Mike Bohn’s Clay Helton gambit can set USC up for success

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 23: (L-R) Athletic Director Mike Bohn of the USC Trojans shakes hands with head coach Clay Helton of the USC Trojans after defeating the UCLA Bruins 52-35 in a game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 23: (L-R) Athletic Director Mike Bohn of the USC Trojans shakes hands with head coach Clay Helton of the USC Trojans after defeating the UCLA Bruins 52-35 in a game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

USC fans may not have liked Mike Bohn’s decision to retain Clay Helton, but his actions since show there is a method to the madness.

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Last November the choice for new athletic director Mike Bohn was clear: Wait until USC football was eliminated from winning the South division, then fire Clay Helton.

After two tumultuous seasons on the field and the recruiting trail, it was time. The Trojans were once again underachieving with their talented roster. The Rose Bowl victory of 2016 and Pac-12 title in 2017 felt like distant memories, replaced by a sobering 5-7 catastrophe in 2018 and dismal losses to BYU, Washington, and Oregon in 2019.

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Sure, Bohn was hired just three weeks before the end of USC’s regular season, but anyone with functioning eyes and ears comprehended the disdain Trojan fans and donors had for the direction of the team.

Yet, the Trojans defeated UCLA to close the regular season and nothing changed. The days crept by with no word.

Then, on December 4th, amid near-hysteria, Mike Bohn announced that Helton was to be retained.

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Venomous words spewed directly at Bohn, USC president Carol Folt, Helton, and the Trojan athletic department. The new AD went from being the savior of Troy to having fans call for his job while writing him off as yet another ineffective bureaucrat in a diseased USC system.

Yes, the decision felt unconscionable at the time. However, after taking USC’s offseason into account, there may legitimate reasons behind Bohn’s choice.

From what we know, Helton’s buyout this season was a ludicrous figure that existed because a professional agent dominated a figurehead AD in negotiations.

There is reason to believe that Bohn had two choices—fire the embattled head coach and take a fresh start with less than ideal replacement or bring him back and invest in the infrastructure of the program.

The former had to be enticing. For years USC operated under the assumption that the university’s significance and lack of regional competition allowed the program to function at an elite level. Despite lacking comparable investment to blueblood football schools in Texas, Florida, Ohio, and the South, the Trojans have had considerable success this century.

In turn, hiring a new head coach as the centerpiece of the program could have easily reinvigorated USC’s diminished status in the eyes of fans and prospects.

Recruiting would have stabilized, especially in Southern California, as players would no longer be forced to wonder if the person recruiting them would be gone within months of their arrival on campus.

With the current roster, a new head coach would have had little issue finding nine or 10 wins during the regular season, and thus could have claimed the program was trending in a positive direction.

The improved record from 2020 and return of Kedon Slovis for his all-important junior season would have created a national buzz around the team by 2021, and Bohn could have parlayed that progress into dollars from boosters to improve USC’s assistant coaches and support staff.

Yet, the risk of this approach for Bohn may have actually exceeded retaining Helton.

And before you call me insane, consider this: if Bohn hired a new coach, like Jack Del Rio, Mike Norvell, or another candidate, all of that coach’s failures would also be Bohn’s. So why would he bring in a new coach if he didn’t 100 percent believe that the program would be turned around by doing so?

If the new coach failed to produce an exciting season of football in 2020 with major improvements in recruiting, fans and boosters would begin to lose faith in the athletic director and would ultimately be stingier with donations and support.

Even if the new coach was successful Year 1, the traditional elitist mindset may have returned to USC and the investment in the football program may have stagnated, preventing Bohn from building a proper support staff around his head coach.

Instead, Bohn elected to bring Helton back for a fifth season on the sideline while gutting and rebuilding the program around him.

Recently on the Peristyle Podcast with Ryan Abraham and Keely Eure, Bohn explained, “We are actively having conversations every day about ways to improve the football program. That simply wasn’t happening before between the administration and the football coach.”

He went further saying, “So fundamentally as an athletic department we are prioritizing building a foundation that will help us be more successful for the long-term.”

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Helton.

This offseason the priority became providing the head coach with a staff that could both coach and recruit at an elite level.

The first step was to guarantee that Graham Harrell would be back for his second season at USC. After producing the ninth-best offense in the country according to SP+, losing Harrell would have been disastrous for the team’s outlook in 2020.

The sharks were circling with multiple teams angling to poach Harrell. Despite receiving a lesser financial offer from the Trojans, the former Texas Tech quarterback spurned the University of Texas, amongst others, and accepted a three-year contract extension worth $1.2 million per year.

With offense settled, USC turned to the other phases of the game following their embarrassing loss to Iowa in the Holiday Bowl.

Both Clancy Pendergast and John Baxter were fired, and the Trojans brought in Todd Orlando from Texas Tech to head the defense and Sean Snyder from Kansas State to work on special teams.

Snyder consistently had one of the best special teams units in the country during his time at KSU, a welcome sight to Trojan fans who endured a comedy of special teams errors — such as having less than 11 men on the field for field goal/extra point attempts and constantly returning kickoffs to the detriment of the offense —  from Baxter’s group.

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The addition of Orlando was less favorably received because he was fired by Texas about two months before landing in Southern California. Yet, the former Wisconsin linebacker has been at the helm of accomplished defenses in the past, with the most recent being in 2017 at Texas.

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Once Orlando arrived in Los Angeles, it is obvious that either Helton or Bohn made it clear that the new DC had free reign to hire his own staff. This led to defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a, linebackers coach Johnny Nansen, and cornerbacks coach Greg Burns being replaced by Vic So’oto from Virginia (defensive line), Craig Naiver from Texas (safeties), and Donte Williams from Oregon (corners).

While the staff turnover was necessary and positions USC to perform better on the field, hiring Williams away from Oregon carries significance in the power structure of the Pac-12.

By all accounts, Williams is an ace recruiter and can be credited with the lion’s share of Oregon’s recruiting success over the past two seasons. Consequently, the Trojans can expect to gain some much-needed ground in their weakest area while debilitating their primary competitor in the West.

In addition to improving the coaching staff, Mike Bohn expanded the program’s support staff in recruiting and marketing to make those groups comparable to those of other universities.

Now, Bohn has the benefit of playing the results of the season. The combination of the improvements made to the program and USC’s current roster leaves Helton with no excuses for not producing on and off the field.

The expectation should be a Pac-12 championship and to be, at the very least, competitive in a New Year’s Six bowl. If that happens, Bohn may feel confident that Helton can lead this program when he is provided with the resources to thrive. Plus, the added stability, larger support staff, and winning on the field would return recruiting to an acceptable level.

On the flip side, if the team produces below expectations— this should include winning the South but not the conference—Bohn must be ruthless and move on from Helton, which should be easy given that (one would think) his buyout will be much more manageable this year.

Also, while there may have been a reluctance to provide donations for improving the auxiliary functions of the program had Bohn hired a new coach this offseason, there will be no shortage of individuals willing to provide the money to fire Helton if he fails on the field once again.

Yes, Bohn is taking the risk of weathering yet another disappointing football season that could lead to additional apathy towards USC from fans and recruits, but the improved infrastructure of the program and additional funds that should be available to hire a new coach would theoretically allow him to go out and hire the best candidate possible to lead the Trojans.

If suffering through one more season of uninspiring football under Helton leads to an elite level hire, isn’t that worth it?

Considering all of the positive moves Bohn has orchestrated this offseason, trusting that he has a plan for the program based on the outcome this season is a gamble worth taking.

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