Jack Del Rio and Jeff Fisher have surfaced as potential replacements for USC football coach Clay Helton if he is removed. Both would be a mistake to hire.
The calls for Clay Helton’s job at USC football are at a fever pitch after the Trojans fell last Saturday to crosstown rival UCLA, and as a result, fans and media members have turned their attention to who should succeed Helton as the Trojans’ next head coach.
Earlier this week on “The Jason Smith Show” on Fox Sports Radio, NFL insider Jason La Canfora uttered words that sent despair through the majority of the USC fan base: “I hear Jeff Fisher or Jack Del Rio to USC.”
The two former NFL coaches are the blatantly obvious and comfortable choices for USC, as both are former Trojan football players with lengthy NFL coaching experience. Given the current administrative disarray at USC, it would surprise no one if athletic director Lynn Swann chose a safe hire if he moves on from Helton.
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But making the easy hire was the major problem with the last three USC coaching searches. For example, prior to being head coaches at USC, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were offensive coordinators at the school during USC’s dynastic run under Pete Carroll.
Unfortunately, after Kiffin returned to lead the Trojans in 2010, he often displayed baffling immaturity for a head coach, coming under fire for deflating footballs and swapping jersey’s during his tenure before he was famously let go in 2013 by AD Pat Haden.
Haden then hired Sarkisian away from Washington (rather than giving then Boise State’s Chris Peterson the autonomy to lead USC) which led to another debacle for Heritage Hall (while allowing Washington to hire Peterson and rise to national prominence).
Following Sarkisian’s termination, Clay Helton took over as USC’s interim coach midway through the 2015 season. He guided the previously reeling Trojans to a 5-2 record to close out the regular season, capped by a 40-21 victory over UCLA. Haden announced the following Monday that Helton would become the next permanent head coach of USC amid a great deal of support from both players and fans. Again, the easy hire.
Presently, a potential job opening once again looms over the program, and it begs the question- What would Del Rio or Jeff Fisher actually bring to the underperforming Trojans?
Jack Del Rio
Del Rio played football for USC and earned All-American honors in 1984. He went on to play 11 years in the NFL and began coaching following his playing days.
Del Rio was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2003 until midseason 2011 and then the Oakland Raiders from 2015 to 2017. He led these maligned franchises to the playoffs three times in twelve seasons and is known as a hard-nosed defensive coach.
Despite this reputation, the Raiders finished in the bottom half of the NFL in scoring defense in each of Del Rio’s seasons with the team and were just middle of the road in many other defensive statistics.
While Del Rio would certainly be a dominant CEO figure for USC and has the connections to hire an experienced staff, his inability to sustain any type of success in the NFL raises question marks in a sport where consistency is all that matters.
Fisher was a defensive back for the Trojans in the late 1970s into 1980. He played four seasons in the NFL for the Chicago Bears and got his first head coaching job with the Houston Oilers in 1994.
In his 22 years as an NFL head coach, Fisher compiled a 173-165-1 overall record. During his 17 years with the Houston/Tennessee organization, the team made the playoffs six times and was largely very successful.
In 1999, the Titans won the AFC and took on the Rams in the Super Bowl. The game famously ended with a completion from Titan quarterback Steve McNair to Kevin Dyson, who came up just a yard short of tying the game.
After Fisher was fired by the Titans in 2011, he took over the St. Louis Rams in 2012. The coach was unable to recreate his earlier success in Tennessee, finishing with a putrid 31-45 record in St. Louis and Los Angeles while earning the designation of the “8-8 coach.”
In his last 11 years as a head coach, the passing offense of his teams finished 27th or worse eight times. In the last six years, his rushing attacks and scoring defenses were near league average.
Should USC hire either?
The answer is a resounding no.
The current state of USC’s football program, much like the last three times USC searched for a coach, makes any candidate appear desirable in comparison to the previous staff. But this cannot once again be the mindset of USC’s fans and decision makers.
USC is a program that is positioned to dominate the college football landscape. It has no true recruiting competitors in the west and the Pac-12 is currently a collection of average to awful football teams. With the right head coach and USC’s talent, the team could easily win the Pac-12 and be in a position to compete for a College Football Playoff berth next season.
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Neither Del Rio nor Fisher is the answer. Both are older, defensive-minded coaches that lack a great deal of recent success in the NFL. They represent what modern football is leaving behind.
USC traditionalists may not want to admit it, but a dynamic offense is what gets teams to the pinnacle of college football in this day and age, and it is unlikely that Del Rio or Fisher is capable of bringing that to USC. The ability to impose your will on an opponent and run the ball in short-yardage situations remains critical for any successful offense (something that Clay Helton and his offensive staff appear to not understand) but a USC offense is capable of so much more than “three yards and a cloud of dust.”
The Trojans desperately need an offense that maximizes its offensive talent, similar to the Rams, Chiefs, Patriots, or Alabama. Implementing a system that is similar to Stanford, Wisconsin, or Michigan limits the abilities of USC’s tremendous athletes and allows lesser opponents to hang around in games longer. When faced with an elite run defense, the kind often seen in the CFP, these offenses falter (see LSU against Alabama annually).
Plus, in the case of Fisher, there are serious questions concerning his ability to relate to college players at this stage in his career. On Ryen Russillo’s “Dual Threat” podcast, Russillo and Booger McFarland discussed why Jared Goff made such a tremendous leap from his rookie to sophomore season.
McFarland explained, “It is a shame what [Jeff Fisher] did with Jared Goff… [Fisher] just could not relate to [him].”
Fisher is so far removed from success in the NFL that there simply isn’t any way Lynn Swann could justify hiring him.
Del Rio is a more interesting candidate because he and his Oakland staff were able to develop Derek Carr into a solid NFL quarterback. In 2016, the Fresno State product finished eighth in the NFL in passer rating, while leading the Raiders to a 12-3 record and a playoff berth before breaking his leg in the penultimate game of the season. Yet, on the other side of the ball, the Raiders scoring defense ranked 20th that year for their defensive-minded Del Rio.
There is little doubt that hiring Del Rio would be the safe, comfortable move for Swann but it is not the home run hire USC is capable of. There simply isn’t enough evidence to target Del Rio over more successful candidates at either the NFL or college level.
If USC truly desires to return to the ranks of college football’s elites (something that has come into question recently), there are certainly much better candidates that Jeff Fisher or Jack Del Rio, and USC must go in a different direction.