LOS ANGELES — It’s safe to say nobody heading to the Coliseum on Saturday has seen Southern California’s football rivalry with Notre Dame from more angles than Pat Haden.
Heck, he’s changed sides more times than the Jeweled Shillelagh itself.
The childhood Irish fan became USC’s quarterback, playing in two of the rivalry’s most memorable games. The longtime Notre Dame broadcaster then moved on last July to his current job as the Trojans athletic director.
And no matter what happens in their 81st meeting this weekend, it’ll be tough for two unranked programs in transition to match the thrills Haden has already experienced, starting with his first taste of the matchup as an eager 11-year-old at the Coliseum in 1964.
“Well, as I grew up rooting for Notre Dame, I was obviously very disappointed when Craig Fertig threw a touchdown pass to Rod Sherman on fourth and 8 with 1:33 left to beat the No. 1 Irish 20-17,” Haden said, joyously rattling off the exact finish of a game played 46 years ago. “Two years later, I was there again when Notre Dame beat the Trojans 51-0 in their worst loss ever.”
Haden was entranced by the history and tradition under the Golden Dome, but the lure of USC and the chance to play in the Rose Bowl grew on him as a teenager. The La Puente prep star eventually went against his mother’s wishes, spurning the Irish’s advances to stay close to home with the Trojans.
In his three varsity meetings with Notre Dame from 1972-74, the winner went on to claim the national championship in at least one major poll each time. His trip to South Bend with the 1973 squad is a treasured memory despite the sixth-ranked Trojans’ 23-14 loss to No. 8 Notre Dame in a rainstorm.
“Coming out of that tunnel at that stadium I had dreamed of playing in as a kid was almost as daunting as the opponent we were facing,” Haden said. “You felt the weight of the significance of that series. Now it was your time to be great. There’s only one brand in college football, and that’s Notre Dame.”
His senior meeting with the Irish is still among USC football’s finest hours: The Trojans turned a 24-point deficit into a blowout victory in roughly 17 minutes starting right before halftime.
During that flurry, Haden threw two touchdown passes to J.K. McKay, his lifelong friend and current lieutenant in the USC athletic department. Haden still can’t totally absorb how it happened.
“It’s got to be the best memory of my career,” Haden said. “It was an impossible win. They were a really good team. It was unexplainable what happened. It was phenomenal, and then I got carried away and asked my then-girlfriend to marry me after the game, to make it that much more memorable.”
The Trojans’ Rhodes Scholar eventually become a successful businessman, but his second career in broadcasting led him back to Notre Dame for the past 12 years as NBC’s television analyst on almost every Irish game, including those annual meetings with his alma mater.
Although Notre Dame’s passionate fan base was well aware of his USC ties, most thought Haden did an impartial job — a perception he strived to achieve.
“It was an uncomfortable game to broadcast,” Haden said. “Notre Dame fans were looking for any sense of bias. It was difficult to please both sides. I never particularly enjoyed the game as a broadcaster, but I think both sets of fans appreciated how I did it.”
Haden became USC’s athletic director last summer, charged with rebuilding the program’s reputation under heavy NCAA sanctions.
Haden’s new job is a bit more stressful than showing up on Saturday to critique the action. He has spent the past week dealing with freshman tailback Dillon Baxter’s unwitting decision to take a ride on campus in a golf cart belonging to a USC student who also is registered as an agent.
And after more than a decade of watching every Notre Dame game, Haden has scarcely seen a minute of Irish action this season. He’s too busy hitting every Trojans event possible, sometimes listening to the national anthem three times in a day, but he’s still thinking about Notre Dame.
“They really nurture their student athletes well,” Haden said. “They have a very good program to make kids successful the rest of their lives. We need to do a better job of that at USC.”
Since he took over the athletic department at his alma mater, Haden has spoken frequently of improving his athletes’ connection to the campus and the world. USC’s athletes now get a calendar in their lockers each month highlighting campus activities that don’t involve sports.
He’s planning changes to the life skills instruction given to the Trojans, and Notre Dame exemplifies many of the standards to which he aspires.
“One of the things I admire is their athletes and their football players are really parts of the general student population,” said Haden, noting the Irish’s freshman rooming assignments. “These guys oftentimes room with a guy from the band, or maybe an actor. That balance makes them realize that not everybody is interested in football.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)