USC Football Takes Chance On Second Choice Hires

Nov 30, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Clay Helton addresses the media at press conference to announce his hiring as the Southern California Trojans permanent head coach at John McKay Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 30, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Clay Helton addresses the media at press conference to announce his hiring as the Southern California Trojans permanent head coach at John McKay Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Clay Helton and USC football are taking a chance on second choice coaching hires. But there’s no reason second choices can’t succeed.

If you wanted to get snarky, you could call USC football the University of Second Choices. Or Second Chances.

Perhaps that’s why the Trojan Family is so at odds with itself when it comes to Clay Helton and his now-completed staff after the hiring of Kenechi Udeze was officially announced on Tuesday.

On the one hand, it is the living embodiment of the Trojan Family as an ideal — USC people hired by USC people to be one big happy USC family.

On the other hand, the staff is a representation of a concern which has seeped into the minds of many a Trojan — Can USC be a heavy hitter if it doesn’t act like a heavy hitter?

After reports of the Clay Helton reaching out to entice Ed Orgeron back to USC as the defensive line coach and rumors of NFL options being pursued, there is no way to view Kenechi Udeze as anything but a second choice as the defensive line coach.

In fact, how many of USC’s coaches were what could universally be termed “first choice” hires?

Helton was overshadowed by mouth-watering links to John Harbaugh, Les Miles and Chip Kelly.

Tee Martin, like Udeze, was an internal promotion with no real experience in his new position. Whether or not Helton pursued another name, Martin could have been passed over for a more high profile option.

Dec 5, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts during the Pac-12 Conference football championship game against the Stanford Cardinal at Levi

Tyson Helton and Neil Callaway are exciting prospects, but with familial ties to Helton and the dubious weight of Conference USA’s Western Kentucky behind their recent football achievements. The same can be said of Ronnie Bradford, who seems a fine hire but is being brought up the ladder from Louisiana Tech.

Even Clancy Pendergast, who has been welcomed back to Los Angeles with open arms, seems a second-choice option when Dave Aranda, who ended up at LSU, was reportedly on the table.

Tommie Robinson and John Baxter have the look of strong additions, but both are Lane Kiffin retreads, ensuring that neither required a display of out-of-the-box thinking to acquire.

If college football coaches were ranked like high school prospects, USC would be bringing in a solid class of three and four-star talents when perhaps the draw of Los Angeles, the tradition and history should be able to lure in a group of four and five-stars.

If you’re riled up about all that, take a deep breath and calm down, because it’s not the point. Pete Carroll won with three-star talent. David Shaw continues to win with it.

The two opinions which seem to have split the USC fan base are not mutually exclusive. The ambition of the new hires can be questioned while also acknowledging that every single one of them brings a great deal of upside to the table.

Nowhere is that more clear than with Udeze, who is being handed his first chance at a full-time assistant job but has the pedigree to shine in it. On the recruiting trail, Udeze can relate to and inspire today’s generation of players. He can show them his national championship ring, point to his All-American plaque on the wall at the McKay Center, pull up footage of his first round draft selection and his days in the NFL. He can also casually drop into the conversation that he beat cancer along the way.

Udeze may not have been first choice, but that does not make him the wrong choice.

The same can be said of USC’s other hires.

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There are no Bob Connelly’s here. None of these coaches require painful contortions to find an attractive angle or positive spin. Helton is adored by his players, who fight for him even under difficult circumstances. Martin and Tyson are young up-and-comers for a reason. Pendergast, Baxter and Robinson have succeeded at USC before. Bradford and Nansen are committed and enthusiastic recruiters. Callaway has an undeniably impressive track record.

There are reasons to be excited about the staff that Helton has compiled if you are inclined to see them. It’s a classic case of the glass being half full or being half empty.

In the end, these coaches will not succeed or fail based on being first, second or third choice, just as recruits aren’t limited by being five, four or three-star prospects.

It’s what they produce on the field that matters now. It’s whether or not the water level in that glass rises or falls.