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Saturday, November 30, 2013
Updated: December 1, 2:00 PM ET
Haden's choice bigger than Orgeron

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- A month ago, Ed Orgeron was simply a caretaker, a likeable, gravel-voiced Cajun superintendent holding the dust bin and broom after Lane Kiffin's mess. Nobody took him seriously as a candidate to be the next USC head football coach.

A day ago, everyone seemed certain he was the next great Trojan program builder. Just like that, he was the next John McKay, the next Pete Carroll, or -- if you happen to be from the World War I generation -- the next Gus Henderson?

And now? While none of us other than athletic director Pat Haden really knows -- if Haden even knows -- it certainly appears Orgeron is closer to the position he was in on Halloween to the one he was in on Thanksgiving. As of now, his tenure as USC coach seems more like the sugar rush you get from gobbling down too many Tootsie Rolls and Sour Patch Kids than it does the bloated calm you get after powering down a plate of turkey and the 2,500 calories of carbs that go with it.

Ed Orgeron
Ed Orgeron can only wait for AD Pat Haden to render a decision on whether he loses "interim" from his title or loses his title altogether.
Not that there's anything wrong with a little dessert. Who wouldn't get swept up in the romance of those five consecutive victories, including the thriller over powerful Stanford, and the infectious energy and emotion Orgeron brings? His smile works a lot better in front of a TV camera than Kiffin's scowl does. Sentiment seemed to be building to the point that, had USC beaten its archrival Saturday night, Haden might have felt overwhelming pressure to detach the word "interim" from the term "head coach" in Orgeron's title.

But sometimes, sentiment is the last thing a leader like Haden needs to have in mind.

USC's lackluster performance in its 35-14 loss to UCLA at the Coliseum Saturday night offers Haden a fresh palate or, if you're a particularly staunch Orgeron supporter, the cover to carry out the deepest, most open-minded search for the coach best suited to get USC back to dominating college football west of the SEC, as it did not that long ago.

Moments like this don't come along very often for major sports brands like USC football, and decisions shouldn't be made based on the emotion of a good month. It's not that keeping Orgeron would be a bad move. How do I know? By all accounts, he's an ace recruiter. If you don't believe it, rent "The Blind Side." I almost enrolled at Mississippi after watching his cameo. But Haden would be selling his program short if he failed to look under every rock for the most innovative football mind available with the leadership skills to inspire young student-athletes.

Orgeron was gracious after the game, calling USC's performance Saturday its worst since he took over and shouldering the blame for his team's poor execution and its sagging energy after falling behind.

He also sounded resigned to getting bad news the next time Haden calls him to chat about his future.

"If you look at our overall body of work, it's been pretty amazing what these young men have done," Orgeron said. "Obviously, I'm disappointed, especially when you don't beat UCLA and Notre Dame. That's what the head coach at USC is supposed to do, so I totally understand that has to be done."

Incidentally, it wasn't a particularly good look when UCLA head coach Jim Mora held his postgame pep talk with his team in the middle of the Coliseum tunnel -- in plain sight of USC players' families and media members filing past -- rather than taking it into the visiting locker room. "We own this town!" boomed Mora's voice.

A UCLA spokesman said there wasn't room to hold the talk in the locker room, but a USC spokesman said he hadn't seen a visiting coach address his team in the tunnel since Lou Holtz, whose last season at Notre Dame was in 1996.

It all played out as the final insult in a two-year string of them for the Trojans, who seemed to be emerging from the muck only to have this ugly game -- and ugly aftermath -- happen and, now, to be at the brink of more uncertainty.

The players rallied to Orgeron's side, with quarterback Cody Kessler telling reporters, "I want nobody blaming this man … It's our fault." Some people around the program expect Haden to make a hire by Dec. 13, a key weekend for recruiting, with a handful of the Trojans' top targets scheduled to take official visits. That means Kessler and the other players could get some bad news between now and their bowl game in late December. But this is about more distant horizons than that. Does USC really want to appease a team that reached the Las Vegas or Fight Hunger bowl if it shorts its chances to again win national titles?

In a radio appearance last week, Haden voiced support for Orgeron and said he received 136 pro-Orgeron emails in one day, not to mention the texts, tweets and phone calls. Another comment from the same conversation, though, seemed to give a truer read of his feelings.

"My job is to find the best coach of USC, not just for this year, for five, six or eight games or next year, but, hopefully, for five, 10 or 15 years," Haden said. "So we're going to go through this process we have, and, at the end of the day, I think we'll have a rational decision."

Expect the rumors to rev up again in the coming days. The Trojans lost a potential prime candidate when Kevin Sumlin agreed in principle to a new six-year contract at Texas A&M Saturday morning. They've already interviewed Jack Del Rio, an assistant coach with the Denver Broncos, and a former Trojan great. They're said to be high on Boise State's Chris Petersen, who might be finally tempted to leave Idaho now that his team is having its worst season since 2007. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is viewed as an up-and-comer. There will always be rumors of interest in the St. Louis Rams' Jeff Fisher because of his love for his alma mater.

And, who knows, there might be bigger names with interest that haven't become public yet. Considering there are reports USC would be willing to pay up to $6 million per year on a new coach, practically any football coach is in play, theoretically.

Hiring a brand-name coach could bring excitement to the Coliseum and marketing dollars to USC's bank accounts. As Haden well knows, there's more at stake than just prestige.