Former USC wide receiver Lynn Swann is known primarily for his play on the football field. Whether it is being a part of John McKay's 1972 Trojan team that went undefeated and won a national title, or being a key cog in the dominant run the Pittsburgh Steelers had in the late 1970s, Swann's popular accolades place him in pads more often than they place him in suits.
On Thursday morning, however, Swann affixed himself to a podium inside the John McKay Center donning a well-tailored ensemble and a cardinal tie while being introduced as the new athletic director of the University of Southern California.
“This is a job a lot of people would love to have,” Swann said.“There’s a lot of things in life that I planned for, this was certainly not one of them.”
Swann's hiring didn't come out of left field. It came from the parking lot of the stadium. His name had not surfaced as a candidate, or even as a fleeting rumor or joke.
But there stood school president Max Nikias, touting the former wideout as the right choice for the school, despite having, according to him, over 200 candidates to choose from.
"You have no idea how many letters I received, hundreds and hundreds of them," Nikias said, even mentioning that someone nominated President Barack Obama for the job.
Nikias was adamant about citing Swann's leadership qualities, but added fuel to the fire by again giving away the insular hiring tendencies USC cannot seem to stay away from.
"The fact that he's a Trojan legend, I view that as a big value added," Nikias pointed out afterward.
This is not to impart judgment on the decision, to already condemn it without a single day of tenure. The issue lies therein with the process once again, regardless of the results be it a year or five years from now.
"I was glad that Nikias came to me. I was not expecting this, but it seemed to fit in many ways," Swann said.
Swann, who has worked as a broadcaster and politician since retiring, admitted to getting calls and tweets about the possibility of taking the position Once the thought entered his mind, he said, his competitive drive kicked in and he expected to get the job.
Yet the fact remains that Nikias was the one who approached him about the job. Other finalists, according to Nikias, included other sitting AD's, NFL managers and people with legal expertise (i.e. individuals with experience). All of whom were passed over for Swann.
“Going through the process, I knew that this would be one of the biggest decisions that I would make as president.” — USC President Max Nikias.
Swann, for his part, quickly showcased the demeanor of a leader, the candor of a guy who is level-headed and approachable and whose priority was the young men and women who truly make up USC athletics—the athletes.
“The ultimate goal is to take care of the kids,” Swann said. “The first you have to do is engage them.”
Swann met with student leaders before the meeting, including football's offensive lineman Zach Banner who echoed the sentiment.
Much respect to Lynn Swann for talking to the Athletes first before he addressed the media today. Shows he’s here for us
— Zach Banner (@zachbanner73) April 14, 2016
Regardless of the student engagement Swann is hoping to accomplish, the irrefutable reality is this: USC's AD is judged by the general fanbase and public on the success of the football team, and—from time to time—the basketball team.
Swann's arrival at University Park does little to prove the process has changed. A hire by USC leadership remains a hire of USC individuals. But the position that Swann steps into leaves him little room to exceed expectations.
"[Swann] is someone who is a leader, not a manager," Nikias said.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with being a manager," Swann later posed. "I listen. I think that's an important aspect of leadership that people don't understand."
The contradictory statements notwithstanding, USC is indeed asking Swann to arrive and manage, to stay and stabilize what has been a rather tumultuous program as of late. He is being called upon to have the title, while being subversively put into a position where he won't benefit from the possible success of the two hires he didn't make—Clay Helton and Andy Enfield.
Barring a major scandal or development, it's likely that Swann won't have to make a major hire for many, many years. With Enfield locked up until 2021 and a five-year contract to Helton's name, Swann's self-awareness regarding his role showed.
“I’m not here to clean house or make overwhelming changes,” Swann said. “I hope I can be a valuable asset and help the program now.”
Swann's pitch, if you will, revolved around the student athletes, his plan to engage them was three-part strategy focused on what they can gain from their time at USC:
During a time where the status of student athletes is hotly discussed topic, a time when the NCAA continues to try and tout their facetious values, while profiting off the amateurism of those who put in the hard work, Swann's perspective was a fresh one.
"This is not about me, this is about the kids," Swann reiterated. "That's what I want to make this program about."
In the past few years, USC has been riddled with corporate conundrums, managerial failures and external distractions. To put it bluntly: It feels like it has been all about anything but the athletes.
If Swann's hiring, regardless of how it came about, can put the athletes once again at the forefront of the program by giving them the respect and attention they deserve, then vindication will surely follow.
And who knows, maybe once the spotlight shifts from those wearing suits to those wearing jerseys, the championships everyone in Cardinal and Gold professes will become not merely talking points, but real byproducts of a revamped culture.