What went wrong for Clay Helton at USC

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It finally happened.

Nearly six years after his unexpected appointment as the head coach at USC, Clay Helton’s tenure in Los Angeles is over. Athletic director Mike Bohn’s decision to cut bait Monday just two games into the 2021 season is an acknowledgment of what most people who watch the Trojans have understood for years: Helton was never going to restore USC as a consistent national power.

It’s as apparent as it was on Monday as it was in 2018 when Helton coached the Trojans to their first losing season since 2000, but the reality is the job was always too big. Had it not been for Steve Sarkisian’s early-season dismissal in 2015, Helton never would have received the opportunity to lead a program anywhere near USC’s caliber. His coaching résumé wouldn’t have allowed it.

At the time, however, Helton was the adult in the room, and that’s what USC needed to navigate the rest of that tumultuous year without further off-field embarrassment. As an interim coach, he made sense and he did about as well as he could have, winning five of seven games before Pat Haden removed the interim tag and made him the permanent coach. Haden’s decision was baffling in the sense that he didn’t make a serious attempt to fill the job with an external candidate, and it predated his own resignation announcement by only two months.

It’s easy to say Haden shouldn’t have been the one to make the hire, if not for the ineptitude of his replacement, Lynn Swann.

To understand Helton’s tenure, it’s important to know how well-liked he was by those around him. The list of people who don’t respect his football acumen is long, but as a person? It’s nearly impossible to find someone who has interacted with him who has something bad to say.

Whether that should factor into a coach’s job security is certainly debatable, but that — and some fortuitous timing — is the primary reason why he lasted so long.

If Helton never had any success, his nice-guy persona wouldn’t have really mattered, but he did. USC won the Rose Bowl in his first season as the permanent head coach and finished ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. The Trojans won the Pac-12 the next year. That type of early success would buy any coach some time, even if it did mask lopsided losses to Alabama (52-6), Stanford (27-10), Notre Dame (49-14) and Ohio State (24-7) during those two years.

Helton’s third year in charge was an absolute disaster. To go 5-7 at USC while the Pac-12 was in a collective downturn was a fireable offense, but Swann didn’t have the ruthlessness it would have taken to fire a coach a year after he won the conference.

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Keyshawn Johnson explains why USC losing recruits to out-of-state programs was a significant reason why the program parted ways with coach Clay Helton.

Swann felt obligated to issue a statement defending Helton’s retention and extended his contract two months later, saying Helton “has shown that he can lead our team with integrity and stability and that he has the ability to win conference and national championships.”

The following September, Swann followed Haden out the door, and it wasn’t until November 2019, with one game left in the regular season, that Bohn was hired. Again, Bohn would have been justified to make a change — it certainly would have ingratiated himself with the school’s proud fan base — but there was apprehension about rushing into a process that he needed to get right.

Ultimately, Bohn wanted more time to evaluate what he was inheriting, so when it came to making a change, he was better equipped to find the right coach.

Then came the pandemic. Nothing about the 2020 season, especially in the Pac-12 and Los Angeles, was anything close to normal, so it makes little sense to place much value on what happened on the field. He wasn’t going to be fired after going 5-1 with that loss in the conference title game, which brings us here.

In firing Helton after just two games, Bohn delivered a statement that USC fans have long been waiting for. Mediocre isn’t good enough. Blowout losses at home won’t be tolerated. As soon as Stanford‘s lead was insurmountable, it ensured Helton’s job status would be the primary topic of discussion for the rest of the season. Unless, of course, Helton was let go.

The timing helps on two fronts: First, it will allow USC fans to feel optimistic again. Savior speculation can be fun. Second, it gives Bohn — who undoubtedly has had candidates in mind since he arrived — time to go about the search in a methodical fashion.

Despite the relative lack of success since Pete Carroll’s departure, USC remains a place where winning big should be the expectation. It checks all the boxes that have always been necessary to compete for national championships and now, with the introduction of name, image and likeness rules, is even better positioned to attract the best talent in the country.

Let the speculation begin.

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