Lynn Swann doubles down on Pat Haden’s Clay Helton mistake

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

Clay Helton’s run as USC football coach should be over. But once again, a Trojan AD is buying into a questionable stock. This time, it’s Lynn Swann.

HISTORY. Ranking SC's Head Coaches

USC athletic director Lynn Swann extended the Clay Helton experiment Sunday morning, turning a month of unrest within the Trojan Family to at least a yearlong echo chamber of regret.

Under Helton, the Trojans failed to achieve bowl eligibility just one year removed from winning the Pac-12. They did it by allowing 20-point scoring runs to five different opponents and throwing away a game to beatable Cal, losing to previously 2-8 UCLA and getting snuffed out by Notre Dame in a three-week stretch.

All of that is a fireable offense in of itself. Combine it with a losing record and a series of stubborn coaching decisions and you get what should’ve been a no-brainer for Swann, even without a university president.

Yet the former Trojan great, like the athletic director before him, is still set on making Helton happen, doubling down on an already unpopular decision with arguably the most condemned choice in the history of the program.

And that’s saying something, given how Lane Kiffin, Paul Hackett and Larry Smith were all retained one year past their shelf life.

Each could find themselves being compared to Helton. But a direct comparison doesn’t do this roller coaster ride justice.

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The Clay Helton Era, initiated by Pat Haden after a 2015 re-painting of the Victory Bell, has been the ultimate bell curve in USC history.

The Trojans lost five of the first six games after Helton was appointed as full-time head coach, then won a Rose Bowl, a Pac-12 championship and went a calendar year without a loss, before bottoming out in 2018, again losing five of his final six games.

At another school in the conference, those are three-plus years worth being proud of. At USC, it’s complicated.

While the nods to Hackett encapsulate the failures of this season, they fail to acknowledge the success the Trojans amassed in 2016 and 2017. And how Helton, who served on the staffs of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, two coaches considered at one time or another to be prodigies in the profession—a tag Clay himself never got—outperformed them. He used the talent they recruited and actually got the most out of it.

At another school in the conference, Helton’s three-plus years are worth being proud of. At USC, it’s complicated.

But while those triumphs on the backs of Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones II, Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Uchenna Nwosu parallel the booty Smith’s USC teams briefly plundered with Rodney Peete, Junior Seau, Mark Carrier, Tim Ryan and Erik Affholter, the origin story of the Helton Era pales in comparison.

Smith was a coach with a positive resume at Arizona, having put together a better record in every season than before. Whereas, Helton gobbled up promotion after promotion while his superiors got fired and/or resigned.

Even good coaching hires aren’t foolproof, as Smith showed. But Haden still hired Helton despite lacking the prerequisite experience for a job as prestigious as USC, making the conclusion—the Trojans’ embarrassing implosion in 2018—the most get-what-you-pay-for result of all-time.

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That’s how the Clay Helton Era should’ve been remembered had it ended Sunday morning. Better than advertised. But still exactly what you should have expected.

It should’ve been seen as an indictment of Haden’s hiring procedures, Kiffin’s coaching ability and Sarkisian’s maturity, all while highlighting why recruiting rankings and coaching resumes matter as the best predictors of success. Because talent wins and experience keeps winning.

You should’ve been able to sit here and say Helton won with one and lost without the other. And that at USC, assembling talent is the much easier half of the battle, justifying a decision to cut bait.

But you can’t.

Because worse than Haden before him, Lynn Swann bought into tangible failure, turning Helton from a get-what-you-paid-for coaching tenure, to doubling down on a hard 13.

Unlike Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, Helton lacks a decades-long pedigree of winning at every level of college football. And unlike Kelly, he lacks the rolodex to hire the top-flight assistant coaches necessary to turn a 5-7 disaster into the base camp for redemption.