After months of rampant speculation surrounding the future of USC’s football program, a new athletic director and new president have opted to stick with the status quo.
The university’s new leadership announced Wednesday that Clay Helton, whose uneven tenure as head coach saw the Trojans reach the Rose Bowl in 2016 and win the Pac-12 Conference title in 2017 before stumbling the last two seasons, will remain USC’s coach for the foreseeable future.
The controversial decision to keep Helton comes on the heels of an 8-4 campaign marred by injury and inconsistency in which the Trojans struggled to find a foothold even while managing for months to stay within striking distance of winning the Pac-12 South Division.
All along, Helton clung tightly to that hope of a berth in the conference title game. However, any hope of this season amounting to more than a middling bowl appearance disappeared last Saturday, as Utah took care of Colorado and won the division.
A little more than a year after departed athletic director Lynn Swann offered his own unpopular vote of confidence in the embattled coach, his successor, Mike Bohn, made the same decision to retain Helton, even as a frustrated fan base continued to call for his ouster.
“I am pleased to let you know Coach Helton will continue to be our head coach,” Bohn wrote in a letter to athletic department supporters. “His commitment to our student-athletes and to leading with integrity is vital to restoring our championship program, which is the goal for all of our teams. Heading into 2020, Coach Helton and I will work together to take a hard look at all aspects of the football enterprise and will make the tough decisions necessary to compete at a championship level.”
In a statement, Helton said: “I appreciate the support from President (Carol L.) Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn. It is abundantly clear that we now have the support, resources and tools to build a championship team. We know the expectations of our fans are high, as they should be. Those are the same expectations I have for myself and that our staff and team have as well.
“Our future is bright. We have a young team on the verge of doing something special. We have seen what this team can do, having the season we have had despite going through adversity and injuries. We are headed to a great bowl and we plan to finish the season strong.
“I believe in our team and in our fan base. I know we will all come together to succeed. I am excited about the future of our team and our university.”
In comments to reporters, Bohn said: “Clay Helton deserves to have the right to continue to lead this program. He’s got the full grasp of his team. Recruiting is going dramatically better than anybody wants to admit.”
Bohn said he did not speak to anyone else about becoming the coach.
“My support of Clay and this team really never wavered but in fairness to all the fans, donors, former players, rich history we have here, our community, the media, I really believed it was important to have a thorough process,” he said. “We did that and I did that as much as I could in this short period of time.”
A year ago, Swann, who resigned in September, made his announcement on the morning after the Trojans’ final game. A day earlier, a banner flew over the Coliseum, asking him to “Please Fire Clay Helton.”
The process dragged on a bit longer for Bohn, who told the Los Angeles Times two weeks ago that a decision was “something we don’t want to race into.” That wait sparked confusion this week from restless fans, as a report from Sports Illustrated on Sunday suggested Helton would be fired.
Now that a decision has been made, keeping Helton will at least save USC the trouble of footing a hefty bill for his buyout, after Swann in February of 2018 extended Helton’s contract through 2023.
But while its finances will be unaffected, the frustrations of USC’s fan base are unlikely to abate with Helton returning for at least another season.
The Trojans are just 13-11 over the last two years, but finished the 2019 regular season with wins in five of their final six games, including a three-game win streak since Bohn’s hiring last month. It’s the third time in four full seasons under Helton that USC has finished the season on such a streak.
That was apparently enough to convince Bohn, who, when asked about Helton in his introductory news conference, noted that “good programs finish strong.”
In his interview with the Times, Bohn praised Helton for how the team responded.
“Dealing with so many injuries and overcoming some adversity, he’s been able to keep poised and keep his team focused,” Bohn said. “I respect that.”
Whether a respectful finish to a mostly frustrating season will actually affect the direction of the program under Helton is uncertain. After preaching accountability and discipline in the last offseason, his Trojans struggled with many of the same issues in 2019.
Again, they finished among the most penalized (124th out of 130) and turnover-prone (112th) teams in the nation.
Recruiting also remains in a downward spiral, as the Trojans’ 2020 class ranks 11th in the Pac-12 and 67th in the nation, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. As the early signing period approaches in mid-December, that problem is especially pressing on a local level, where none of the state’s top 30 recruits is currently committed to play at USC.
Attendance at the newly renovated Coliseum is also a serious concern, as the average crowd for six home games in 2019 fell below 60,000 for the second straight season.
USC did show some tangible signs of on-field progress by this season’s end, with freshman Kedon Slovis emerging as a potential star at quarterback. He’ll be surrounded by a fleet of talented playmakers a year from now, all of whom should benefit from a year of experience.
In his first major move as athletic director, Bohn is betting on that possibility. The decision, made less than a month after his hiring, is likely to define the early part of his tenure, for better or worse.
Any recent reasons for optimism have often paled in comparison to the growing ennui surrounding the program over the last two seasons, a sentiment sure to be exacerbated by the return of a coach whose sincerity off the field has often trumped his success on it.
It was that reputation as a positive steward of the program that saw Helton promoted from quarterbacks coach under Lane Kiffin, to offensive coordinator under Steve Sarkisian, and finally to interim head coach in the wake of Sarkisian’s midseason dismissal in 2015.
Under fire for his handling of Sarkisian, former athletic director Pat Haden removed Helton’s interim coach tag a month later and lauded him as “a man with undisputed integrity.”
The next season, Helton led the Trojans to a 10-3 campaign, capped by a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. In 2017, USC won the Pac-12 title and appeared in the Cotton Bowl, losing to Ohio State.
But since, as star quarterback Sam Darnold departed for the NFL, USC and its coach have struggled mightily to match that success. Last season, the Trojans finished below .500, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2000. Paul Hackett was fired after that season and replaced by Pete Carroll.
This season, USC opened 2-0, but lost three of its next four games. The Trojans righted the ship from there with a 5-1 record in the second half.
No coach since Carroll has lasted longer in the position than Helton, whose record, including his time as interim coach, is 40-21. That winning percentage (65.6) slots him directly between Sarkisian and Kiffin, two coaches whose tenures ended abruptly.
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