LANGSTON — Langston University officially introduced former University of Southern California football great Mike Garrett as its athletic director Thursday.
It's a hire that the school's new president predicts will be a “defining moment” in a Langston University's history, but one he also admits is risky.
“Is it a risk? Absolutely,” Langston president Kent Smith said after Thursday's press conference where Garrett was introduced alongside his wife, Suzanne, to the school's alumni, faculty, staff and the media.
“Am I aware of the things that are out there? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, I felt like it was the right risk to take for Langston University. I believe it is a low risk. I believe we are going to be better for having Mike Garrett on board. I am very comfortable with this decision.”
Garrett, a 1965 Heisman Trophy winner at USC, was fired in August 2010 after 17 years as athletic director at his alma mater. The NCAA cited USC for lack of institutional control under Garrett's administration and imposed severe penalties.
The Trojans were hit with four years of probation, a two-year bowl ban and scholarship restrictions after the NCAA found serious violations involving the football and men's basketball teams, mostly involving illegal benefits given to Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and basketball standout O.J. Mayo.
Garrett said the situation at Langston now is similar to when he was hired as USC's athletic director.
“USC 17 years ago was trying to grapple and get their school academically sound and athletically sound,” Garrett said. “Langston is in that position now. It's a great feeling to be able to build something. Building is what I like to do. I believe in what Langston wants to do.”
Smith said the hiring of Garrett is a home run for Langston, the only historically black college in Oklahoma.
“Just as the result of naming Mike Garrett (as athletic director), Langston University cannot pay for the publicity we've received just in the last two days. It's extraordinary,” Smith said.
“But make no mistake about it, this is not just about publicity. This is about raising the bar for Langston University. I believe with all my being that Langston University will become a force academically and athletically in the near future. I really do believe it. That's ultimately what he is buying into.”
Garrett, 68, said he wasn't looking for a job when he was contacted by a national search firm hired by Langston to find an athletic director.
Former Langston athletic director Patric Simon resigned in April to take a similar position at Alcorn State University in Mississippi.
Since leaving USC, Garrett said he's been spending time with family and taking a computer class.
“When someone called me I was very surprised,” he said.
Garrett said he knew little about Langston before getting the phone call.
“I vaguely knew it was in Oklahoma,” he said of the NAIA school.
Smith said he and Garrett “hit it off” the first time they spoke. Garrett was impressed by Smith's vision for Langston University and the athletic program.
“I deal more in dreams and people,” Garrett said. “Dr. Smith, I liked him and loved the way he was talking so it was a very easy decision.”
Asked about the way things ended on his watch at USC, Garrett said: “You know what, what we did at USC speaks for itself. I thought we attained what we wanted to do. Academically, USC competes with everyone now and athletically I don't think there is a better school in the country.”
Garrett called the NCAA violations during his administration at USC, “things beyond our control. Those things happen.”
Smith, who was appointed in January but officially became Langston's president just four days ago, said he “did his due diligence” in investigating the facts of the USC scandal.
The NCAA would not share many details because Langston is not an NCAA school, Smith said. But Smith said he and Garrett discussed it at length. Smith said he also spoke with USC officials.
“Be assured, we did discuss everything that happened,” said Smith, who was vice president for student affairs at Ohio University before accepting the Langston presidency.
“I may not know every intricate detail. I am comfortable that we are going to move forward and we've hired the best person. I believe he has a strong family value set and he is about doing the right thing, I have no doubts about that. What happened at USC happened. I wasn't there but I trust my gut instinct and it tells me he was the right person to hire and he will lead us to new heights and we will do it the right way. I really do believe that.
“The reality is this man has won at the highest level, he has had great graduation rates. He has done some phenomenal things in his lifetime and we are honored to have him.”
Smith said the details of Garrett's contract is still to be negotiated but it's expected to be a multi-year deal with an annual salary of $90,000.
“We are not talking about a very high salary,” Smith said. “He is truly buying in the mission of Langston University and where we are trying to go.”
Garrett doesn't think he will have a difficult time transitioning from one of the most storied athletic programs in USC to Langston, a NAIA school that draws about 1,500 fans to its football games.
He said Langston and nearby Edmond reminds him of the Kansas City area, where he spent his first four years of professional football playing for the Chiefs.
Langston hired former University of Nebraska quarterback Mickey Joseph as the Lions' football coach last season. Langston was 7-3 in Joseph's first season and he welcomes Garrett aboard.
Joseph said he wasn't concerned about Garrett's past and the scandal at USC.
“It happens. He manned up for it. He paid his price for it,” Joseph said. “Why not have a fresh brand new start?”
Joseph said his players are excited about the hiring of Garrett, whose presence will help recruiting, Joseph said.
“It's going to help when we get (recruits) on campus and are able to bring him over and let him speak to them,” Joseph said. “It's instant credibility.”
Garrett said he's been contacted by numerous Trojan alums who are very supportive of his new career choice.
“That's what's important to me,” he said.
Asked if Langston fans might see former USC football players at Lions' games this fall, Garrett said, “The number of Trojans who have called and said, ‘How do I get to Langston?' I wouldn't be surprised.”