Is it a foregone conclusion that USC will fire Clay Helton once the regular season is complete? Trojan fans may not want to hear it, but nothing is certain at this stage.
USC couldn’t possibly keep Clay Helton on for another season, right?
Depending on the circles you run in, you might hear certainty in the answer to that question.
“Of course not.”
“The decision has already been made.”
“He’s as good as gone.”
But is it that easy? Will new USC president Carol Folt and new athletic director Mike Bohn really walk out of the Coliseum on Saturday, even after a rivalry win, and cut their inherited head coach loose?
Zach Barnett of Football Scoop called the firing “the worst-kept secret in college football” on Wednesday when discussing the difficulty USC may face with the timing of it all.
After all, should USC beat UCLA, the Trojans will technically still be in the running for the Pac-12 South title. It will come down to Utah beating Arizona this weekend and Colorado next weekend. If USC parts ways with Helton immediately after the UCLA game, they could end up playing the conference title game with an interim head coach.
But the timing complications for the decision are far from the only factors Folt and Bohn will have to take into account.
On Wednesday, Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports penned an article opening musing over the financial ramifications of moving on from Helton.
"What makes sense on paper could be tricky in reality, as it’s inherently difficult to walk into a relatively successful program and fire everyone before you learn their name. And it’s even more complex when it means the administrative equivalent of driving to the Santa Monica Pier and dumping more than $20 million into the Pacific Ocean. Especially if landing Urban Meyer or James Franklin to replace Helton isn’t realistic."
Let’s be brutally honest for a second here. There are reasons to cut Helton some slack. They aren’t as strong as the reasons to criticize him for the state of the program, but they are there.
USC is 7-4 with the potential to go 8-4 and land in a desirable postseason destination like the Alamo Bowl.
They’ve done that despite losing their starting quarterback, JT Daniels, in the first half of the season opener. And even though they found a diamond in the rough in Kedon Slovis, he himself was a true freshman learning on the job. His first road start at BYU was a catastrophe, but his performances since have arguably made him the best freshman starter in USC history. He also missed two games due to injury, one of those a road loss to Washington when the Trojans third-string QB threw three interceptions.
Quarterback hasn’t been the only injury hit position either.
USC’s offense has operated in the second half of the season with its fourth-string running back, a true freshman, because of injuries to the first three rushers. Meanwhile, the Trojan defense has battled despite missing starters like Talanoa Hufanga, Greg Johnson, Olaijah Griffin, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, Palaie Gaoteote, Drake Jackson and Christian Rector for several games apiece.
From the outside looking in, Helton’s resume is fine. Fans rightly focus on the blowout losses to Alabama, Notre Dame and Oregon. They point to disappointing performances even in victories and general failure to maximize talent. They highlight USC’s faltering recruiting class.
But in four seasons as a head coach, Helton will have also won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title. He will have achieved two 10-win seasons and recovered from a 5-7 disappointment with an 8-4 improvement (assuming he beats UCLA) and a place in the College Football Playoff Top 25.
Don’t mistake this as a defense of Helton. He has not done enough to warrant keeping a job he wasn’t qualified for in the first place. The right choice would be to start fresh with a new face who could restore confidence in the Trojan fan base.
Just don’t be surprised if these are considerations the decision makers at USC will have to acknowledge.
Simply put, it wouldn’t be all that hard to talk an outsider who hasn’t lived through the deficiencies of the Helton era to give him a life line.
If the reported numbers are correct, Folt and Bohn have $20 million reasons to do just that.
A $20 million buyout for Helton and staff is nothing to scoff at. Florida State boosters just came up with similar money to oust Willie Taggart, but he had a 9-12 record as head coach of the Seminoles, never coming close to the objective success of Helton’s tenure.
Thamel went on to note how Folt “loves Helton for his stability, calm and professionalism in a program that desperately needed it.”
[UPDATE: On The Audible Podcast on Thursday, Bruce Feldman reported that Bohn “really likes Clay Helton” and that, as of Wednesday night, “There’s no decision been made at this point.”]
USC fans may have reached the end of their rope on Helton’s “good guy” persona relative to his quality as a football coach, but Folt and Bohn are still in the introductory phase. And Helton is a very likable human being on top of being a man of integrity and honor.
An administrator’s perspective is not the same as a fan’s, as evidenced by the unnamed “high profile athletic director” who told Thamel they would keep Helton around if given the same circumstances.
That’s not to say it’s probable that Helton will be around next year. But if you’re discounting the possibility, you’re approaching this situation with blinders on.