In addition to the huge remodel of the former McDonald’s Swim Stadium, soon to be unveiled as the Uytengsu Aquatics Center, the University of Southern California (USC) has recently re-opened another big athletics remodel project – Heritage Hall.
The new Heritage Hall expanded from a 48,000 square foot space into a gorgeous 80,000 square foot facility that hosts a museum honoring the greats of USC athletic history – in addition to its pragmatic use as office space for USC administrators and coaches, a broadcast studio, a female student-athlete lounge, and a few performances spaces (an indoor golf driving range, etc.).
The Trojans have a lot of history to share, as the school with the third-most NCAA Division I National Championships in history – 99, and 120 overall collegiate national championships.
Obviously, there are plenty of swimmers represented in the museum: NCAA Champions like Vlad Morozov and World Record holders like Rebecca Soni; and coach Peter Daland who won 9 NCAA men’s team titles in the 1960′s and 1970′s are all featured prominently in the museum.
But this study of the new Heritage Hall didn’t begin, for us, with an inspection of an Olympic gold medalist.
Rather, it began with a display honoring all of the CoSIDA 1st-team Academic All-American, where we noticed a pair of swimmers next to each other: one is recent graduate Alex Lendrum, who was named to the 2013 Academic All-American first team. Next to him, thanks to the alphabet, was Ray Looze, who was named to the Academic All-American first team in 1990, and is currently the head coach at Indiana.
The pair are the only swimmers in USC history to earn 1st, 2nd, or 3rd team CoSIDA Academic All-American honors, and that was enough to make the photo a nice picture for the SwimSwam Instagram account.
But as my eyes wandered upward on the display, another name jumped out: Pat Haden, the current USC Athletics Director, which turned the image into more than just a nice momento for two great scholar-athletes.
Haden was a former football player at USC, and earned his way onto the CoSIDA Academic All-American 1st team twice, and is a member of the CoSIDA Academic Hall-of-Fame.
Haden is arguably the greatest student-athlete in USC history. He was the Trojans’ starting quarterback, was a part of two national championship teams, and had a 6-year NFL career, including one Pro Bowl on the field.
In the classroom, he was a Rhodes Scholar, which he turned into a broadcasting career after his NFL retirement in the 1980′s and had a long, successful career as a partner in his own private equity firm from 1987-2010.
And that’s where this story really becomes interesting.
The USC athletics program, with its incredible legacy, was struggling when Haden took over as the new Athletics Director in 2010. The school’s basketball and football programs were both embroiled in scandals that involved impermissible benefits to Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, and resulted in forfeitures of victories and many other severe punishments for the athletics department.
The ideal of the USC student-athlete, once so strong in the era of Looze and Haden, had taken a hit too.
Prior to the 1997-1998 season, USC earned 20 CoSIDA first team All-American honors. In 1995-1996, they had two first-team athletes, both of whom were football players. They had put an athlete on the Academic All-American First-Team 12 times in 14 years.
Beginning with the 1997-1998 season, during the tenure of former Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett, those awards became a bit sparser, though. They only earned 2 first-team honors in the following 16 years while their athletics department continued to grow
While this is not the only measure of an athletics program’s athletic success, it is a significant indicator of the ability to attract and develop students who are both highly successful athletes and highly successful students.
Now, three years into Haden’s tenure, USC’s place on the All-American lists have been restored. The year 2013 saw three new entries in the annals of USC: Lendrum, water polo goalie Flora Bolonyai, and just a few weeks ago volleyball player Natalie Hagglund.
These CoSIDA awards represent the best-of-the-best in terms of academics and athletics. For example, swimming is part of the “at-large” grouping, where 15 sports are combined to choose 15 men and 15 women for the first-team. In volleyball, 6 athletes from each division are chosen among thousands.
For an example of just how tough it can be to earn this honor, last year, nobody with lower than a 3.7 GPA made the men’s At-Large Academic All-American first team.
The number of schools who have ever earned three first-team honors in the same season could be counted on one’s fingers. Duke has done it, Stanford has done it, cross-town rivals UCLA has done it, Harvard did it once, but Princeton and Yale have never done it. And now USC has retaken its spot among the scholar-athlete elite.
While credit is due to all of the head coaches and academic staff of the athletics department, leadership starts at the top, coincidentally with the leader of the whole organization, and Haden has the credentials where it’s easy to point to him as a large factor in the turnaround.
And so, congratulations to these three new athletes who rightfully took their place in Heritage Hall, and congratulations to USC on their rediscovered heritage.
As a bonus for everyone who made it this far: a sneak preview of the revamped Uytengsu Aquatic Center, that is set for a grand opening on the weekend of February 21st, courtesy of assistant coaches Catherine Vogt and Jeremy Kipp.