The Morning Column: September 13, 2021
The only thing worse than an angry fan base is an apathetic fan base and that’s what USC fans were becoming just two games into this season. It led to USC finally firing Clay Helton on Monday.
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I’m currently on my way to Las Vegas from Los Angeles for tonight’s Monday Night Football game and have been talking to USC sources after the debacle at the Coliseum on Saturday so we’re going to skip the normal formal today and just focus on the USC football program.
USC fired Clay Helton on Monday. Finally.
It ended one of the longest and most unfulfilling tenures in USC football history. The final straw was USC’s embarrassing 42-28 loss to Stanford at the Coliseum on Saturday. Stanford, which was an 18-point underdog after a 24-7 loss to Kansas State in the season opener, led 42-13 late in the fourth quarter as the stadium emptied out.
As I mentioned during FOX’s postgame show, after six years of watching Helton’s teams in action, USC fans were too tired to stick around and vent their frustration. They were tired of booing. They were tired of calling for Helton’s job. They were tired of the product they were seeing on the field.
The only thing worse than an angry fan base is an apathetic fan base and that’s what USC fans were becoming. Just two games into this season – the first with live crowds since 2019 – USC fans had already checked out. After playing just five games last year in front of no fans, USC could not afford to have the Coliseum empty again this year.
The hefty buyout in Helton’s contract, which played a role in extending his tenure longer than anyone would have predicted, was suddenly a drop in the bucket when compared to an empty Coliseum, which had undergone a $315 million renovation.
Who knows how associate head coach Donte Williams, who will now serve as USC’s interim head coach, will do? At the very least USC fans will be spared of Helton’s deer in headlights look on the sidelines, which had become a weekly meme.
As of Sunday night, there were still some within the USC athletic department that weren’t sure if USC would actually finally do what they should have been done at least two years ago and fire Helton. He had always been given extra time – an extra season or an extra game or two – and that extra time usually led to him momentarily righting the ship, saving his job and delaying the inevitable. Helton should have been fired in 2019 after Carol Folt was hired as USC’s president and Mike Bohn was hired as USC’s athletic director. It made sense for a new president and a new athletic director to hire a new football coach after Helton had gone 13-11 over the previous two seasons and had a recruiting class that was ranked outside of the top 65 at the time.
The problem was Folt, who was previously the chancellor at North Carolina, and Bohn, who was previously the athletic director at Cincinnati, had no idea what USC was like from 2003 to 2005 when they had a 34-game winning streak, won two national championships, three Heisman Trophies and regularly sold out the Coliseum. They saw no problem with a football team that won more games than it lost.
They were going off what they had personally since they started working together in November 2019. They saw USC finish the 2019 season with three straight wins, including a 52-35 blowout of UCLA at the Coliseum to advance to the Holiday Bowl. Iowa would go on to blow out USC, 49-24, in that game but Helton had already earned the right to return in their eyes. They were supposed to get a rude awakening in 2020 when USC was scheduled to open the season against Alabama and also face Notre Dame, Stanford, Colorado, Washington, Cal and Oregon but that wouldn’t happen.
No one outside of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg benefited more from the pandemic than Helton. He didn’t have to face any of those teams, he improved his recruiting with local players wanting to stay closer to home and led USC to a 5-0 record in the regular season against five unranked opponents that went a combined 9-16 last season. Even against those subpar teams, USC could have easily been 2-3 after they won three games with late miracle comebacks. In the Pac-12 Championship Game at the Coliseum, against the only decent team they played all season, Oregon beat USC 31-24 in a game the Ducks controlled throughout and led by two touchdowns in every quarter.
Helton clearly wasn’t the coach who was going to lead USC back to national prominence but under Folt and Bohn’s watch, he was 8-2, which wasn’t a fireable offense in their view. It didn’t matter that those eight wins came against subpar, unranked teams and the two losses came against the only two decent teams they faced (neither one ranked in the top 15, by the way). So, Helton was back as the head coach.
He was the head coach of the Trojans for part of eight seasons. Only John McKay Howard Jones, John Robinson, Pete Carroll and Jeff Cravath coached USC longer. It’s not hard to see who doesn’t belong on that Mount Rushmore of USC coaches.
One of the reasons Helton was able to stay that long is he helped navigate the program through the controversial exits of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. In the end, no two people did more to help Helton remain at USC for as long as he did than Kiffin and Sarkisian. Yes, Kiffin hired him in 2010 as the quarterbacks coach after Helton had spent the past decade as an offensive assistant at Memphis and Sarkisian decided to retain him but it was more than that. Kiffin and Sarkisian had failed so spectacularly off the field and become such distractions, that merely being a “good guy” and not making headlines was good enough to stay on the job. It was an embarrassingly low bar for one of the most storied programs in college sports.
Helton deserved to be fired but he didn’t deserve to be let go on a Monday afternoon two games into the season. There’s no reason he should have kept his job after the 2019 season but Folt and Bohn were too stubborn to listen to the screaming students, alumni, boosters and fans telling them to do what was so clearly obvious to everyone else. They had no choice but to finally listen after Saturday’s debacle.
In the end, the man who was hired because he was the opposite of Kiffin and Sarkisian and probably kept his job longer than he should have because he was nothing like his predecessors, joined Kiffin and Sarkissian on the way out as the only USC coaches to be fired in-season in USC football history.