After compiling an 8-4 record for the 2019 season, Clay Helton did just enough to be retained as the USC head coach for another season.
The Clay Helton era at USC football is not over yet.
The Trojans opted to keep their fourth-year head coach on Sunday, sparing Helton from the executioners ax after the team played to a 8-4 record on the season.
“I am pleased to let you know Coach Helton will continue to be our head coach,” athletic director Mike Bohn tweeted on Wednesday afternoon. “His commitment to our student-athletes and to leading with integrity is vital to restoring our championship program, which is the goal for all of our teams.
“Heading into 2020, Coach Helton and I will work together to take a hard look at all aspects of the football enterprise and will make the tough decisions necessary to compete at a championship level.”
There was speculation throughout the 2019 season that Helton would be fired, especially after he started the season 3-3 with losses to BYU, Washington and Notre Dame. However, he bounced back with a 5-1 record in the second half of the campaign. The final three of those wins came after new athletic director Mike Bohn was hired.
Reports from national media around the final week of the regular season suggested Helton had won over support from Bohn and USC president Carol Folt. The truth of that came to pass despite a bit of drama. On Sunday a report suggested Helton would be fired, though that was subsequently shot down as rumors waged back and forth.
Helton’s career at USC’s head coach has been filled with highs and lows, but always featured an undercurrent of skepticism from the Trojan fanbase at large.
He was named the head coach while serving as the interim in place of Steve Sarkisian in 2015. Though he lost his first official game in charge at Notre Dame, his team rallied to win the Pac-12 South, prompting then-athletic director Pat Haden to install him permanently.
Concerns over the quality of the appointment—a first-time head coach whose Trojans had won games but hadn’t done so in particularly impressive fashion—were increased when Helton went on to lose the Pac-12 Championship Game to Stanford then fell in Holiday Bowl to Wisconsin. His record as a full-time head coach stood at 0-3 after the first game of the 2016 season when the Trojans were embarrassed by Nick Saban’s Alabama to open the campaign.
In fact, things only looked more dire for the Helton era when he started the year with a 1-3 record, suffering losses to Alabama, Stanford and Utah. However, before the Utah game the Trojans installed new quarterback Sam Darnold and his playmaking sparked the team on an impressive run to end the season. Aided by a stout defense, USC rolled to the Rose Bowl and pulled off a late comeback to beat Penn State in epic fashion.
The feel-good nature of that victory propelled USC to high expectations in 2017, and they met them by winning the Pac-12 for the first time since 2009. But even then, discontent was brewing as the performance of the team never seemed to hit its full potential. That was particularly true in embarrassing losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.
When Darnold and other key defenders departed for the NFL, the Trojans followed up the 2017 season with a 5-7 record in 2018 and the fears of fans seemed to be confirmed. Despite the failures of the campaign, athletic director Lynn Swann opted to keep Helton in place, though the head coach reworked his coaching staff and ultimately hired offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to usher USC into a new offensive system.
The changes only helped so much as the Trojans fell victim to familiar pitfalls: undisciplined play, mediocre offensive line performances, defensive breakdowns and special teams miscues.
USC opened the year with a shaky victory over Fresno State, in which starting quarterback JT Daniels was knocked out with a season-ending knee injury. His replacement, true freshman Kedon Slovis, raised optimism with a record-setting performance in his first start against Stanford but had crucial mistakes leading to a loss at BYU the next week.
He too was injured in September, leading to third-string quarterback Matt Fink seeing a familiar run of play. He rallied the Trojans with a big performance to beat No. 10 Utah, only to throw three interceptions at No. 17 Washington eight days later, restoring calls for the head coach to be cut loose.
Helton remained as USC fell to Notre Dame in South Bend with Slovis back at the helm, then bounced back with a blowout win over Arizona and a comeback on the road at Colorado.
The home embarrassment to Oregon was followed by a frustrating win against ASU, but the Trojans finished on a roll with blowout wins over Cal and UCLA. However, they were held out of the Pac-12 title game when Utah clinched the South division title with a victory over Colorado.
In his tenure, Helton has a 40-21 record, including a Rose Bowl victory, a Pac-12 Championship and a Top 3 finish in the AP Poll. He also won the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl following the resignation of Ed Orgeron.
In 2020, he will have the opportunity to build on those numbers, though the first game of the year is a daunting matchup against the same team which started his first season off so disappointingly: Alabama.