Clay Helton Has USC Football at a Fork in the Road


With the USC Trojans set to play the first of a crucial two-game stretch to close out the 2015 regular season, their games with Oregon and UCLA carry much more significance than conference implications.

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No matter which way it’s sliced, the future of the Trojans football program largely hinges on the next few weeks.

That’s neither hyperbole or prisoner of the moment conjecture. At this stage, either Helton will be named USC’s next head coach, or an external candidate will be brought on board.

And as it stands, it’s impossible to unequivocally state which direction is best for the program. That’s not exactly a new situation either. Just look at the last three coaches USC has hired.

It’s mpossible to unequivocally state which direction is best for the USC football program.

The Trojans went with high-profile familiar names in Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. Both had their share of peaks, but ultimately each tenure ended in a deep valley.

The last head coach to lead USC on a run of dominance was a 49-year-old NFL failure named Pete Carroll, whose hire was notoriously met with more bewilderment than understanding.

Go back even further and every successful Trojan head coach since Howard Jones has come to Los Angeles with little fanfare, while the big hires like Larry Smith ended in disaster.

It all makes it a bit murky for Helton and the situation USC finds themselves in this month.

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Wins against the Ducks and Bruins guarantee the Trojans their first Pac-12 South division title and trip to the conference championship game. In addition, it would add more credence to removing the interim tag from Helton’s name.

Nov 7, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Clay Helton reacts during 38-30 victory against the Arizona Wildcats at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What if USC is to win the Pac-12 and reach the Rose Bowl?

Helton at that point seemingly will have forced USC athletic director Pat Haden’s hand in naming him the Trojans’ next head coach before allowing the entire process to play out.

Yes, Helton has his flaws. Yes, USC as a whole has been far from perfect these past six weeks.

But, fact of the matter is the team hasn’t shown any quit under Helton. He’s coached them to a 5-1 record when you include the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State.

Should Helton lead the Trojans to an appearance in the Rose Bowl game, he will have essentially earned the right to be named the next head coach — for better or worse.

The 2015 season was pegged by many as the year USC would take the next step forward, creating more distance between themselves and the lean years that were marred by sanctions and scholarship reductions.

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A home loss to Washington on Oct. 8 served as one example the Trojans may not have yet been fully prepared for such progress. Sarkisian’s firing four days later threw the season into disarray. To Helton’s, the coaches’ and team’s credit, they rebounded in the face of adversity.

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What’s nonetheless disconcerting is the lack of a clear-cut answer as to which direction to head in before the final two games are played.

Outside of a pipe-dream home run hire such as [insert BCS national title winner here], there largely isn’t a coach who has separated himself as the guy for USC.

It may very well be Helton. Though, he faces the stigma and history of interim coaches failing to succeed after being hired on a permanent basis, like Bill Stewart at West Virginia. Exceptions to the rule do exist, however, like Philip Fulmer at Tennessee.

On the flip side of the coin, USC could make a ‘good hire’ of Justin Fuente, Brian Kelly, Chip Kelly, Gary Patterson or Kyle Wittingham, and strike gold. They could also make that decision only to see it backfire.

The frustration between the two ways of thinking is part of what makes sports so great and so maddening. However, with USC still struggling in their effort to completely return to prominence, the domino effect of the next few weeks can’t go understated.

The identity of the Trojans’ next head coach is strongly tied to games against Oregon and UCLA.

Should USC hire Clay Helton?

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