TEMPE, Ariz. -- USC athletic director Pat Haden left the sideline twice during the second half of the Trojans' 62-41 loss to Arizona State on Saturday night.
Once was during Arizona State's 28-0 run in the third quarter, when he huddled up with some of his advisors and presumably made the decision to pull the plug on Lane Kiffin's tenure as USC's coach now rather than later.
The second was when he trailed the cart driving Marqise Lee back to USC's locker room in the fourth quarter after Lee suffered a left knee injury. Haden wanted to talk to Lee and make sure he was OK before returning to the sideline.
The two might not seem connected on the surface but they speak to an athletic director who has his finger on the pulse of the football team and its players more than most administrators.
Haden can often be seen talking to players before and after games. He is a regular at USC practices and often talks to players and their families not just about football but also about their lives and classes. He has an open-door policy when he's in his office and it's not uncommon to see players pop in and talk to him.
That's not to say Kiffin's players played a role in his firing (other than their play on the field, of course), but it is to say Haden had seen and heard enough from them and their families, in addition to the product we all see on the field, to feel comfortable in making the decision that he made.
Haden's decision to fire Kiffin wasn't a hasty, knee-jerk reaction to one bad game five weeks into the season. It was the culmination of several bad games and bad decisions that made it crystal clear to him that this was a move that had to be made now.
When I sat in Haden's office recently and talked to him about Kiffin's job status, he smiled and said, "Let's just see how this year plays out, OK? I know everybody is anxious. Some people want to fire him; some people want to keep him. What's the rush? This is not the Bataan Death March. We're going to try to enjoy this football season."
Haden, however, knew early on that this would not be an enjoyable season and he would eventually be forced to do something he really didn't want to do -- fire Kiffin during the season.
There were many around Haden who pushed for him to make the move after USC lost to Washington State 10-7 at the Coliseum three weeks ago, when thousands of fans chanted, "Fire Kiffin!" He wanted to wait but realized the next bad loss would likely be Kiffin's last.
The Coliseum was half empty a week later when USC played Boston College and was just as bad the following week against Utah State. Banners and T-shirts reading "Fire Kiffin" and "Fire Lane" filled USC tailgates. Haden's toughest decision as athletic director was being made for him right before his eyes and as he stood on the sideline Saturday night next to school president Max Nikias while USC was being blown out in the desert, he knew it was time.
Before fall camp began, Haden recorded a YouTube video stating that Kiffin was not on the hot seat this season and that he was behind him 100 percent. "I have great confidence in him," he said at the time. "He's a very hard-working, detail-oriented coach. He's a dynamic playcaller, in my estimation, and he's an exceptional recruiter. He knows USC and he knows what it takes to be successful here."
It didn't take long into the season to realize that if Kiffin was hanging his hat on USC's offense and recruiting, his days were numbered. USC's offense has looked dismal at best this season and USC's current recruiting class isn't even listed in ESPN's Top 40. It's a weak class that only figured to get weaker with each bad loss and questions about Kiffin's job status.
When USC was down an assistant coach last year, Haden was able to step in to help with recruiting after passing an NCAA recruiting test. It would make sense for Haden to do that again now as he looks to salvage what's left of this season and next year's recruiting class.
Haden will be asked about his support of Kiffin until the bitter end, when he finally fired him upon the team charter's arrival back into Los Angeles on Sunday morning, but Haden always said that was his job until, well, it wasn't.
"My job is to support our coaches," Haden told me recently. "I support our coaches 100 percent until they're not our coaches."
It didn't take Haden long this season to realize that he could no longer support Kiffin as his coach.