USC Mailbag: Can Clay Helton Save His Job?

Adam Maya

Clay Helton is still USC's football coach. Will that change next week? Let's get into the questions.

The biggest thing you can sell is the team, which improved by three wins over 2018, closed out 2019 winning five of six, and returns all but a handful of starters between offense and defense in 2020. I sincerely believe next season can be a big one. But there’s not an obvious way to sell Clay Helton himself, which is why recruiting and attendance plummeted and have yet to recover. Winning is a bottom line, but so is money. And that’s why I have a hard time believing they’d bring him back.

You’d definitely know if I wasn’t fond of him. I’m pretty upfront, perhaps to a fault. But the reality is he’s the most genuine coach I’ve ever covered. Impossible to dislike on a personal level. I think that trait coupled with his work ethic is why USC is trying to honor him in how it handles this situation.

So, I’m not at all expecting Saban-Helton II. But to answer your question, if it were to happen, I guarantee USC wouldn’t lose by 40 to Alabama next September. I’m already bullish on the 2020 Trojans, regardless of their head coach. This team is going to be good. It might be great. Assuming USC's key players are available for the opener, I think that could be a great game.

This is a really good question that requires some digging and research. Will touch on this topic soon. Because if Helton has any chance of coming back, he most certainly would have to replace Clancy Pendergast.

More or less. Recruiting was submarined by Lynn Swann presenting Helton as a lame duck in 2019. You’d need the AD to make it crystal clear that the head coach is in the university’s long-term plans to reverse the situation. But with Helton, he’d need to have another top-10 season before such a declaration would even be made. That’s the obvious danger in running this all back. You’re threatening to spoil a second class, which is exponentially worse when compounded with a previous class. It could hold the program back for a few years.

I don’t believe he’ll do that. He knows his own future and legacy are entirely tied to this hire. Moreover, I’ve been told repeatedly, and as recently as this week, that USC intends to make a coaching change.

I happened to write about this scenario back in October. A few of the notable prospects to watch are linebacker Justin Flowe, running back Kendall Milton, wide receiver Gary Bryant and maybe quarterback Bryce Young, although his position is wide open at Alabama and certainly not at USC. But this is a good place to start. Time is running out, though.

Not sure why he wouldn’t be. He’s a redshirt freshman.

Over! A new coach will improve attendance immediately, if not significantly.

We haven’t even gotten started yet.

It’s harder to project these right now because we weren’t allowed to watch practice during the season. I should have a much better idea during spring. But WR Kyle Ford and DB Max Williams immediately come to mind. I’ve had people on the team tell me Williams is their best nickel. Don't sleep on WR Munir McClain, either. He played five games before getting injured, so he can't redshirt. But he's one to watch. 

I’m also curious about DT De’jon Benton, LBs Maninoa Tufono and Tuasivi Nomura and TE Jude Wolfe, although their paths to the playing field aren’t as obvious. And then we just have to see what happens with WR Bru McCoy, who’s yet to practice since transferring back to USC.

There’s been a lot of conflicting info on this front, particularly with whether Urban Meyer wants to coach next season. The only consistent message I’ve heard is that USC donors are pushing for him. Interestingly, I had more than one source tell me this week there was dialogue between the two sides with the intention of meeting.

As I reported last week, the plan was to wait to make an announcement until USC knew whether it was in the Pac-12 title game. That outcome isn’t expected to ultimately change the school’s course of action. Mind you, we still have a lot to learn about Mike Bohn and this new administration, so I can’t be definitive about what happens next week. But basing the actual decision, and not just the timing of it, on what Utah does would be pretty short-sighted. 

Part of the purpose in waiting was to allow the players to prepare for a title game with their head coach. That wouldn’t be possible if Helton had been dismissed this week; he wouldn’t remain on campus for an extra week while everyone waits to see if the Trojans get in. If that happens and we still don’t hear anything in the ensuing days, the school would be playing with fire (pun intended). You can’t announce you're getting rid of a coach after he’s won the conference championship game and is headed to the Rose Bowl. 

What's interesting is that, according to Helton, he and Bohn have not discussed his future and there weren't any plans to do so this week. If there was a path for Helton to keep his job, you'd think that would have been outlined for him earlier. You'd also think they'd tell him by now if they've already made their decision. It would be disingenuous not to. This should all be clear by next week.

As a USC receiver? Perhaps.

I feel like you guys are doing it by not going to the games. The athletic department is bleeding money.

I’m glad you brought this up. For those that support the idea of giving Helton one more season, it’s presumptuous to say Harrell will be at USC next year. He seems to love USC but he’ll have his opportunities this winter. I could see him being offered a Group of Five head coaching job or an OC job at a top-25 program. 

Given how tenuous things would continue to be under Helton, I don’t know what Harrell would choose to do. But it’s not a foregone conclusion that he sticks around. With that said, and I’ve mentioned this before, I think it’s totally possible that he does remain at USC with a new head coach, depending on who that is and what latitude Harrell is given. Right now the offense appears to be all his.

I don't know, but that’s the word coming out of Heritage Hall. Could be why they're waiting to make a move.

Yes, if that’s what they’re going to do, waiting doesn’t make a lot of sense, which is one reason why I don’t believe he’s being retained. They’re doing themselves no favors in recruiting right now by keeping it unclear.

Definitely the latter. Wouldn’t you?

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Comments (4)
No. 1-4
Dodger106W
Dodger106W

Sounds like an old Clash song. Should he stay or should he go now. One reporter says he's out. The next one says he's in. I'll make it simple. Keep Helton. He knows how to coach. Put onus on Bohn to come up with answers to the biggest problem -recruiting.

charlie158
charlie158

I don't think Helton uncertain status is the reason for poor recruiting, its poor coaching, helton's inability to development players, his lack of control of the team (penalties, missed assignments, too many or too players on the field, etc.) his philosophy regarding practices and a multitude of other poor decisions. Bru and Chris said as much when they signed elsewhere. They are losing recruits because other schools have better coaching and better programs. Helton's uncertain status is a rationale used by people who want Helton to remain.

charlie158
charlie158

the issue addressed should be about the football program and not Helton(although his buyout is an issue), is the program in a position to become a dominant program again, is the football program generating the needed income consistent in past years, is the program still regarded highly by the desired recruits, is the program developing players and sending them to the NFL personally I think Helton is a fraud and with the salary and possible buyout a con man. Not sure where Mr. Nice Guy became his moniker and saving grace

cjwj
cjwj

With 4 proven running backs coming back next year...I don't believe there are enough footballs to go around and keep everyone happy. Combination of a good problem to have, but a potential challenge. I can see the fans going crazy over the lack of carries for either Stepp or Kenan. Vavae and Carr will likely remain 1 and 2 on the depth chart - not bad, but will drive fans of Stepp and Kenan crazy. Thoughts?


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