstones are a big part of the answer. Also, motherly advice and something he calls "the dash."

Early lessons

No conversation with Patrick Capper Haden, born in New York to working-class Irish parents, would be complete without mention of his mother, a subject that still causes him to choke up.

The late Helen Haden bestowed many lessons upon her children -- Pat was the fourth of five -- including an adage: "Live your life so that you have standing room only at your funeral."

As Pat explains: "She knew how to treat people right."

Not that compassion precluded hard work or achievement. For Haden, that meant a boyhood paper route followed by a job in a shoe store, making sure to suggest a matching handbag for those black pumps because accessories paid an extra commission.

"You work your tail off," he recalled. "Work harder than the next guy."

This mentality carried over to sports, where he relied on smarts -- and toughness gained from keeping up with older brothers -- to compensate for physical shortcomings.

When the family moved to Southern California, the kid who enrolled at Bishop Amat High in La Puente soon became starting quarterback. He also found an unlikely ally in J.K. McKay.

The son of legendary USC coach John McKay, J.K. was quick-witted and easy-going, everything Haden wasn't. And vice versa.

"Most kids at that age are a little flaky, but you didn't see any of that in Pat," McKay recalled. "He was more mature at 11 than I am now."

If nothing else, McKay got his pal to loosen up. Haden lived with the McKays after his parents moved again, then headed for USC with J.K. where they joined a group of friends in commandeering an apartment building near fraternity row.

"Like a lot of students, we had a good time," said Chris Bitterlin, now a real estate developer in San Diego. "Pat had fun too, he participated."

But unlike the others, Haden often slipped away to study for class or watch extra game film. He could put on blinders when work needed to be done.

On the field, there was no question about who ruled the huddle.

"He'd nudge me and say, 'Get up in there. We need a couple of yards,' " former tailback Anthony Davis recalled. "When he told you something, you'd listen."

Through the early 1970s, the Trojans played in three Rose Bowls and won two national championships. Haden graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, earning that prestigious scholarship to Oxford University in England.

"We were just college kids trying to get through our classes and figure out what we were going to do with the rest of our lives," said Nick Brown, a friend. "Pat had a plan."

Career path

Everyone knows the curriculum vitae after USC, a season in the World Football League, six more with the Rams, vacations spent studying economics at Oxford. If that weren't enough, Haden also earned a law degree.

Lying in a hospital after the 1981 season, recovering from knee surgery and contemplating retirement, he got a call from CBS about a broadcast job.

"I thought I might give it a try," he said.

Two or three years turned into yet another career, NBC hiring him to provide color commentary for the Irish. Between weekend games, Haden practiced law for a while before joining former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan at a Westwood investment firm.

"If we wanted to impress somebody, we brought Pat along to dinner," Riordan said. "He could open doors to the top executives in the country, but he also has a great analytical brain. The guy is brilliant."

Not that Haden turned everything to gold.

His NFL career did not go as expected, not with the Rams falling short in the playoffs. He still talks about his rookie season and a fourth-quarter interception that stopped his team one game shy of the Super Bowl.

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