🚨 USC Has Fired Head Coach Clay Helton

I thought they should’ve done it years ago:

What a disaster USC has become, firing their head coach two games into the season.

This is one of the premier jobs in all of college football. USC is right up there with Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma in terms of the true blue blood royalty programs of the sport. I’m talking 80+ years of excellence, multiple Heisman winners, multiple National Championships, legendary coaches. USC is one of the best of the best.

If you exclude Harvard, Princeton, Yale and as much as their fans will hate to hear it, Michigan, who all won a bunch of National Championships back in the 1800s when the sport of football was completely unrecognizable compared to the game we know today (for example, no forward passes, 5-yard first downs) and focus on the most successful programs in the poll era (1936-present), USC is right up there with the best of the best.

Bama has 12 titles in the poll era, Notre Dame has 9, Ohio State has 8 and then USC has 7 (as does OU).

I know it has been a long time since the glory days of Pete Carroll, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, but USC is a bona fide top-5 program in college football. Undeniably.

And I just have always thought that Clay Helton did not fit the pedigree of the USC football program. He was promoted to interim head coach a few games into the 2015 season after Steve Sarkisian got fired (it was an ugly ordeal), then, in a surprise to almost everybody, USC simply made him the permanent head coach after the season. USC only went 5-4 and lost their bowl game that year, but the school felt he was the guy for the job.

The following season was probably his best in Southern Cal, as USC went 10-3 and won that Rose Bowl thriller over Penn State. USC was ranked #3 in the final AP poll. The following season, with National Championship-expectations, they went 11-3 and ended the season with a 24-7 convincing defeat to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.

Since 2017, Clay Helton has failed to win 10 games in a season. In 2018, they went 5-7, then 8-5 in 2019, and in the Covid-shortened year, USC was 5-1, with their lone loss coming to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. This year he started 1-1, and after Saturday’s 42-28 loss to Stanford, the boosters decided to pull the plug on the Clay Helton experiment.

Once Sarkisian’s recruits were cycled out of the program by 2018, it was clear Helton couldn’t get the job done. Sarkisian’s 2015 recruiting class was ranked #2 in the nation behind only Bama. A big reason for his early success was that he had Sam Darnold as his QB. Darnold was the QB for the 2016 and 2017 seasons. After Darnold left for the NFL following the 2017 season, the program took a nosedive.

Overall, Helton went 46-24 as USC head coach with zero College Football Playoff appearances and 1 Pac-12 title (2017). That is just not acceptable for a program of USC’s stature.

From 2016-2021, Helton’s recruiting classes were ranked as follows:

  • 2016: 10th
  • 2017: 4th
  • 2018: 4th
  • 2019: 20th
  • 2020: 64th (only 12 recruits in the class, ranked one spot behind DUKE FOOTBALL)
  • 2021: 7th

Started off strong, but then fell off a cliff in 2019. That’s what going 5-7 in 2018 will do to a program.

There is no reason USC should ever be ranked outside of the top-10 in recruiting given how talent-rich Southern California is. Honestly, USC should be top-5 every single year.

And now that athletes can profit off of NIL (name, image, likeness), USC should be knocking it out of the park in recruiting on a yearly basis. Just think of the opportunities available to athletes in the entertainment and celebrity capital of America.

Instead, Bama, Ohio State and Clemson all have starting QBs from Southern California, while USC’s starting QB, Kedon Slovis, is from Arizona. Kinda says it all.

Clay Helton was a guy who grinded his way up the coaching ranks. He went from Duke to Houston to Memphis, then was hired on as USC’s QB coach in 2010, eventually working his way up to offensive coordinator, and then finally head coach in 2015. He was a no-name before he became head coach.

I’m not saying you have to go out and hire a big-name coach, because there just aren’t very many of them out there in any given year. Other than Saban in 2006 and Urban Meyer in 2011, it’s not like you can just find these National Championship-level coaches out there on the open market.

Even Pete Carroll wasn’t the Pete Carroll we all know him as today when USC hired him in 2000. He was actually USC’s second choice for head coach that year behind Dennis Erickson, and had failed in two prior NFL head coaching jobs. Actually, if you go read Carroll’s Wikipedia page, the media ripped him and the USC boosters apart after his hiring was announced.

Now, I know there are some other examples around the country of guys who were promoted from within at premier programs: Dabo at Clemson, Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and Ryan Day at Ohio State. But those guys were all highly-regarded as up-and-coming superstars before they became head coaches. Everyone knew Lincoln Riley was Bob Stoops’ heir-apparent at Oklahoma. Ryan Day was the head-coach-in-waiting at Ohio State over Urban Meyer’s final year or two.

And, most importantly, Riley and Day both had a lot of success at their respective programs before being elevated to head coach. USC was not a great program when Clay Helton was the offensive coordinator. It’s not like people were saying, “Wow, USC’s offense is really something under this Helton guy. He’s a name to watch going forward. He’ll have a primetime head coaching job very soon at this rate.”

If Oklahoma and Ohio State hadn’t promoted Riley and Day from within, they would have been poached by some other high-profile program. Everyone knows it, everyone knew it when those guys were still coordinators. It was obvious they were rising stars. You can’t say the same about Helton. Watch what job he takes next if you want to know what the college football world really thinks about him.

Look, I know I’m being extremely harsh on Clay Helton, but I have nothing personal against the guy. I just have never thought he was the right guy for the USC job. He just doesn’t have the gravitas, the charisma, the star-power. Say what you will about Ed Orgeron’s actual coaching ability, the guy has presence. He’s an icon. He’s the face of the program. He commands a room. I never got that vibe from Clay Helton.

You think of all the great football coaches–college or NFL–and they’re pretty much all forceful, fiery personalities; undeniable alpha males who command respect and are Leaders of Men. Sure, you have your occasional soft-spoken super genius like Bill Belichick and Lincoln Riley, but for the most part these successful coaches are cut from the Football Guy/Head Ball Coach archetype.

The USC job was always too big for Clay Helton, and the people that hired him should’ve known it.

The real problem is the USC athletic department and booster network, which hired him in the first place. Obviously if you’re Clay Helton you’re not going to say no to the opportunity to coach the USC Trojans.

The AD and the booster network are more to blame than Helton. It’s not Helton’s fault that he’s not the guy they thought he was going to be. It’s their fault for believing he was a top-flight head coach when he really wasn’t.

And this is why I don’t think firing Helton will solve all USC’s problems. It’s a start, but if the same incompetent people who hired Helton are hiring the next guy, it’s probably going to be another failure.

My initial thought on hearing about Helton’s firing was, “Why didn’t they do this last year, when Urban Meyer was working for Fox Sports and on the market?”

But it’s possible they reached out to Urban Meyer to gauge his interest and he said no. I saw somewhere after he took the Jags job that he turned down at least a few college head coaching offers this year. Maybe Urban is done with college football coaching and only wanted come out of retirement for the NFL.

So I can’t say definitively that USC could’ve had Urban had they fired Helton earlier.

But still, even if Urban Meyer was never a true option for SC, they still screwed this up royally. Any time you fire your coach mid-season, it’s a disaster.

So who might USC be looking at as their next head coach? I’ve seen names like Joe Brady, Matt Campbell and Luke Fickell thrown around. I don’t think USC should go that route. They tried the young rising star route with Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian and those were both catastrophic hires. They tried to “promote from within” route with Helton and that was a failure.

I think they have to go after a big-name, well-established coach with a proven track record of winning at the highest level. The names I’ve seen are Bob Stoops and Chris Petersen. Stoops has been out of coaching for a while after leaving Oklahoma (4 years now), and I think he might be waiting to see if Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz calls it quits anytime soon, as Stoops is an Iowa alum who has never been shy about his love for the Hawkeyes.

James Franklin? Ehhh. He’s definitely done well at Penn State considering how bad of shape that program was after all the JoePa/Sandusky stuff. In fact, it’s a testament to how good a job Franklin has done that most people have kinda just forgotten about the whole scandal. It was barely a decade ago.

But is Franklin USC material? Can he recruit at a top-5 level year in and year out? Is he ready to compete for National Championships? I don’t know about that.

Chris Petersen is an interesting name. He turned Boise State into a national name, and then went to Washington where he had decent success, but the issue is that he retired after the 2019 season “due to stress” and is now in an “advisory role” with the Washington athletic department. I’m sorry but if it was too much stress at Washington, it ain’t gonna be easier at USC. Petersen doesn’t seem like a fit.

So I guess that means Bob Stoops is the top candidate for the job. Again, I think he’s holding out to see if Kirk Ferentz retires at Iowa. I think Bob Stoops wants the Iowa job, has wanted the Iowa job since the late 1990s, and the reason he hasn’t returned to coaching is because he’s waiting for the Iowa job. Bob Stoops has won a National Championship. He has nothing to prove. I think at this point in his career, his main goal is to coach his alma mater. I feel like that’s been a dream of his for decades and that’s what he’s aiming for right now. He’s working as a commentator on Fox Sports in the meantime. I don’t see him as a guy who is itching to rebuild the USC program, which he has no real ties to.

I just don’t really see it with Stoops. Maybe if he finds out Kirk Ferentz isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, then Stoops would consider taking over at USC. But I just don’t see Stoops wanting the job right now.

USC will have no shortage of interested applicants for the job. That much we all know. But there’s no name out there that really jumps out at me. If I had to guess, I’d say Matt Campbell is probably the front-runner just because it’d be a smart move on his part to get out of the capsizing Big 12 conference. But I have no idea if he’s ready to coach the USC Trojans and compete for Championships. I’d also throw Luke Fickell in there with Campbell. Those two are the clear best “rising star” coaches in the nation right now.

Look, I’m not even a USC fan. But I really want them to get this next coaching hire right so they can maybe, hopefully return to prominence soon. I love college football, but even as a die-hard fan, it’s kind of hard to deny that Alabama has basically sucked all the oxygen out of the sport. There’s simply nobody out there that can compete with them.

I want all the blue bloods to be good again: USC, Texas, Miami, Florida, State, Michigan, Nebraska. I wish they were all “back” because somebody needs to provide a challenge to Alabama. Ohio State and Clemson have each already lost this season! Nobody can keep up with Bama. It feels like they’re going to waltz to yet another National Championship, and I’m just getting bored of it.

Please, USC: hire somebody good. College football is getting kinda stale these days.

Austin Frank

Sports blogger

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