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.
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.