USC Football Has a Culture of Indecisiveness

Nov 28, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts during an NCAA football game against the UCLA Bruins at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 28, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts during an NCAA football game against the UCLA Bruins at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

The culture of indecisiveness around USC football, from athletic directors to head coaches, has held the Trojans back for too long.

USC football has a problem.

In the finale of the show Avatar: The Last Airbender, Avatar Aang channels his past self Avatar Roku to ask him for advice on how to accomplish his mission of defeating Fire Lord Ozai and bringing peace to the world.

Avatar Roku, after appearing to Avatar Aang has only a short phrase for him “Be Decisive.”

Why does he say that? Because in the past Avatar Roku had opportunities to do things which, had he done them, would have caused Avatar Aang to not be in the predicament that he is in.

Like with Avatar Roku, the past few seasons at USC have been ones of indecisiveness.

Perhaps it all started in 2010 when the NCAA handed down harsh penalties to USC which included a 2-year bowl ban and a loss of 30 scholarships.

Rather than fight the NCAA, then new athletic director Pat Haden decided to let things just run their course and not attempt to fight the unjust ruling. Perhaps the logic was that fighting would bring about worse penalties. Whatever the reason, Haden didn’t fight the NCAA (at least not tooth and nail) and unlike every other team who did later, USC is still feeling the effects of the indecisiveness of Haden on this point.

This culture of indecisiveness at the top of the athletic department reared its head again in 2012, when the preseason number one ranked Men of Troy ended the season 7-6 and unranked after losses to Stanford, Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech.

The writing was on the wall: Lane Kiffin’s days at USC were numbered.

Yet in spite of the opportunity to relieve Lane Kiffin of his duties at the end of the year where a smooth transition could be made, Haden allowed the charade to go on into 2013, when he then fired lane Kiffin after a disaster in the desert against Arizona St.

Haden then continued the indecisive leadership by not letting Ed Orgeron and the team know how exactly the coaching search was being handled, which ended in the hiring of Steve Sarkisian from Washington and beloved coach Orgeron leaving the program after going 6-2 the remainder of the 2013 season.

Haden probably hoped that most of USC’s big problems were over when Sarkisian was hired, but they were not.

After going 9-4 his opening season, Sarkisian stole the headlines away from the team by going off on a drunken rant at the Salute to Troy event that preceded the season. Rather than getting Sarkisian help then and there, Haden chose to ignore it. And just like firing Lane Kiffin after going 3-2 two years earlier, Haden was left with no choice except to fire Sarkisian after he started 2015 with a 3-2 record and allegedly showed up to practice intoxicated.

It seemed clear to the average USC fan that a change was in order, with many calling for Haden himself to step down. Others thought that Haden, being an Oxford graduate and successful businessman, would see the errors he had committed (which he quasi admitted to in his conference after the Sarkisian firing) and conduct a full search to bring a A-grade head coach to USC.

Instead, Haden promoted interim head coach Clay Helton to the full-time job; even when no other Power 5 program showed the slightest interest in him.

After being promoted, Helton started off 0-2 in his tenure with a sound defeat for the second time in the season against Stanford and a bowl game loss to Wisconsin.

Do not make the mistake of believing that this indecisiveness only resides with Pat Haden; it has bled over with the coaches as well.

In the spring of 2013, knowing that his job was on the line, Lane Kiffin refused to name a starter, even when it was clear that Cody Kessler was in the lead. He didn’t name a starter until the third game of 2013, after a loss to Washington State. Had he won that game, Kiffin likely would not have been fired mid-season.

Sarkisian was also indecisive, saying in his opening press conference that USC would be a n0-huddle, run-first team, which was true for only the first game in 2014 against Fresno State. This left the Trojans with a lack of identity, which remains a question at present.

Clay Helton has continued with this culture, refusing to name a starting quarterback even when he admitted from beginning to end of spring that Max Browne led the competition.


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Why does this matter? Because indecisiveness is toxic to organizations. People are looking for a direction and a leader to provide it.

Haden showed little to no direction in his five years as athletic director.

Helton has stated he wants to be a run-first, power team; but then hired coordinators and coaches who have only run spread systems or have never been coordinators before in the case of Tee Martin.

Any offense is dictated in large measure by the play of the quarterback, and Helton has not shown whether he wants to go in the pro-style direction with Max Browne or the spread read-option route with Sam Darnold.

USC has the toughest schedule in college football in 2016. It’s not exactly the time to be indecisive.

More from Reign of Troy

If USC wants to be successful, it will have to first choose success. It will have to proportion its philosophy to the evidence as Scottish philosopher David Hume would say.

In short, USC will have to be decisive.

Indecisiveness over the past five years has brought USC unneeded agony; decisiveness will allow it to emerge from the ashes as the phoenix it can become.

Perhaps the hire of Lynn Swann will facilitate this process and Helton will learn from his predecessors that indecision is destroying the Trojans and point it in a new direction.

Will they? Only time will tell, but if we trust history the outlook for 2016 does not look good.