USC football’s attitude reflects Clay Helton’s lack of ruthless leadership

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC football’s ceiling is limited by Clay Helton’s nice-guy mentality. Without ruthlessness, the Trojans will not compete for a national title.

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There’s a famous line from “Remember the Titans,” one that every sports fan should have occasion to cite at at least once: “Attitude reflects leadership, captain.”

In the movie, the line is a harsh challenge from defensive end Julius Campbell to defensive captain Gary Bertier. Maybe it was never actually uttered in real life, but it has real life applications. USC football is living proof of that.

The attitude of Clay Helton’s Trojan team reflects his leadership.

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That’s for better or for worse. And yes, there is a “better” in that equation, not just a “worse.”

Don’t sell him short. Helton has instilled an incredible sense of fortitude in his teams. The Trojans are 8-2 in games decided by less than a touchdown under Helton. This year they are 2-0.

There may be valid frustration with how USC has ended up in those situations so often, but a lesser coach would find a way to lose those games. Trojan fans watched Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian do that plenty of times.

Unfortunately, fortitude is only one part of the coaching equation. Resilient coaches and teams stay in the win column more often than not. But ruthless coaches, ruthless teams win championships

Clay Helton is not ruthless. He might actually be the opposite. He is nice.

Nick Saban is not nice. Bill Bellichick is not nice.

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That’s not to say a coach has to be mean to be successful. Pete Carroll was as congenial a head coach as they come, but he only found success through ruthless self-examination after NFL failures. And he demanded greatness from his teams.

“We will be perfect in every aspect of the game.”

That’s another quote from Remember the Titans. It’s one Helton would do well to ruminate on.

On Tuesday, Helton was asked about his team’s 18-penalty performance against Arizona. He took responsibility for teaching up his team and cutting those infractions out. But he also managed to highlight a small example of the way his attitude will continue to limit USC’s ceiling.

“Any time you get in a loud spot, there’s going to be times that you do have a left tackle jump offsides during a pass,” he said discussing administrative penalties. “That’s going to happen. You can live with one or two of them.”

In a practical sense, Helton is correct. All teams commit small penalties. No team is perfect.

But there’s something wrong with a head coach saying he is fine with a penalty of any variety.

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Perhaps USC’s offensive linemen consistently jump offside because Helton’s mentality on such things is too understanding.

A false start is an error that makes life harder on the offense. They certainly did on Saturday. And it is usually unforced. An unforced error should never be shrugged off.

A coach may have good reason to accept false starts as a reality when on the road at Utah, but in Tucson in front of a not-particularly raucous crowd of 43,000?

You or I could pass it off with “that happens,” but a head coach should demand perfection from his team. If he lets a false start slide, what else could slide? One missed tackle? One missed assignment? Two? Three?

Is it any wonder the Trojans continue to make the same small mistakes over and over again?

Helton’s approach to coaching appears to be all carrot and no stick.

That approach has been good enough to win 10 games a season, a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 Championship. But good enough will never win national titles.