USC Unlikely to Dismiss Clay Helton Next Week With Win Over UCLA
A final decision on USC coach Clay Helton might be put on hold for a week.
Should the Trojans beat UCLA on Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum, athletic director Mike Bohn is leaning toward keeping Helton on board until the Pac-12 South race has been decided, sources told SI. That likely means waiting out Utah's regular-season finale next Saturday.
USC, with a victory over the Bruins, would win the division if Utah loses at Arizona this Saturday or next weekend versus Colorado. (The Trojans, who have a bye next week, would also win the division with two losses by the Utes.)
Bohn, who was introduced just two weeks ago, is said to have gained great respect for Helton in their short time together and wants to keep the door open for Helton to coach the Trojans in the Pac-12 Conference Championship game should they make it. USC is aiming for its fifth win in six weeks, which spans the time Bohn would have been following the program closest.
The new AD told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday he wouldn't "race into" a decision on Helton and isn't "on a specific timeline that would do anything to jeopardize momentum or opportunities that exist."
Bohn appeared to be alluding to a potential conference championship game. Another reason for slightly delaying a decision, according to sources in the athletic department, is possible language in Helton's buyout. He was hired on Nov. 30 of 2015 and thus could be owed less beginning Dec. 1, which is the Sunday after the latest point in which USC could learn its Pac-12 fate.
The irony in waiting an extra week to make a coaching change, if that's what Bohn ultimately decides to do, is that it figures to negatively impact recruiting. The early signing period begins Dec. 18, just 12 days after the Pac-12 title game. USC would have only two weekends for official visits if Helton were dismissed the first week of December.
Given the program's subpar record over the past two seasons, as well as diminished attendance and a low-rated recruiting class lined up for 2020, Helton is believed to be coaching his final game(s) at USC, regardless of how the division race shakes out, sources said. But executing that plan could become messy if the Trojans do play in the Pac-12 title game and win it, which would clinch a berth in the Rose Bowl. USC would be 9-4 and likely ranked inside the top 15.
If UCLA wins Saturday, Helton is more likely to be let go next week, sources said.
That scenario hasn't been communicated to Helton, however. He said Thursday he's visited with Bohn multiple times since his new boss was hired on Nov. 6, while noting their conversations have not involved where the fourth-year coach stands. Helton said there isn't currently a meeting set up to discuss the matter, either.
"We've stayed in the moment," Helton said. "We've focused each and every week on the opponent. That's what we've done, that's what we've discussed. All our discussions have been about this particular week, what needs to go on. We've got a big game, we've got a big recruiting weekend. Those are things that we're focusing on right now. For us, I think you got to live in the moment and put your best foot forward. So, we haven't gotten into those discussions.
"It's about doing what's right for our players. It's not about me, it's not about him right now, it's about our players and helping them go to win a big game and hopefully a championship."
Two days before USC closes out its regular season, Helton reiterated his gratitude for Bohn's support this month, from attending team meetings and practices to getting acquainted with the coaches and players.
"He's been nothing but supportive," Helton said. "I couldn't ask for anything more in this situation. It's not the easiest of situations, and he's made it extremely comfortable, extremely welcoming, and extremely supportive of our team. That's all I can ask for as a head coach. ...
"What the future holds, that's for smarter men than me. My job is to go out there, compete like hell against UCLA, try to get the Victory Bell back on campus and worry about the moment. The moment is, the focus is UCLA. This game's hard enough to worry about anything outside, other than the opponent you got to face on Saturday."
-- Helton said tailback Vavae Malepeai (knee), who's missed the past five games, will likely be available Saturday.
-- Linebacker Palaie Gaoteote (ankle, knee), who's missed the past two games, is a "longshot" to play.
-- With Velus Jones still out with a high-ankle sprain, running back Kenan Christon and cornerback Adonis Otey have been taking kickoff return reps alongside Amon-Ra St. Brown.
-- Helton said Jones' absence also means freshman wide receiver Kyle Ford will back up Michael Pittman.
-- Defensive back Chase Williams has not practiced this week and is expected to be out multiple weeks with a mid-foot sprain.
-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.