Now that athletic director Mike Bohn has put his faith in Clay Helton, he shouldn’t be surprised when he proves incapable of leading the Trojans to a championship.
After days of anxiously awaiting news regarding the fate of Clay Helton, USC fans have their answer and it isn’t what they wanted to hear.
Late Tuesday night, Football Scoop reported that USC is retaining Helton as its head football coach. Then Wednesday afternoon, USC athletic director Mike Bohn confirmed the rumor in a tweet that sent Twitter into a frenzy.
Bohn’s message was met with both vitriol and apathy from a Trojan fan base that is done suffering through the Helton era.
His retention is a crushing blow to all who desired the program to rise to the national relevancy it enjoyed over a decade ago, and many fans may be lost for the foreseeable future as a result.
The public and more than a few media members believed that Lynn Swann’s resignation in September, along with the team’s uninspiring on-field performance in 2019, would be enough force a change at the head coach position. However, Bohn opted to put his faith (and undefeated football record as USC AD) in Helton’s hands for at least another season.
The decision is inexplicable to many. After a 5-7 2018 campaign, Helton promised to follow the Notre Dame model to reinvigorate his staff with new talent. Yet, to the detriment of his team, he replaced just one of his three primary coordinators.
On offense, Helton welcomed in Graham Harrell and the “Air Raid” from North Texas to resounding success. The new scheme prospered due to the coherence of the system and the unquestionable talent USC possesses at each position within the offense. Kedon Slovis, Michael Pittman Jr, and the rest of the Trojans lifted their team from an offensive SP+ ranking of 46th in 2018 to ninth at the close of this year’s regular season.
Harrell’s work in his first season at USC has already earned him interviews for the offensive coordinator role at Texas and head coaching positions at other schools. Losing the former Texas Tech quarterback would be a massive blow to Helton’s staff, as the team’s improvement on offense was one of the Trojans’ few bright spots this season.
Unfortunately, the other side of the ball was a much different story. In 2018, the Trojan defense was under siege due to the offense’s inability to sustain drives and avoid turnovers, yet still finished ranked 34th in defensive SP+. Those extenuating circumstances provided Helton with the justification to bring defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast for another go-around and boy, did it backfire.
The Trojans were a disaster on defense in 2019 and only got worse as the year wore on. The unit displayed glimpses of dominance for a quarter or even half at a time. However, opponents typically shredded USC the rest of the game.
In USC’s most pivotal game, Oregon hung 42 points on the defense. In the regular-season finale, the Fighting Chip Kelly’s racked up 540 total yards in the Battle for the Victory Bell. Even with tremendous offensive support, USC struggled to limit opposing offenses. All told, the Trojan defense finished 55th in SP+ defense and inspired no confidence in Helton’s decision to retain Pendergast.
To make matters worse, Helton brought back special teams coordinator John Baxter and continued to spend more time working on special teams than nearly any other program to the effect of having one of the worst special teams units in America.
To give credit where credit is due, kicker Chase McGrath and punter Ben Griffiths respectively put together a solid year. The rest of special teams? Not so much. The Trojans constantly failed in this aspect of the game, giving up field position with poor kickoff returns, failing to have enough players on kicking units far too often, and committing penalties that turned more than a few neutral special teams plays into negatives.
To put it bluntly, Baxter should not be coaching at USC a day longer.
Speaking on penalties, one of Helton’s areas of emphasis for himself last offseason was to limit the number of penalties the team accrued this year. In 2018, USC finished 122nd in the nation in penalty yards. This year? 124th. But don’t fear, his other area of emphasis was turnovers, where the Trojans displayed marked improvement from 119th in the nation to 112th.
The common theme is that Helton doesn’t have any answers other than saying he is going to try really hard. There’s no substance. There is never any explanation of how he is going to adapt his coaching philosophy and process to turn the Trojans into national contenders. In fact, it appears more likely that he believes that his current process is the correct one and his failures can be attributed to youth, injuries, and adversity.
This dive into why Helton isn’t the right coach for USC could go on and on but right now it’s critical to inquire as to why Mike Bohn decided to keep Helton for another season.
Was he really fooled by USC’s meaningless winning streak to finish the season? Anyone could have told you that USC should win five of their last six contests. The Trojans beat two terrible teams in Arizona and Colorado, pulled away from a Cal team that lost its starting quarterback, survived against ASU’s backup QB after performing for just one quarter and found themselves in a shootout with 4-8 UCLA.
Was there too little monetary investment from the Board of Trustees and donors into USC football? Were top of the line coaches offered the job in the time since the UCLA game? Did those coaches reject taking over a relatively ideal situation because Heritage Hall refused to give them the power and resources to run a first-rate program?
It’s possible that Bohn reached out to his top-targets and each refused to take the job for one of many possible reasons. If that is the case, sticking with Helton another year may appear to be the best option. If Bohn was unable to sway one of his top targets, it’s disingenuous for fans to expect him to hire someone he doesn’t believe in. And while Bohn denied pursuing any other candidates for the job, there is little doubt that there was backchanneling done through this uncertain week.
Paying Helton and co.’s ludicrous buyouts to hire a coach that is unlikely to win a national title is short-sighted. In that scenario, USC fans would find themselves clamoring for another coach to be fired two years down the line. Yet, Helton has reached a level of toxicity with the fanbase that cannot be repaired and will only worsen with every loss.
If Mike Bohn, USC president Carol Folt and others on campus truly believe in Clay Helton, here is some advice: Don’t be surprised.
Don’t be surprised when the Trojans fall in their bowl game against a quality opponent and fans meet you with the same fervent hostility that they did when you brought Helton back.
Don’t be surprised when it’s difficult to hire quality coordinators this offseason because people prefer job security over a dying name brand.
Don’t be surprised when Helton promises that he will take personal responsibility for improving an area of the team and it stagnates or even worsens.
Don’t be surprised when a bone-headed personal foul costs the team a victory in 2020.
Don’t be surprised when this football team that is consistently ranked as a Top 5 roster in talent fails to rise to the top of an incredibly mediocre football conference that features one, maybe two “good” (not great) teams.
Don’t be surprised when the USC offensive line and defensive front seven don’t match the level of play from their skill position counterparts and are once again physically dominated by multiple teams over the course of 2020.
Don’t be surprised when your **scrolls down, loads more, scrolls down** 67th-ranked recruiting class fails to inspire confidence in the future of the program.
Don’t be surprised when 2021 five-star recruits that were considered to be locks to USC begin to look to the southeast or to Eugene to play their college ball as Helton’s hot seat is set ablaze for an impressive third year in a row.
Don’t be surprised when season ticket sales plummet, donations dry up, and the Coliseum looks like a UCLA game with all of the beautiful red seats folded upwards as your staff scrambles to fabricate respectable attendance figures in early September.
Don’t be surprised when correspondence from livid supporters floods your inboxes and banners fly overhead demanding for your lame-duck head coach to be “tarmac’d.”
And most of all, don’t be surprised on September 5th, 2020 when Nick Saban, Bryce Young, and the Alabama Crimson Tide take the men of Troy out to the woodshed and embarrass them once again on national television just to remind you that this program is incapable of competing for a national championship under Clay Helton.
That’s the ironic part about all of this. It’s already over. It has been since Urban Meyer’s defense emasculated the USC offensive line in 2017. Once the Trojans fall to Alabama, everyone will forget any optimism they developed over the offseason and be right back where they are today.
Bohn says he wants to fight apathy toward USC athletics. Well, his best opportunity to do so was to find a new head coach. By retaining Clay Helton, USC is simply delaying the inevitable.