With only four games, and just three-and-a-half weeks, remaining in the regular season, it’s safe to assume Clay Helton will coach every game that’s already on USC’s schedule.
What happens after that will likely be determined in the coming weeks. USC has recently interviewed a few athletic director candidates and is aiming to make a hire by the end of November, sources with knowledge of the situation told SI. The school has primarily focused on sitting athletic directors.
One who appears to be out of the running is Villanova’s Mark Jackson. There was mutual interest between the two sides and back-channel dialogue prior to Lynn Swann’s resignation. But contact has cooled of late with the former USC administrator as the university has apparently moved on, per sources.
As for how this all affects Helton, when that hire is made is more important than what happens on the field Saturday against Oregon. If a new AD is in place by the conference title game, the Trojans will likely need to win not only the South Division but the entire Pac-12, which would clinch a New Year’s Six bowl, for Helton to have a shot of staying on.
The bigger question is, what if USC doesn’t have a new AD by the first week of December? Interim athletic director Dave Roberts appeared on Trojans Live on Monday and said his role in the matter will be based on how long it takes the school to hire a permanent AD, which he noted could carry into early next year or through the academic year (May).
“It’s going to be an issue of timing,” he said. “If I’m here for a shorter stint, I’ll have comments to make to the new athletic director. If it’s a longer period of time and we come to the end of the year, I’m sure I’ll be talking to the president. Right now I believe in judging people in what they do and how they perform, and the jury’s not in here. We got a run hopefully for a (South Division) championship, play in the Pac-12 Conference championship, get ourselves a good bowl game, and things will look well.
“Obviously recruiting is the lifeblood there, too, so we want to try and do everything that we can do to make sure our recruiting goes well. Remember, 2010, we lost 30 scholarships, and it takes a long time to come back to speed from that kind of a loss.”
It’s interesting that Roberts would mention recruiting, which really should create a sense of urgency in addressing the coaching situation. USC is currently staring down its worst-ranked recruiting class ever in large part because Helton is seen as a lame-duck coach. His status will obviously need to be cleared up heading into the early signing period, which begins Dec. 18. That means Roberts might be making the call on the head coach. He has publicly supported Helton but reiterated Monday that wins and losses will be his determining factor.
“Our record’s going to be our record,” Roberts said.
For weeks, Helton has noted that USC (5-3, 4-1 Pac-12) controls its own destiny in the Pac-12 South. That’s always been true, even though the Trojans haven’t been the only team that could make that claim. They’re still not, as UCLA surprisingly controls its own as well (for now). Despite USC holding the tiebreaker over Utah, the Utes, who are tied for first with the Trojans, are widely regarded as the favorites.
It’s the result of USC going more than a year since winning three straight, still having consecutive road games in November, and being about a touchdown underdog to Oregon this Saturday. Utah’s biggest remaining test will come earlier that same afternoon when it plays at Washington.
The Trojans can’t win or lose the division this weekend, but a loss coupled with a Utah win would severely weaken their chances. Of course, if they win and Utah loses, they really are in prime position to play in the conference title game. Should both teams produce the same result, win or lose, nothing changes, although Utah has the easier schedule down the stretch (vs. UCLA, at Arizona, vs. Colorado).
It leaves seemingly little margin for error for both Helton and the team, which could still win double-digit games and earn a Rose Bowl bid or miss a bowl game altogether. Some people that I’ve spoken to in the program believe if USC manages to win the conference, regardless of its record, Helton will be retained.
The caveat is if the Trojans hire a new athletic director first.
-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.