By keeping Clay Helton, Mike Bohn missed the chance to start fresh at USC, swiftly ending his honeymoon period with unhappy Trojan fans.
Mike Bohn has a problem. His name is Clay Helton.
A mere month ago, before Bohn was installed as the new USC athletic director, it seemed a certainty that Helton would be relieved of his duties by the end of the season. Instead, the Trojans made the mistake of letting him stay on after starting the campaign 3-3. In doing so, they gave him all the room he needed to finish the year strong and put himself in position to save his job. With a 5-1 record in the second half, he did just that.
The first signs pointing towards the possibility of Helton being kept on arrived ahead of the UCLA game. Lo and behold, USC prevailed 52-35. He was retained, even though the Trojans were kept out of the Pac-12 title game.
Even during the rivalry game, the broadcast included plenty of positive discussion of Helton’s prospects.
To sum it all up, the pitch for keeping Helton went like this: He’s a good person. He’s stable. His record isn’t bad enough to warrant firing him just yet. (And firing him would involve financial ramifications USC may not be willing to live with.)
Helton is a good person. He is stable and his record isn’t the worst in the world, especially with three wins since the new AD was installed. So it makes sense for Bohn to have considered the option of keeping him around, especially at the cost of a buyout.
But considering the option and picking it are two different things. By doing the latter, Bohn has made a massive mistake which has put his tenure as athletic director off on the very wrong foot.
Being a good person doesn’t make you a good head coach. In fact, being as nice as Helton is may be a detriment as a football coach when it comes to demanding perfection and requiring toughness.
Stability has come at the cost of ambition. Helton’s record of blowout losses—including trouncings at the hands of Alabama, Notre Dame, Texas, Utah and Oregon—is not reflective of a head coach who is capable of getting USC to the playoff, let alone one with the potential to win a semifinal.
As for the record, it’s plain to see what a paper tiger it is. Helton has commanded one of the most talented rosters in college football. In 2019 CBS Sports rated USC’s five-year recruiting class average fifth in the country, behind only Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and LSU.
During his five seasons as the Trojan head coach, Helton has managed a 40-21 (0.65) record. In that same time, Nick Saban has gone 65-5 (0.92) with Alabama, Mark Richt and Kirby Smart combined for a 52-14 (0.78) record at Georgia, Urban Meyer and Ryan Day achieved a collective 59-6 record for Ohio State (0.90) and LSU managed 47-14 (0.77) under Les Miles and Ed Orgeron.
Helton’s record has been decent, but fails to live up to other recruiting powers aspiring to challenge for trophies.
Nor is Helton likely to keep USC among those elite recruiters. The Trojans 2019 class slipped well below standards to 20th nationally and third in the Pac-12.
The class of 2020 is currently ranked No. 67 in the country and 11th in the conference. To be fair, Helton’s lack of job security undoubtedly impacted his staff’s ability to secure commitments this fall. So the official announcement of his return will help that rank rise. Still, only marginal improvement can be expected on that front. It will be a victory if USC manages a second-straight class ranked in the Top 25 nationally.
The Trojans have just one commitment ranked in the Top 25 prospects in California for 2020. That’s Narbonne wide receiver Josh Jackson, who rates 25th. Out of the remaining 24 players, 17 are already committed to other schools. Pac-12 rivals Washington and Oregon carry the majority of those pledges.
The financial aspect of the decision is clear cut. USC will avoid having to pay a buyout reportedly approaching $20 million.
But the choice to keep Helton comes with consequences of its own, some of them financial.
USC fans have had it with the Helton era.
Bohn and university president Carol Folt can’t be ignorant of that. Every tweet they’ve sent since taking their respective jobs has resulted in a deluge of responses requesting a change for the football program.
Maybe the voices in the luxury suites said something different, but on the grassroots level, there could be no doubt.
USC’s average home attendance was 55,448 in 2018. That was the lowest since 1987. In 2019, average home attendance was 59,358. That’s while hosting two Top 10 opponents and two California rivals in a newly-renovated Coliseum.
Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News calculated the cost of gameday revenue loss from poor attendance figures over the last two seasons. It’s conservatively estimated in the range of $9 million per year.
“So the cost of keeping Helton in 2019-20 is actually closer to $20 million — the reported buyout figure,” Wilner wrote.
Enthusiasm for the program under Helton simply isn’t there. USC fans have little incentive to spend money on a team led by a head coach they don’t want.
Social media polls are about as unscientific as they come, but they’ve been pretty definitive on the opinion of a majority of the Trojan fanbase.
Being in Los Angeles is a huge advantage for USC, but the location has its draw backs. College football fervor is not free in LA the way it might be in SEC country. The price of drawing eyeballs is winning and winning well.
Helton hasn’t won enough, nor well enough, to put butts in the seats at the Coliseum. Worse, he has lost poorly enough to give USC fans plenty of reason to focus their attention, and wallets, elsewhere.
Bohn has to live with that reality, even if he might not have fully understood it when he opted to keep Helton around. He’ll understand soon enough when he looks at USC’s donation figures, attendance numbers and more.
His first big decision as USC AD was a giant fail.