Once again, the USC Trojans have decided that things were too bad to wait. They have fired yet another football coach in the midst of the season as Clay Helton is out at USC.
The Search Begins
Athletic Director Mike Bohn issued a statement around 2pm Pacific time today, announcing that Helton was being let go. Defensive coach Donte Williams will serve as the interim coach for the remainder of the season. He is the first black head football coach in USC history. Bohn said a nationwide search for the next USC coach would begin immediately. The statement was short on details of what that search would look like, if it would entail hiring a search firm, or if it would be done in-house.
Bohn said the school, in his two years as AD, has, “Provided every resource every resource necessary for our football program to compete for championships.”
The Helton Years
Helton has been the head coach at USC since 2015. He stepped in when Steve Sarkisian was put on administrative leave to deal with personal and alcohol-related problems. The administrative leave turned into a termination, and Helton’s interim tag was removed from his title.
Helton was 46-24 in his six-plus years at USC, and 36-13 in conference. The winning percentage might be high enough for many schools. But he is five years removed from his peak period at USC. In 2016, with Sam Darnold at quarterback, USC finished second in the conference, but got the bid to the 2017 Rose Bowl. The Trojans scored 17 unanswered fourth quarter points to come from behind and beat Penn State 52-49. USC finished the season third in the AP poll.
The Trojans won the conference championship in the 2017 season but lost in the Cotton Bowl to Ohio State. They had a losing record the following year, with no post-season play. In 2019, USC finished second in the Pac-12 South, and then got blown out by Iowa in the Holiday Bowl.
With the 2020 Covid season, USC won the conference South title, but declined any post-season play.
The final nail for Bohn, apparently was the 42-28 loss at home to Stanford Saturday night. While the margin of defeat was “only” two touchdowns. The game was never very close. USC’s kicker Parker Lewis was ejected from the game for targeting on the opening kickoff. Few, if any, can ever recall a kicker being ejected for targeting. But the play was at least somewhat symbolic of the undisciplined nature of Helton’s teams. USC was called for nine penalties for 109 yards in the game.
Because USC is a private school, it does not have to release contract information, so Helton’s buyout figures are only speculation. It is believed to be part of the reason Bohn had kept him after last season, despite growing disgruntlement among the fan base and boosters.
In 2013, USC fired Lane Kiffin when the team arrived back at LAX after a humiliating loss at Arizona State. Kiffin was literally fired on the tarmac, and not allowed to return to the campus on the team bus, by then Athletic Director Pat Haden. He was replaced by Ed Orgeron, who went 6-2 the rest of the way but was not given the job. It was Helton who coached the Trojans to a win in the Las Vegas Bowl that year as a one-game interim head coach.
In 2014, USC instead hired Sarkisian away from the Washington Huskies. There had been whispers of personal dilemmas in Seattle, but Haden later admitted to not doing a background check. The Trojans made the one-time assistant their new head coach. By October of 2015, those issues forced him to take a leave of absence. He was fired the next day.
Helton took over as Sarkisian’s replacement but was never seen as “The Guy,” in USC circles. His tenure played out more like him being a place holder until they could find a bigger/better/marquee name.