Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — Lynn Swann sat in his second-story office within Heritage Hall on Thursday, five days removed from the three-year anniversary of his hire as USC’s athletic director.
Within his first two years on the job, USC won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title in football and the men’s basketball team made an NCAA Tournament appearance. However, this academic year has placed Swann, the pro football Hall of Famer and Trojan legend who is also a first-time athletic director, under scrutiny and in the midst of a storm.
The football and men’s basketball programs both finished below .500 for the first time since 1983-84, and Donna Heinel became the second member of the athletic department to be involved in a federal investigation since Sept. 2017. This is without mentioning the criticism he’s received for his decision to retain Clay Helton.
Swann sat down with The Athletic on Thursday and discussed a variety of topics — including these past three years, Helton, newly named president, Carol L. Folt, perceptions and much more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Role as USC Athletic Director
Saturday marked the three-year anniversary of your hire. How would you assess the past three years?
I think it’s always a learning process, a growing process. You’re learning your personnel and people, all the details of being an administrator at the collegiate level so you handle things as they come up. You plan for down the road in terms of listening to your coaches, in terms of listening to your administrators. In terms of looking and seeing what facilities we have. If you look at the window, you see our track facility and it’s not very impressive when you look at it. Changes we’re making now in terms of our facilities and having long-range plans. What’s immediate and what’s long range?
USC is a very interesting place because (it has) a lot of history and a lot of tradition. If you just look at our football uniforms, they haven’t changed in a long time. There are some things you can probably change and it would be OK and you would not get a lot of comments. And there are other things you could try to change or make changes on and suddenly it’s ‘We can’t do that.’ I bet if you polled the kids who play the game, they’re always interested in how the other teams have a different jersey or those kinds of things. So you try to balance the big things and the small things.
How have the past three years challenged you?
They challenge what your perception of the job may have been and then what the realities of the job are. The job is very fluid because with 650 athletes and a staff there’s no telling what direction it goes in any one particular day. We’ve had our share of challenges. We’ll continue to have our share of challenges. We try to make sure those challenges are small. Whatever is going on, we look to report in terms of our compliance. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide in that standpoint. You have to be nimble.
What have you learned in that time, personally, about this job? Is it harder than you expected? About what you expected?
It’s not a job, No. 1. It really is a lifestyle. Sure, people will focus on football. They’ll focus on basketball. They’ll focus on anything that’s controversial that happens at any particular time but with 650 athletes or so and 21 sports, there’s just a lot going on. Even this weekend, it was one day at the women’s golf Pac-12 championship at Palos Verdes. It’s staff meetings in the morning before that. It’s flying up to San Jose, watching the men’s team because golf reports to me directly. Watching the men in competition there, flying back in time for a head coaches’ staff meeting. A couple meetings after that, then going up to Palos Verdes to present the trophy for the women’s golf team. Then the basketball banquet that night, so you’re home at 9 p.m. That’s not a job, that’s kind of a lifestyle. This weekend, it’s Easter weekend. A lot of folks are at home, planning Easter celebrations and so forth but we’ve got baseball games, tennis competitions, we’ve got volleyball at Pepperdine. So there’s always something going on.
How have you adjusted to that lifestyle?
One of the questions I had when I took the job, because what I was doing beforehand, was could I be in an office eight hours a day? Of course, this is not an eight-hour-a-day job. You’re outside, you’re with the kids, you’re talking to coaches. There are meetings everywhere. You’re flying to Northern California, to Phoenix, to Dallas, to Florida for NCAA meetings, Pac-12 meetings, Rose Bowl meetings and everything else. It’s very time-consuming. That’s been an adjustment and that’s been OK. I think you have to monitor this and make sure you have to take care of yourself in the midst of all these things. Otherwise, you don’t have the energy and strength to deal with it. That’s why my 5 a.m. wakeups and getting into the gym, early meetings, getting behind the desk, making phone calls, having that time to be organized.
I don’t grade it. I think you have to work at the job. I think other people will ask you to grade it. I put it out there, what I have done and what I haven’t done. What’s been good. What has not been good and let other people make those decisions. I think very often people in the media sometimes want to criticize me for not being more verbal, more out there about what’s going on but I always felt when I took this job, it’s not about me. I’ve had my share of press and media and everything else. This is about the school, the kids and what they do. When programs are running well, you want to hear from the head coach. Even when they’re not running well, they want to hear from the head coach. So I’m not worried about a legacy, I’m not worried about “Am I putting my mark on USC?” I’m trying to do the right things and get SC to move forward in a lot of different ways.
Clay Helton and overcoming challenges
Do you feel in those challenging times you should come out and say something?
Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. The university will take a position and the university will decide. They’ll issue a statement on what’s going on so it’s out of your hands. So the university takes over in some of those cases like that. In other cases, I’ll make a statement, say what I need to say and that’s it.
Have there been any times you wanted to say something but couldn’t?
Well, there are lots of things going on when you want to say something and can’t. It’s not because there’s something controversial going on. There’s a process you have to adhere to. There are rules and regulations. There are university positions you take. There are NCAA positions you take. No one will know how hard we fought on a daily, weekly basis around basketball when things were happening around basketball. Advocating for our student-athletes where there’s question marks. Every day we had parents, other people, who were firing off information that for the most part was a little slanted and not 100 percent accurate. You come to work every day, you put your big-boy pants on and do what you’re supposed to do. Sometimes what you’re supposed to do, it doesn’t make you look good but it’s what you need to do.
If there is one thing you could do over in the past few years, what would you do?
I don’t think you could look at it that way. If you’re trying to do the right things then you’re trying to do the right things. You can’t stop people from making bad decisions. If I could, I’d stop every one of our student-athletes from making a bad decision. You just can’t stop it. So I don’t think going back, trying to rehash it, say “OK, what could I have done differently?” When you’re pushing people in the right direction, when you’re trying to make the right decisions for the right reasons, and the expectation is the people who are here are doing the same thing. When they make mistakes, when they let you down, then you have to address it.
This is your first-ever AD job. Who do you look to for advice or as a sounding board when you need to make decisions?
I lean on people who are here in this department who have been at this for a long time. The history of what we’ve done and why we’ve done it becomes very important. So that’s helpful in some ways. In other ways, it’s not always as helpful because if you want to make change, sometimes it’s a little harder to make that change.
I have people across the country I talk to relative to leadership, relative to problem-solving, how you view things, how you look at things. And certainly alumni from the school, in terms of their viewpoint, what’s going on, their perspective, how they see things.
Before you were the AD, your reputation or your legacy here as a player was pretty immaculate. Now as the AD, you’ve gained some critics, people are writing you should be fired and stuff like that. How do you manage that?
I don’t worry about that. When it comes to football, people have their opinions about who they think should be the coach, how the game should be played in any particular sport. Someone told me here that’s been here a long time, they said when Pete Carroll was winning national championships people still complained.
What’s your feeling about the state of the football and basketball programs right now and the struggles they had this year?
I think you can pick them apart, look at them and say, “These are the reasons why they are where they are.” I think both programs are on solid ground. I think our basketball program, unfortunately, last year with the number of injuries, there were times you didn’t have 10 people you could practice with. It was unfortunate. If you look at their season, look at the way they played in the Pac-12 championship, they still got better. They still improved. They could have won and beaten Washington. You look at the Pac-12 championship and Oregon wins it, look how deep Oregon went into the (NCAA Tournament). That could have been USC. So there is reason to be optimistic about basketball and where they’re going. I think when (head coach) Andy (Enfield) was hired, he was hired to bring stability to a program and to move it up. And I think he’s doing that. You look at his recruiting class coming in and so forth, there are lots of things to be very positive about so we’ll see what happens in 2019-20 season.
Football, it was a bad season. But there are a lot of things that go into what happens in a football season, why a coach is there, the decision to retain and keep Clay was not made in a vacuum. I believe Clay has the ability to be a very good head coach and so my decision was made on a variety of parameters and a variety of issues. So he’s here. I think if you look at his recruiting classes, he’s done well with the recruiting classes. His team will be able to compete. He has a staff he’s put together, a staff he’s comfortable with. We’ve had a good spring and he feels very good about the spring. So 2019, with the opening of the Coliseum, kind of a remodeled stadium, we’ll see how we perform.
When did you ultimately decide you were retaining him?
At the end of the season.
Following your decision to retain Clay Helton, how do you feel this team’s performance will reflect back on you?
Again, that’s for other people to comment on. There will always be people who will have a positive comment on what happens. There will be people who have negative comments. I’m not overly concerned about that. What I’m concerned about is, are we making the best decisions for the program to move things forward.
In a way, do you think your fate is tied to his?
Again, I’m not worried about that.
When Clay was changing his staff, what did you want to see from the coaches he was pursuing when he was overhauling things?
The hiring of a staff is always on the head coach. I’ve always said I don’t hire assistant coaches, I hire head coaches. They have to find the right people to work with them, the team chemistry, the personality of the coaches who have the other intangibles they think are important in coaching a team and working with the kids they’re coaching with.
I felt he just needed to make sure he got people who were improving the process for him. Clay takes on a lot on his shoulders and I think he needed people who were going to be strong enough to step into head coaching shoes on their own. To help build the team and the program. I think he went out and found those kinds of people.
Keep in mind, USC — from my standpoint — had three coaches in a relatively short period of time and what they were doing on the field seemed to be an amalgamation of those three people. (It was) Clay’s first job as a head coach. It’s a big program. It’s a big process. I think Clay is growing into that role and growing productively into that role. He’s changed. He is changing. He has a clearer understanding of what he wants to have in a football team and how he needs to progress. So this has been a process, also for him.
In what ways is Clay Helton changing?
Just in terms of distributing some of that responsibility. He is an offensive coach, but he’s got an offensive coach now (in Graham Harrell), a coordinator, that he’s not trying to coach up. That has the confidence, has the ability within himself to guide and lead this offensive unit. So he’s letting him do that.
I know you can’t say much about the admissions scandal, is there anything you can say about what you guys are doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again?
I can’t say anything about it. I cannot. We’re taking steps.
Shortly after that (the admissions scandal), you participated in an autograph show in Virginia and you took some heat for it, I know you addressed it …
You mean I lived up to a contract?
Did you worry about the timing of that at all?
Look, you make a commitment, you have responsibilities. I’ll give you one example of why it was important. Someone will say maybe it’s trivial. But I don’t normally do autograph shows. I think five years ago was the last time I did one. So the people who were doing the show put the information out publicly. It’s out there. People make plans.
There was a woman who drove from Atlanta, Ga., bringing her items that she wanted me to have signed that she had several people sign in the past. She said I was the last one, OK. She makes her plans, she takes off, she drives up there. People flew in from different places. To not show up at the last minute, not honor the contract, for people who had made plans to do that. I think, one, it’s disrespectful. No. 2, I think it shows a lack of integrity. Because something difficult is happening in one place, you decide not to live up to an obligation in another place? You can have all the words in the world and talk about integrity and being responsible but what kids see and what people should understand is your actions speak louder than anything else.
People want to talk about the perception of it. That’s just a perception.
So you view it simply as living up to a contract?
That’s it. Plain and simple. I would want my kids to understand it was a contractual obligation and I lived up to it. A lot of respect to (former President) Jimmy Carter as a person, but I’m not going to live my life in the Rose Garden.
There’s a balance between the day-to-day athletic director responsibilities and the ceremonial hand-shaking and crowd-pleasing tasks. How do you find that balance? And have you heard the perception that you play golf a lot?
I haven’t heard I’ve been golfing all day, every day. I will tell you in terms of golf, in this year, if we go 365 days back, I’ve probably played six rounds of golf. And one of those rounds would be at a fundraising event for the men’s and women’s golf team which reports directly to me. One round would be at Clay Helton’s golf tournament, which was last year. The other round would be at the Trojan Football Alumni golf tournament.
So yeah, those are the rounds of golf. I live within walking distance from a golf course that I can play and I’ve played it less than four times.
Because you belong to a club means you play golf every day? Again, this is what I’m talking about. People write things with a certain tone, they say things with a certain tone because they have an opinion that might be negative and so they just throw stuff on the wall that shouldn’t really stick. But in our world of instant kind of media and everything else, people look at that, they say, “Oh, he’s out there playing golf. Well, OK, why is he playing golf?” I see that. I’m not worried about it. I’m not concerned about it. It’s one of those things somebody stuck out there for whatever reason.
There have been two federal investigations, how much responsibility should fall on you to be aware of that stuff?
Well, nobody knew what (assistant basketball coach) Tony (Bland) was doing except for Tony and the people involved. Nobody knew what (athletic department administrator) Donna (Heinel) was doing except for Donna and the people involved. As a matter of fact, I think when you look at the indictment, no one discovered it. One of the perpetrators was trying to get a lesser sentence for something else. I wish I had known. But that’s behind us.
Current standing of Pac-12 and the Pac-12 Networks
How would you assess the Pac-12 right now in terms of the revenue sports and how it’s doing?
Everybody wants to be better. The Pac-12 in basketball did not seem extraordinarily solid. But when you got to the NCAA Tournament, we had a couple of teams who did very well and had a pretty decent run. That bodes well. When you look at the recruiting process, I certainly feel comfortable with how USC has been recruiting and what we may look like in basketball next year.
We (the Pac-12) run into problems in major cities, metropolitan areas, when it comes to having games on Thursday night or Friday night or Sunday nights. Traffic concerns and people getting to games and those kinds of things. We’ve run into time challenges because we’re three hours different from the East Coast when our football games are on television and our time slots are there. So we have TV contracts we have to adhere to and live up to that put us in a difficult position in those time slots. But in order to correct that, we just have to be better. We have to put a better product on the football field to force that kind of change or adjustment. So people are seeing what we do. And we have to continue to schedule smartly about who we play.
How much responsibility falls on USC, since you guys are essentially the flagship of the conference? Do you think the conference needs a strong USC to regain its standing amongst its peers?
That certainly would be helpful.
How frustrating is it that the Pac-12 Network has been around for nearly a decade and there are still people here who can’t access it or see it?
There are things you inherit at every job that you can get. That contract was signed a long time ago. The university presidents who agreed with that contract and the Pac-12 who agreed with that contract and everybody else who signed off on it felt it was justified. Some of those people are still here, some of those people have moved on. You adjust and do the best you can. We’re all charged with doing the best we can. Move it forward, worry about the things you can change. Don’t worry about the things you can’t change. Do the best you can possibly do, run a great program, be competitive, try to win the games and everything else, you can adjust to.
The other day, Mark Shuken — Pac-12 Networks president — told the Sports Business Journal that people who criticize the revenue “don’t understand the objective.” What do you feel the objective is?
The objective of the network for us should always be to provide exposure and opportunity for all those member schools. To provide revenue for all those member schools, to continue to grow and to provide an opportunity for fans across your conference to see what you do. And to do it in a manner that’s productive, that helps grow the game, the sport, and helps build your reputation in the most positive way.
Do you feel like the Pac-12 Networks is doing a good enough job of that right now?
I think everybody could use a little improvement.
What do you feel you need to do better moving forward?
I think you always have to continue to grow. You have to learn. The things that people did in the past that were difficult or negative to a program are not the same things they’re doing today. The people who seek to do negative things or bad decisions are looking harder or differently at how they get that done. You have to be vigilant. It doesn’t mean you’re going to catch everything, but you just have to be vigilant. You try and establish an attitude in your department that says you won’t tolerate certain things. I believe in having strong boundaries so that you know when you cross that boundary, you made a mistake. You’re outside the lines. The culture of a team has to have that. The culture of the department has to have that. So if someone crosses that line, for me, I know it’s a conscious decision to go outside of our structure. That, in and of itself, makes it easier to make a decision.
USC fanbase and what’s ahead
What do you feel the morale of the USC fan base is right now considering the 5-7 season in football, the struggles in basketball, the admissions scandal?
I think our fan base, they’re obviously disappointed and who wouldn’t be? But we seek to change that and improve that. People who came out and watched our spring practice, I think they saw improvement, a renewed enthusiasm. I think they probably saw, in terms of the coaching staff and what they were doing, a sense of urgency in implementing a new system, getting people ready and prepared. So I think there are some positives from that standpoint.
If you look at basketball and you look at the recruits who signed national letters of intent, I think you’re seeing talent come into this program and there’s going to be some great opportunities. It’s not that it’s going to be that easy. It’s not that the rules and things around us are making it easy. When you look at the number of kids who have signed up in the NCAA portal to transfer in football — I think over 2,000 kids are in the portal, maybe 2,500. Women’s basketball, there are 500 women in the portal. Over 900, maybe close to 1,000 in the portal. So there are adjustments for everybody to make along the way.
Would you worry about that fan disappointment turning into apathy?
I don’t worry about it turning into apathy. Their disappointment is the opposite of that. Disappointment and them being vocal about the disappointment is a sign that they care. I’d rather have fans who care and show that disappointment and stay supportive at the same time than anything else. Everyone is not going to be happy. There are people who are happy about decisions I’ve made. There are people who are not happy about decisions I’ve made. All you can do is try to make decisions for the right reasons and move it forward.
You were quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying you want to be here for 10 years. Is that still the plan or desire?
Because things aren’t going the way you want them to go, for me, doesn’t mean you go run and hide. Doesn’t mean you cut bait and decide to stop fishing. There are things that need to be improved and things that need to be changed. When I took this job I said I’m not coming here to make change for the sake of change but we’ll make change as necessary to improve where we are. And we’re in the process of making change.
As we sit here on April 18, what’s the No. 1 priority you face right now?
I think the No. 1 priority is keeping the department moving forward. To adjust to difficulties that have occurred. To correct some things we’ve been doing and the way we’ve been doing it, the reasons why we’ve been doing that way. And to continue on making plans to improve USC as a whole in terms of facilities. In terms of a place to compete and go to school and how we perform and to move it forward.
Is there anything else you want to add?
No. Look, USC is a great place to be, it’s a great place to work. It’s a great place for people seeking an opportunity to move forward, both as student-athletes and as administrators here. And we want it to be a great place to work. Are we perfect? No. Have we had people who have made mistakes? Yes. Are we correcting that? Absolutely. There will probably always be people who decide they can get away with a shortcut and most cases they’ll probably be found out. The problems we’re dealing with here at USC are on a national scale. USC may get a little bit more of it because we have more people with high profiles than maybe some of the other places, but it’s a national problem and we’re seeking to correct in our small piece of it.