USC football finally made the best hire available, bringing in Tyson Helton and Neil Callaway to round out the offensive staff under Clay Helton.
It has been a questionable hiring process for USC since the Trojans parted ways with Steve Sarkisian in October.
First Pat Haden hired an interim coach on a permanent basis before the college football coaching carousel had even begun to spin in December. Helton was rewarded for getting USC to the Pac-12 Championship game, but was outclassed by Stanford, leading to more questions about the timing and decision-making process behind the hiring.
Helton may have earned a claim to the job with a Pac-12 South Division title and the support of his players, but there can be little argument that more attractive candidates with more impressive resumes were passed over.
Helton’s hiring was followed by the promotion of wide receivers coach Tee Martin to offensive coordinator. Questions began anew: Was Martin USC’s best option? Was it a good idea to pair a first-time head coach with a first-time offensive coordinator?
For a historic program with a mountain of prestige and as many resources as anyone in the country, those questions seem fairly valid ones to ask. When USC’s job was considered the best available, why did the Trojans “settle” for unproven commodities like Helton and Martin? Were they too reliant on inside, connected hires? Did they conduct a real search at all?
On the surface, those same questions could be asked of hiring of Tyson Helton and Neil Callaway as the final pieces on USC’s offensive coaching staff. Should a program of USC’s magnitude be plucking coaches from Western Kentucky, a school which has been part of the FBS for less than ten years? How far did they search before hiring a sibling and a man who amounts to a family friend?
That debate could be argued back and forth, but the context of these hires makes it unnecessary.
Hiring Tyson and Callaway was a family affair, just as Helton and Martin’s promotions were “Trojan Family” affairs.
In hiring Helton, USC limited the pool from which it could choose an offensive coordinator. After all, what established OC would risk their livelihood to join a first-year head coach whose hire was being questioned by most observers.
In promoting Martin, the Trojans further limited the pool of assistant coaches who might be interested in joining the cause. Neither Helton nor Martin have a wealth of connections in the coaching world. Helton’s experience before joining USC includes short stints at Duke and Houston with his greatest experience in Memphis. Martin’s ties are even smaller with brief time spent at New Mexico and Kentucky.
Is it any surprise then, that these latest two hires could not be more directly connected to Helton? Tyson is Helton’s younger brother. Callaway was an assistant under Helton’s father Kim at Houston. Helton himself played quarterback at Houston with Callaway as his offensive coordinator and then later coached running backs under him.
This was a family affair, just as Helton and Martin’s promotions were “Trojan Family” affairs.
The difference here is that this instance of nepotism is undoubtedly the best option on the table.
Tyson was linked as a potential candidate for half a dozen open offensive coordinator jobs this December. Considering the success of the Western Kentucky offense during his time there, that is no surprise. The Hilltoppers have finished in the Top 10 offenses in the country both years with Tyson. This year, they were rated the No. 5 offense in S&P+, which is adjusted for opponent and strength of schedule.
To be fair, Tyson did not call plays for WKU, but that will not be his capacity at USC either. Instead, he will bring to the Trojans the ideas and innovation which helped the Hilltoppers become so potent.
Under what circumstances could USC have hoped to draw a successful offensive coordinator to leave that post to become a position coach and passing game coordinator if not these?
With Callaway the impact is more conventional, even if his hiring comes off as a little too convenient considering his ties to both Heltons. Being yet another connected hire does not make him a bad hire though. In fact, he might be the best addition of the bunch.
A successful offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at multiple schools, Callaway’s trajectory has always trended up. He spent a decade as an offensive line coach at Auburn before taking on the offensive coordinator and associate head coach role at Houston. He traded up to become Alabama’s offensive line coach and then offensive coordinator before finding a long-term role on Mark Richt’s staff at Georgia. That UAB picked him to take over their program as a first -time head coach in 2007 speaks to his previous success and respect.
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Though things did not work out at UAB, they have certainly gone well at WKU. The Hilltoppers offensive line ranked highly in offensive line stats collected by Football Outsiders. For example, they were 14th in opportunity rate, which is essentially the percentage of rushing attempts in which the offensive line gives the running back opportunity to gain five yards. They were also fifth in opponent-adjusted sack rate, which is particularly impressive considering their pass-heavy offense.
Simply put, both Tyson and Callaway would have been strong hires for USC even if it was not Helton doing the hiring. This time, the connected hire appears to have been the best hire possible.
That does not absolve the questionable decisions made in the hiring process before now, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.
Hopefully, Helton proves capable of making a similarly promising hire at defensive coordinator, whether connected or unconnected.