After falling to Notre Dame 24–17 on Saturday night, USC finished with a losing record for the first time since 2000. There were 59,821 people in attendance at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the lowest number at a USC–Notre Dame game in L.A. since 1960.
When head coach Clay Helton was shown in a video board message thanking the fans, he drew resounding boos. When Helton walked off the field and into the tunnel following the defeat, he flashed a Fight On sign with his hand. “Fire Helton” chants were shouted back at him.
For a game that offered USC a chance to spoil its rival’s CFP chances, the fans in attendance seemed decidedly apathetic about the on-field action, but they were certainly intent on making their feelings known about their current head coach.
In the face of a scene that should have raised every red flag possible, USC athletic director Lynn Swann announced on Sunday that Helton would return for the 2019 season.
The most damning line from Swann’s statement: “We acknowledge and understand our deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff.”
It doesn’t take long to realize the flaws of the coaching staff when watching USC play. The Trojans are undisciplined (123rd in penalty yards per game), sloppy (120th in turnover margin) and inconsistent (they surrendered 14 consecutive points or more in 10 of their 12 games).
The 2018 staff's in-game coaching shortcomings were clear. USC scored first in 10 of its 12 games. USC held a double-digit lead in eight of its 12 games. But while opposing staffs were able to implement successful adjustments, USC’s failed to find an appropriate counter. The Trojans scored 10.7 points per game in second halves this season, which ranks 103rd. In the season's final three games—losses to Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame—USC was outscored 45–10 in the second half, and that was after Helton took over play-calling duties from demoted offensive coordinator Tee Martin.
This is a team that was outscored 242–239 in conference play despite clearly having the most talent in the Pac-12—USC is one of four programs in the country with top-10 recruiting classes in each of the past five years, and the other three are Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia. Yes, USC did win a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title in Helton’s first two years, but it still had a ways to go to compete for a national title. Just look at the games against Alabama and Ohio State, where USC lost by a combined score of 76–13.
And yet, despite those results and the issues with “culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff,” despite the Trojans' immediate dip in competitiveness once Sam Darnold jumped to the NFL—USC has more double-digit losses (six) than overall wins (four) against Power 5 foes without Darnold since Helton was named full-time head coach—Swann decided to run it back with the same coach at the helm.
The Rams just won a 54–51 thriller over the Chiefs at the Coliseum to move to 10–1. UCLA hired Chip Kelly this past offseason, and finished with more victories in October and November than USC did, including a comeback win over the Trojans two weeks ago. USC is quickly fading in relevancy among football teams in Los Angeles, but Swann doesn’t see the urgency in fixing that. So if Swann isn’t committed to winning a national title, why should USC fans remain committed to supporting a program that just announced it’s fine with mediocrity?
Swann’s predecessor, Pat Haden, faced a similar situation in 2012. USC was ranked No. 1 entering its third year under Lane Kiffin but suffered an embarrassing 7–6 campaign that ended with a 21–7 humiliation at the hands of Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Despite it being apparent that Kiffin was not the right coach to lead the Trojans to title contention, Haden gave his coach another chance. Kiffin was fired five games into the following season, resulting in another lost year and a waste of talent.
USC continues to make the same mistakes over and over again. Whether it’s the in-game issues that plague Helton's teams, the inability to escape its insularity when hiring new coaches or the unwillingness to recognize when it’s time to move on, USC’s failure to adjust has turned a once-elite program into an underachieving disappointment.
In Los Angeles, fandom isn’t about loyalty. It’s about winning. USC’s average home crowd this season was 55,449, the team’s lowest since 1987. And if Swann continues to allow all the losing under Helton, USC may just lose the city’s interest as well.