Mike Garret served as USC Athletic Director for 17 years. The Trojan won 23 national titles and USC built the Galen Center under his watch.
USC’s outgoing athletic director was a pioneer on campus as a player and administrator. NCAA penalties and controversy surrounding football program, lead to change at the top.
By Michael Brown
Sentinel Contributing Writer
After 17 years at the helm of USC’s storied athletic program, the school’s incoming president replaced Mike Garrett after a groundbreaking career, recently tainted by severe imposed NCAA sanctions and questionable public comments.
Garrett, the Trojans’ first Heisman Trophy winner and black athletic director, was ousted July 20 by the university’s incoming president, Max Nikias, who then went on to hire legendary alumnus, Pat Haden.
The reshuffling at the top spot in USC’s athletic department will officially take place on August 3, but the groundwork has been in development for a while since Nikias offered the job to Haden seven weeks ago. Haden initially declined the offer according to reports, but agreed after discussing the matter with his wife.
Garrett’s numerous accomplishments at the university were recently overshadowed by the NCAA saddling USC with four years’ probation in June, including a two-year bowl ban and a dramatic reduction in scholarships and additional penalties for rules violations.
Matters were perhaps made worst when shortly after the penalties were announced, Garrett, at an alumni event in Northern California, inferred that the sanctions were motivated by “envy,” and bragged about “wanting to dominate for another 10 years.” He followed that up a few weeks later by implying that other schools were attempting to poach USC talent away, but apologized to several programs after his allegation was discredited.
Since the Trojans were hit with the penalties, which stemmed from improper benefits received by former running back, Reggie Bush and former basketball player, O.J. Mayo, several players and coaches have left the program-with the potential for more to follow.
Nikias thanked Garrett in a letter posted on the university’s website and heavily emphasized future compliance as a hallmark of the athletic program.
Despite the recent upheaval, Garrett’s legacy as a pioneer will likely withstand the test of time due to his successful track record on and off the field.
As athletic director, Garrett was the sixth man to fill the post and the second longest tenured behind the school’s first A.D., Willis O. Hunter, 32 years. During Garrett’s run, the school’s athletic teams won 23 national titles, including two by the university’s financial athletic breadwinner: football.
Garrett also raised $375 million in gifts and donations during his tenure according to a university press release. Garrett’s ability to garner finances bore fruit when the late alumnus and trustee, Louis Galen, and his wife Helene, donated $35 million toward the construction of the Galen Center.
The more than 10,000 seat arena, which opened in 2006, sits directly across from USC’s University Park Campus. After being known for decades as a “football school,” the construction of the arena served as a testament to Garrett’s visionary approach-and his desire to see to it that the university was competitive across the board.
Garrett’s hire as A.D. in 1993 was also significant because he was only the third African American to hold such a post in major Division I athletics history at the time. Once hired, Garrett went on to provide opportunities for minorities and took a keen interest in women’s athletics.
Prominent African American men’s basketball coaches such as Charlie Parker and Henry Bibby were hired by Garrett and on the women’s side, Michael Cooper was given a shot. John Henry Johnson and Tina Fernandes were hired as men and women’s sprint coaches, respectively.
“I believe Mike Garrett’s legacy will be felt for years, his track record speaks for itself,” said Fernandes. “He’s been a great role model to many of us who work within the athletics department and he’ll be missed. Mike was always personal and provided great support. I’m sad to see him go.”
Under Garrett’s direction, the university’s women’s teams won 10 national titles and several sports were added to the overall athletic program.
Prior to Garrett’s work as an A.D., his first stint at USC was as a record-breaking running back out of Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. The “Tailback U” moniker is associated with Trojan football due to Garrett becoming the first in a long line of USC tailbacks to capture the coveted Heisman Trophy, under the coaching of John McKay and later on, John Robinson.
After Garrett captured college football’s top individual award in 1965, a succession of running backs followed including O.J. Simpson (’68); Charles White (’78); Marcus Allen (’81) and Reggie Bush (2005).
When Garrett graduated from USC, he moved on to the NFL where he enjoyed an eight-year career with the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. He then established another first, by becoming the first tailback to rack up 1000 yards with two teams.
Despite his many accomplishments, Garrett provided fodder for his critics for several controversial moves. One of the notable missteps, which drew the ire of longtime alumni, was the firing of Robinson after his second-stint as USC Coach in 1997. Garrett opted to fire the legendary coach via voicemail rather than personally.
Rick Majerus was hired as men’s basketball coach in 2004, but resigned a few days later. Fans and the media questioned Garrett’s evaluation and decision-making skills after the awkward events that transpired.
Criticism aside, Garrett’s impact with individuals whom he worked with may best decide the college football Hall of Famer’s legacy several years from now. Fernandes shared a short story.
“There was a situation where I had an opportunity to access another position, but Mike personally persuaded me not to,” she said. “He was always accessible to talk to, open, and he really helped me get through a tough decision. I feel blessed to have worked for him.”