The Media Can’t Get Enough of Helton, Helton, Helton…

Kerry Miller (Bleacher Report)  —  USC athletic director Lynn Swann resigned Monday afternoon, leaving the college football world wondering the same question.

What does this mean for Trojans head coach Clay Helton?

Swann was seemingly the only person in Helton’s corner at the end of a disastrous 2018 season, retaining  the coach for a fourth full season while the wolves called for his head. Now that his key supporter has abruptly disappeared, Helton’s seat is once again engulfed in flames.

By resigning now, Swann perhaps inadvertently set up USC perfectly to move on from Helton at the end of the season, if it desires. The administration can take its time to find a new athletic director, make the hire by mid-November and let his or her first major order of business be appointing a new football coach. In theory, it would work out better than rushing to hire an AD who then rushes to hire a coach before the annual carousel stops spinning.

But that only comes into play if Helton has a season worthy of termination, which has not been the case thus far.

Despite losing starting quarterback JT Daniels to a torn right ACL and meniscus in the season opener and in spite of not yet getting to play either of his top two recruits from this year’s class—wide receivers Kyle Ford (ACL) and Bru McCoy (eligibility battle)—Helton has guided the Trojans to a 2-0 start.

The initial win over Fresno State wasn’t all that noteworthy, but the subsequent 45-20 pummeling of then-No. 23 Stanford was enough to vault USC into the AP Top 25 at No. 24—after it received just one vote in each of the previous two polls. The Trojans trailed 17-3 early in the second quarter before freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis led them to 42 of the game’s final 45 points.

Aside from maybe Maryland and North Carolina, USC has been the biggest positive surprise of the season’s opening two weeks. For the 40 or so hours between the end of that victory and the announcement of Swann’s departure, it appeared as though Helton was retightening his grip on the job.

If there’s anyone who understands that a hot start doesn’t equate to job security, though, it’s Helton.

He won five of his first seven games as interim head coach in 2015 to get USC to the Pac-12 championship, won the Rose Bowl in 2016 in his first year as the permanent head coach and led the Trojans to 11 wins in 2017. Yet it only took one bad season with an exceptionally young roster for both the national media and USC boosters to turn on him.

Helton was the ultimate target in preseason hot seat articles.

“Plenty of coaches enter 2019 perfectly safe in their seat,” Sports Illustrated‘s Ross Dellenger wrote in late August. “Helton is not one of them. He’s on the hottest of hot seats as the college football season kicks off. Many thought he wouldn’t make it this far.”

“Like Tom Herman at Texas, Helton is going to rise and fall faster and harder than most coaches simply based on his employer,” CBS Sports’ Ben Kercheval wrote in July. “But heading into 2019, there’s no doubt he’s on the hot seat.”

One needn’t search long to find similar examples of major outlets projecting the impending end of Helton’s run at USC.

And while the 2-0 start temporarily silenced that refrain, it has returned with a vengeance in the aftermath of Swann’s resignation.

What needs to happen the rest of the way for Helton to keep his job?

Folks still basking in the memories of the Pete Carroll glory days would probably say anything less than 11 wins would be grounds for termination, particularly in light of last year’s 5-7 debacle. Given the overall difficulty of USC’s schedule, though, 9-3 would seem to be enough to at least make the new AD balk at the thought of a coaching change, as the most likely route to that end-of-season record would be one more win over a currently ranked opponent and nary a bad loss.

In a weird way, Swann’s resignation probably improves the odds of Helton getting to stick around for one more year.

The toughest part of USC’s schedule is fast approaching with three straight games against Utah, at Washington and at Notre Dame. If the Trojans were to lose all three and had a full-time athletic director, the AD would consider making a change right then and there—maybe even on an airport tarmac, otherwise known as Lane Kiffin-style. Even if Swann had been unwilling to make that change with a 3-3 record, it would have been one of the main arguments among the talking heads over the course of the ensuing few days.

But an interim AD (Dave Roberts) is far less likely to make an in-season coaching change, which would give Helton six more weeks to rally the troops for the much easier half of the schedule. The Trojans could lose three straight, but they might also win the subsequent six (Arizona, at Colorado, Oregon, at Arizona State, at California, UCLA) to at least get into the conversation for a New Year’s Six bowl.

Even at a program where a spot in the Rose Bowl is an annual preseason expectation, that might keep him on the payroll into 2020.

One of the biggest variables in this whole discussion is the unknown of who will be available. Even with the turbulence of the past decade, USC is the type of high-profile program that should have its pick of the litter.

What if that litter stinks, though?

It’d be one thing if we find out that Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops wants to return to the college football sideline or that longtime defensive coordinator Brent Venables is ready to try his luck at the head coaching thing. But if none of those things are true and they’re unable to lure someone like Matt Campbell (Iowa State) or Jeff Brohm (Purdue) away from their current positions, the Trojans would be throwing away recruiting connections and possibly downgrading their coaching staff by kicking Helton to the curb.

Considering one of the main reasons Swann decided to retain Helton last November was to provide a little stability to a program that went from Kiffin to Ed Orgeron to Steve Sarkisian to Helton in the span of 24 months, it would seem silly to fire him just for upheaval’s sake.

In the end, it will obviously hinge on how these next two-and-a-half months play out.

If this hot start perpetuates, we may spend Thanksgiving weekend laughing about the fact that we once thought Helton was on the chopping block. Alternatively, if the combination of a tough schedule and a true freshman quarterback results in yet another 5-7 mess, we’ll laugh at the fact that one home win over Stanford was enough to make us question this impending coaching change.

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Mt Rushmore

I am just so sick of talking about Helton. Just me perhaps, but there isn’t anything new to say. Now if we are talking about the Stanford win or the upcoming BYU game, I am all for it. As the season progresses it seems that teams that nobody thought were very good are becoming better, like Cal and Colorado. I can see good games with both Arizona schools. Only easy game on the schedule is going to be ucla. With a schedule like USC has, their rise in the polls should me meteoric. Lord knows they have to be better… Read more »

Noble Member

It is all different now with Swann gone and likely an experienced business oriented and bottom line AD will be brought in. Now if Helton wins enough to keep him another year, so be it. He no longer has an AD who will accept mediocrity. If the team wins 9-10 games AND Helton’s recruiting turns back to quality, then give him another year if the new AD feels he deserves it. I know now Helton can’t rest on being so so. I would love to see Stoops or Meyers hired here. Meyers might be itching to get back by then.… Read more »

Noble Member

It will be interesting to see how this plays out over next few months. I really think we could possibly beat BYU, Utah, Washington, and Notre Dame. To do that we will need to play at the level that we played it against Stanford from when we were down 17-3.

If Clay shows he can guide this team to a successful season like 10-2 or 9-3 and wins the Pac-12 , then he deserves to stay.

Active Member

It’s not the losses, but the way the team lost. There has been a litany of questionable decisions made by Helton that were more than enough to jettison the coach. Swann reasoned that stability was needed, so in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary Helton was given a pass. There is no point in beating the dead horse that is Helton’s record, unless you acknowledge the legend of the decent person Helton appears to be. In what seemed insane loyalty decent man Helton kept a center high school coaches have benched in a flash. So Helton the… Read more »

Active Member

I think that Helton will make it through the 2019 season. I also think that USC will take the PAC-12 Championship…Kedon Slovis is outstanding, and so are the WR’s! So I wouldn’t count USC out by any means…we will have to see…Fight On!

Active Member

The Helton decision has to be based on his record.
Based on last year he should have been fired.
But this year he seems to be making adjustments he should have made
3 years ago. And perhaps he is finally learning to be a HC.
He is letting his coaches coach. And he is making installing discipline as
a priority. And tackling well is being worked on.
And perhaps he will learn to make adjustments or at least let the
assistants make them.
Helton is in charge of his own destiny, but needs a great season it would seem
to keep his job.