After USC hired former star football players as athletic director three times in a row, from Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett to Pat Haden to Lynn Swann, it went outside the family in 2019 for a sitting AD with extensive administrative experience to lead its storied athletic department. That option, Mike Bohn, flopped too.
Now, one year away from a move to the Big Ten, USC is again searching for a new athletic director.
In the wake of Bohn’s messy exit, the feeling is that the Trojans will be much more careful in choosing the type of leader they bring in this time. The Athletic spent the past week discussing the opening with administrators, agents and those who work at search firms to get a sense of the potential candidate pool.
Inside a ‘toxic atmosphere’ at Cincinnati: What USC didn’t know before hiring Mike Bohn
USC president Carol Folt, who might be on shaky ground herself given she hired Bohn, is known across college athletics as someone who is hard to work with. How much longer will she be in charge at USC? Word is also getting around the college sports world that some of the underlings that Bohn brought with him from Cincinnati and put into elevated roles have helped foster what multiple USC sources described to The Athletic this week as a “toxic culture.” Whoever takes this job will have a lot to manage right out of the gate.
Multiple industry sources expect that it would be too hard — and too expensive — to pry away a sitting Big Ten or SEC athletic director for this position, but it is an appealing job with a storied football program that is nationally relevant again heading into the move to the Big Ten, with all the revenue and resources that come with that.
“They also need someone who can play nice with (NIL) collectives, is visible, understands L.A. and can continue to professionalize their department,” one industry source said. “It will be an interesting search.”
Here are some names to keep an eye on:
Pat Chun, Washington State athletic director
Chun is one of many in the AD world who learned under venerated Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. Chun is also probably one of many in that same group holding out hope that he could be the one to replace Smith when he retires. (That will be quite an AD sweepstakes when the day comes.)
Chun is well respected inside college athletics, and he knows both the Pac-12 and the Big Ten. He’s served on national NCAA committees, including the D-I Transformation Committee and the D-I Council, and he helped found the AAPI Athletics Alliance, which works to help AAPI administrators find support and empowerment. When Chun was at FAU, he made the bold decision to give Lane Kiffin a second chance as a head coach, a move that paid off well for the Owls. At Wazzu, he’s helped multiple programs (including women’s soccer and women’s basketball) to their best-ever seasons, and he’s done an impressive job navigating recent turbulence around the football program.
Chun is working in an athletic department that is in trouble financially, so now could be a good time to make a move.
Jen Cohen, Washington athletic director
Cohen has some Southern California roots from her days as a San Diego State student before rising up the ranks at Washington. The Washington men’s soccer and volleyball teams are now among the best in the country, the rowing team is still a powerhouse and her hire of Kalen DeBoer as football coach last year looked brilliant. The former Sioux Falls and Fresno State head coach led the Huskies to an 11-2 mark and a top-10 finish.
Cohen is charismatic and would seem to have the personality that could shine in Los Angeles. The job at USC might be tempting, given the stability and financial appeal of a West Coast-based Big Ten program compared to the uncertainty surrounding life in what’s left of the Pac-12 without the L.A. bluebloods in it.
John Currie, Wake Forest athletic director
The 52-year-old Currie has extensive AD experience, dating back to 2009 at Kansas State. Currie, a Wake Forest grad, had an ugly exit at Tennessee, but given how things unfolded with former football coach Phil Fulmer pulling a power play to take over and ramrod his choice in as head coach (Jeremy Pruitt) and how disastrous that move proved, Currie was perhaps fortunate to get out of there when he did.
He has a strong track record for raising money and in 2022 was honored, for the second time, by NACDA — the National Association of College Directors of Athletics — as its AD of the year. (Then again … Bohn received that honor recently as well.) Currie does deserve a lot of credit for Steve Forbes, who has pumped some life back into the Wake men’s basketball program after it had fallen apart, in addition to helping secure a long-term deal with Dave Clawson, who has continued to elevate the Demon Deacons football program.
Jeremiah Donati, TCU athletic director
Donati has strong California roots. He’s a member of the California Bar Association, and his wife grew up in Southern California. He has done some amazing work in development at TCU and has dramatically upgraded the facilities. Donati also managed a delicate situation involving the ending of the tenure of legendary coach Gary Patterson, who has a statue in front of the Horned Frogs stadium. He deftly ushered in a new era with an inspired hire of Sonny Dykes, who led TCU to the national championship game in Year 1 to become the first Big 12 program to make the College Football Playoff title game and the first Texas school to make the CFP.
Men’s basketball, women’s soccer and volleyball, under a first-year Donati hire, are also flourishing. Would Donati be tempted to go back to the L.A. area to oversee a storied athletic department with a lot of uncertainty swirling around it as opposed to staying at a place he’s helped reach new heights? Maybe not, but it’s probably a call USC should make.
Heather Lyke, Pittsburgh athletic director
A former Michigan softball star, Lyke worked under Smith at Ohio State and spent 15 years with the Buckeyes before becoming an AD herself for the first time at Eastern Michigan. She has ties to the Midwest with intimate knowledge of the Big Ten, which would help as the Trojans make their move.
She is an excellent fundraiser who is highly regarded in the industry and serves in prominent leadership positions on a variety of boards and committees, including the Division I Council. She is the current chair of the D-I Football Oversight Committee and the president of the Women Leaders in College Sports board of directors.
Mark Jackson, Villanova athletic director
No other AD who will get consideration knows USC as well as Jackson, a 50-year-old Pete Carroll protege. The one-time New England Patriots assistant coach played a vital role in USC’s athletic department raising $300 million.
The former senior associate AD was well-regarded by many inside the Trojans community. He also managed a massive renovation project of the Coliseum. But there might be some reluctance to bring back someone from that era who was involved in the hiring of Steve Sarkisian. In the near decade Jackson has run the Wildcats’ athletic department, Villanova has been presented with the Big East Conference Presidents’ Award four times for the school’s athletics success across the board.
Martin Jarmond, UCLA athletic director
Another Gene Smith protege, Jarmond has given the Trojans’ archrival a jolt of enthusiasm. The 43-year-old orchestrated the Bruins deal with the Nike/Jordan Brand, the first Nike partnership in UCLA history, and also helped steward UCLA’s move to the Big Ten.
One industry source told The Athletic this week that Jarmond probably feels like a better fit at USC than he does for the Bruins, but we hear from others who can’t imagine the Trojans would seriously consider hiring someone directly from Westwood.
Lynda Tealer, Florida deputy AD
Tealer might be more of a reach because she’s never been an AD, which could be seen as a risky move. But she is highly regarded among people who work in college sports, and her daughter has committed to play volleyball at USC, beginning in the fall of 2024.
Industry sources say Tealer, a Southern California native, could’ve been a Group of 5 athletic director years ago, but she’s been picky about the opportunities she has pursued. She was up for the West Coast Conference commissioner job and withdrew her name from consideration in the late stages.
The former University of San Diego basketball player has been a key figure behind the scenes at Florida for much of the past 20 years and now oversees men’s basketball, volleyball and softball. She also holds leadership roles on several NCAA and SEC committees. Tealer has served as the chair of the Division I Council since November and chaired the NIL working group since its formation last winter.
Other candidates worth a look
• UTSA athletic director Lisa Campos has been a driving force behind the rise of the Roadrunners football program and the school’s move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. She hired (and signed to a long-term extension) rising star Jeff Traylor.
• Ohio athletic director Julie Cromer is another highly regarded administrator who appears poised for a Power 5 position sometime soon, after co-chairing the D-I Transformation Committee alongside SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and becoming one of the most important voices in college athletics.
• Sarah Baumgartner, the executive senior associate athletics director for sports administration at Texas, has been ready to be an AD for years and knows the Big Ten well from her time at Rutgers. She spent five years there as the deputy AD, overseeing all revenue-generating and external departments while being involved in capital projects and contract negotiations.
• One industry source described Army athletic director Mike Buddie as “probably the best AD nobody knows about.”
• The same source suggested former UC Davis AD and current Golf Canada chief sport officer Kevin Blue as an “out of the box” candidate. Blue was one of the most thought-provoking and forward-thinking administrators in the country during his time in college sports.
(Top photo of Mike Bohn and Lincoln Riley: Keith Birmingham / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)