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Pat Haden discusses roles as USC athletic director, member of playoff selection committee

LOS ANGELES -- Pat Haden's future at USC is as unpredictable as his top four teams for 2015.

The athletic director's term as a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee expires in February 2016, which means he has just one more season to help determine the best teams in the country. Haden remains committed to both the playoff and USC for another year. But beyond that?

"I am not sure," he said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "I'm certainly going to do it next year and then we're just going to see. Whatever the president wants me to do."

USC president C.L. Max Nikias said he hopes Haden continues his role "for many, many years to come."

"When the sanctions were imposed on the USC program, everybody said, 'This is the death of USC football,' and it wasn't. If you look at our record over five years during the probation period, it's as good as Notre Dame, but as you know, the Trojan family is clearly unsatisfied. They want a national championship. But we did survive the severe penalties. We navigated through them successfully. We owe a great deal of gratitude to Pat and his leadership for navigating the program through the past five years."

USC president C.L. Max Nikias on Haden.

"He says, 'Max, I enjoy 80 percent of the job, and the other 20 percent is the headaches,'" Nikias said. "I said, 'If this is your ratio, you are doing very well.'"

Haden agreed.

"My health is good," he said. "I had some issues. We're working through them, and I feel pretty good."

It's clear, though, that the 62-year-old grandfather of six would feel even better if his alma mater was actually in the playoff conversation -- a strong possibility this fall with the return of 16 starters from last season's nine-win team, including a Heisman-caliber quarterback in Cody Kessler. It's still a tall task, considering it will take about two more years before the roster is back at 85 scholarships, and the schedule this fall includes trips to Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon.

"I don't think that his decision will depend how the football team does one year or another," Nikias said. "The portfolio of the athletic director is much broader than that."

Still, it's not a stretch to say that Haden has a deeper rooting interest in USC's success than anyone.

He won two national titles as USC's quarterback in 1972 and 1974. He has served on USC's board of trustees. The campus is as familiar to him as his own living room. He hired coach Steve Sarkisian, who is facing playoff expectations in only his second season.

Whether or not Haden's remaining tenure at USC is directly tied to the team's success is pure speculation, but there's no question that his legacy as the school's athletic director will be determined in part by how far Sarkisian can take the Trojans.

"To be able to say, 'Hey, I was part of this college football committee,' that stuff for Pat matters to him that he's making a difference," Sarkisian said. "He wants nothing more than for us to turn this thing around and win a championship while he's here so he can feel like he really made a difference, because he does, every day."

Haden spent countless hours this past season watching games, traveling to the committee's voting headquarters in Dallas and analyzing statistics to compile his own top 30 teams every week. He and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice were assigned to monitor the Big Ten, which turned out to have the playoff's biggest surprise in Ohio State.

"This feeling that the sport that's been so important in your life, you don't just want to give back," Haden said, "you want to get it right, or as close to right as you could."

"There was great respect amongst the committee members, but there was frank debate and frank conversation and some pulling and tugging, but at the end of the day we reached a consensus everyone could feel pretty good about," he said. "I think the process was a good one and a relatively thorough one. We're not going to make many tweaks for next year. We had a very good end result. I know there are some schools in Texas that would disagree, but in any system -- even when I played -- there was debate. There was debate in the BCS, debate here. ... You're always going to have that. I think we all knew that going in."

What they didn't know was how time-consuming it would be.

Haden estimated he spent about 20 hours a week just preparing for his trip to Dallas, including watching games, reading conference websites, crunching numbers with a small group of students from 1-4 p.m. every Sunday, and compiling his top 30 teams. He said his main study points were turnover ratios and offensive and defensive point differentials.

On Monday mornings, he would fly to Dallas with his list of top teams and the reasons behind their rankings.

"Knowing that these people were as busy as I was, and they were still doing their work too," Haden said, "I knew I wasn't going to be the guy least prepared.

"It was exhilarating," he said, "and at the end of the day when you got the ranking, and you saw the response from the general public, in trying to have people realize it's not really a ranking or a poll like people are used to, it's a little different than it has been in the past, and we're all going to have to get used to that."

For seven straight weeks, the selection committee would meet at 2 p.m. at the Gaylord Texan resort on Mondays and finish around 10 p.m., after having dinner together. They'd meet again from 8 a.m. until noon on Tuesdays to finalize their highly-anticipated top 25. Haden would then take a 2½-hour flight back to L.A., and be back in his office by 4 p.m. PT.

"The regular job doesn't go away," he said, "just because you're doing that."

"I felt for him because it was hard," Sarkisian said. "I think that was a lot on him, but I also know he watched a lot of football and that committee probably knew the scrutiny that was coming and maybe even went almost overboard with their detail of how much football they watched to make sure they got it right."

Haden, of course, thought they got it right.

"If you're Baylor or TCU, they would've been worthy playoff contenders as well, but the fact that the Ohio State team really very impressively marched through those two games -- and we had good games, good ratings -- there really wasn't a lot of debate among the general population on at least three of the four teams," he said.

Haden didn't escape headlines entirely: He was hospitalized twice in one weekend before the season even began. He was fined $25,000 in September after he left the press box and ran onto the field for a lively discussion with officials during the Stanford game. And Haden, who has a gay son, declined to join his fellow committee members for a meeting in Indianapolis last month in protest of the new Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Haden conceded he could've handled the situation at Stanford better, but said that his role as committee member and the scrutiny that accompanies it doesn't take precedent over his job as athletic director.

"That is my main job," he said. "I always have to do my job here at USC. That is what I got hired for, I get paid for, my responsibility. That is my first priority. The College Football Playoff is a different responsibility. I think they're very much bifurcated."

They are -- until USC enters the playoff conversation.

Haden can't vote for the Trojans, and the recusal policy requires him to leave the room anytime they're being discussed. They can take Haden out of the room, but good luck trying to take USC out of Haden.

That departure will be on his own terms.