Finally, USC got one right.
The Trojans on Monday announced that interim head coach Clay Helton will have the title permanently, ending speculation about one of the best jobs in college football before what is sure to be one of the craziest coaching carousels in history. Helton went 5-2 as the interim coach this season, most recently thumping cross-town rival UCLA 40-21 on Saturday to lock up a spot in this weekend’s Pac-12 championship game.
USC athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement that Helton didn’t get the job because of his most recent win or his popularity among players, but because he’s the right guy for the job. Haden, who has been skewered by boosters and the media this season for a variety of missteps, is right.
What USC, a program rich in tradition and talent, needs most is an adult. The Trojans have been in the spotlight way too much the last few seasons for way too many off-field incidents, from the firing of former coach Lane Kiffin at an airport (a move that eventually led to Helton acting as interim coach in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl) to the recent firing of Steve Sarkisian, who had a drinking problem that got out of control.
Helton is relatively boring by comparison—he doesn’t have the movie star charisma of former coach Pete Carroll, and prefers not to talk about himself. He gives vanilla answers and always deflects attention back to the players. Maybe you don’t know much about Helton outside of his record and the fact that players like him. Sounds perfect. He’s taking care of business on the field, and doing so in a fashion that calls attention to results, not off-field antics.
You’ve probably heard that USC, with its hall full of Heisman trophies, sells itself to recruits, and that's true. Add that young guys clearly want to play for Helton—given his record and players’ vocal support of him following the UCLA win, it’s obvious he’s won over the locker room— and it only helps Helton’s cause. In what has become a familiar refrain, USC has a lot of young talent on this roster. It’s the type of talent that can compete for a national championship, if only the program could get some stability. Helton, who knows the school and the area, provides that. That he’ll likely come at a reasonable price tag is a bonus.
USC will always be an attractive job, but it’s better for the Trojans to get their guy now, instead of playing the waiting game. A move like this can re-energize the locker room, so don’t be surprised if USC pulls off a win over No. 9 Stanford in the conference title game.
Helton’s work is far from done: He’ll have to make crucial decisions about his staff, beginning with possibly replacing defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. USC has the money and time to upgrade a variety of positions, and there’s no doubt Helton’s mind is already churning with possible replacements.
Of course, not everyone will be happy. Some believed USC had a legitimate shot to land whichever coach it went after, and that Helton, 43, is an easy out. (Let’s make clear that Chip Kelly was never going to happen.) Some instantly get leery about the idea of promotion from within, though it’s worked well for Pac-12 colleagues Mark Helfrich, David Shaw and Kyle Whittingham. There’s something to be said for continuity in this sport, and USC has it now with Helton. With Helton’s hiring, a once-fractured program can start to put itself back together.