Is Clay Helton’s Reign Over At USC?

Is Clay Helton's Reign Over At USC?

There were more than a few USC fans happy with the Trojans’ loss to UCLA last weekend. To them, it marked the death knell of the Clay Helton coaching era. As Helton and his team entered the tunnel to the visiting team locker room at the Rose Bowl after the 34-27 loss in the Crosstown Showdown, there was a sign greeting them. “HELTON OUT. TIME FOR CHANGE.”

Helton never really was anyone’s first choice when he was named head coach at the end of the 2015 season. Well, no one except the only person that mattered at the time, athletic director Pat Haden. Helton was elevated to interim coach when Steve Sarkisian had to take a leave of absence to deal with his substance issues in mid-October. He went 5-2 losing to Notre Dame and Oregon, but he won five conference games, including a win over UCLA, securing the Pac 12 South Championship. Within two days of that, the interim tag was removed, and he was named head coach. The Trojans promptly lost the conference championship game to Stanford and the Holiday Bowl to Wisconsin.

The howling got louder in 2016 when USC started 1-3, with losses to Alabama, Stanford, and Utah. The team rattled off eight wins in a row after that including back-to-back victories over UCLA and Notre Dame, and capped off the season with a thrilling three-point win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl to finish 10-3.

2017 brought an 11-3 finish, a Pac 12 title and a Cotton Bowl loss to Ohio State.

All was good for 2018, right? 21-6 over the last two years? A conference championship. A Rose Bowl win. Helton even hauled in what 247Sports ranked as the fourth best recruiting class in the country, (one spot ahead of Alabama).

The quick answer is no. From the time Helton named true freshman J.T. Daniels as the starting quarterback over redshirt freshman Jack Sears, to the 1-2 start, the Trojan faithful was beyond restless. The 17-3 loss to Stanford was particularly troubling. It was the lowest USC point output in 21 years and the offense was beyond bad. There were the ignominious losses to Cal and UCLA in back-to-back weeks. Now USC is in a position where they have to beat undefeated Notre Dame just to get to 6-6 and be bowl eligible.

Whatever defenders Helton had at the beginning of the season, those urging patience, are either gone or just quiet at this point. What’s worse is that USC fans, in large numbers, do not seem upset. They seem ambivalent. They did not come close to selling out their allocation of tickets for the UCLA game. Few things get an athletic administration to move when they don’t want to, quite like fans not filling their seats. The secondary market is trying to unload boatloads of available tickets for the Notre Dame game at face value. Unheard of. Ryan Abraham is one of the more notable insiders on the USC beat.

Helton said after the UCLA game that athletic director Lynn Swann hugged him and said, “See you Monday.” Helton claimed to not be worried about his job status. It is not a secret that Swann is reticent to make a change. He represents the third decade of USC having athletic directors from the heyday of their football legacy going back to Mike Garrett in 1993, through the Pat Haden era to now.

Is Clay Helton's Reign Over At USC?
Athletic director Lynn Swann of the USC Trojans stands on the sidelines during the game against the Utah Utes at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)


Swann was so pleased with what Helton did last year, he gave him a contract extension, even though he had three years remaining on his original deal. When the interim tag was taken off, he got a contract through 2020 at $3.8 million. The extension, announced the night before national letter of intent day, gave Helton three more years. He is the eighth highest paid coach in the conference. Again, unimaginable that the USC coach is eighth in the conference.

So there is a week left and Helton is still employed. Some are expecting movement sooner.

Helton’s buyout is believed to be around $10 million. A drop in the bucket for the wealthy USC donor base. They are not currently on the hook for any other dismissed coach. But are they willing to make the financial commitment of something better than the eighth highest paid coach in the conference? And where do they start looking? They have spent years trying to find the “USC Family Fit.” Lane Kiffin and Sarkisian were both assistants during the halcyon days of the Pete Carroll era. Ed Orgeron, even as an interim, was there as part of the Carroll coaching era. And of course, Helton has been there for eight years, through Carroll, Kiffin, Orgeron, and Sarkisian. Maybe it is finally time to look outside the USC registry.

Helton’s own coaching tree is too insignificant to wield any viable candidates. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin was not highly regarded enough as a candidate when his alma mater, Tennessee, had a much-publicized head coaching opening during the off-season. And he was recently stripped of his play calling duties by Helton. The Cal coach who beat him a few weeks ago, Justin Wilcox, was a defensive coordinator for the Trojans until Helton fired him after the conference championship loss in 2017. Wilcox is not likely on the short list.

Then who is? This is USC. There is a sense within that they need and deserve a splash name hire. But this is also not the USC of the John McKay, John Robinson or Pete Carroll eras. It’s not Ohio State or Alabama or Clemson. A coach who can win conference championships and do it right away needs to be more a higher priority than the name on the contract.

James Franklin; He is in his fifth year at Penn State. Franklin is currently 44-20 and 2-2 in bowl games, ironically enough with a Rose Bowl loss to Helton and USC. He was 24-13 in three years at Vanderbilt prior his run in Happy Valley. Franklin has a contract that runs through 2022 with escalation clauses that take his base income from $4.3 million to $6.3 million in its final year. He has the name and the cache that USC would want. But does he have any incentive to leave Penn State?

Is Clay Helton's Reign Over At USC?
Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions looks on after the game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Beaver Stadium on November 10, 2018 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Matt Campbell; The casual USC fan will ask who that is. The true college football fan will think this is a big get from a pure coaching standpoint. Campbell is in year three at Iowa State. Yes, Trojan fans the Iowa State coach would be an upgrade over who you have. Campbell was the head coach at Toldeo for four years going 35-15 in the process. He took the Rockets to three bowl games and won the conference coach of the year in 2015. He even turned down an offer to join Urban Meyers’ staff at Ohio State.

At Iowa State he is 17-18 in year three, but 14-11 the last two years. He was Big 12 coach of the year last season. He just got a two-year extension through 2021 and is making $3.5 million a year. Whatever USC offered would be a financial boon to him. But he has a buyout clause that if he leaves before NLI day in 2019, he owes Iowa State $7 million.

Jack Del Rio; This would satisfy those who want someone who understands what is, or was, to be a Trojan. Del Rio was a four-year starter for USC in the mid 1980’s and a co-MVP of the 1985 Rose Bowl. He played for five teams in an 11-year NFL career. He has spent seven years as an assistant coach in the NFL and 10 years as a head coach. Most recently he had a three-year stint with the Raiders where he was 25-23 before being fired after last season. He has zero college coaching experience at any level and has never spent his weeks during the off-season visiting high school recruits. Still he has been out of work for nearly a year and someone in his camp keeps floating his name in social media circles, so he must want the job.

Kyle Whittingham; succeeded Urban Meyer at Utah when Meyer left for Florida. Is finishing his 15th season in Salt Lake City with a record of 119-59. Has seen the Utes through the transition from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac 12. Just won the dumpster fire that is the Pac 12 South. Prior to becoming head coach, he spent seven years as an assistant at Utah. Has spent all of his coaching career in the Rocky Mountain area, but does recruit the LA area well.

Is Clay Helton's Reign Over At USC?
Kyle Whittingham head coach of the Utah Utes walks on the sideline during their game against the Arizona Wildcats at Rice Eccles Stadium on October 12, 2018 in Salt Lake City , Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

Matt Wells; Utah State coach. Is 44-33 in six years but much of that is built off one hot year this season when the Aggies are 10-1.

Hue Jackson; You can do better.

Chris Petersen; You had your chance and hired Sarkisian instead.

Pete Carroll; The NCAA is going to give the permanent side eye if he comes back.

Jim Mora; Hey who would be more motivated to win the crosstown game.