USC announced the sacking of head coach Clay Helton on Monday, two days after the 14th-ranked Trojans lost 42-28 to unranked Stanford.
Sporting director Mike Bohn announced the move, saying USC “has provided all of the resources necessary for our program to compete for the championships” during the past two college football offseason. Bohn added that these additions created heightened expectations for the program and, after the loss to the Cardinal, it was evident that they would not be satisfied “without a change of direction”.
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Bohn has announced that cornerback coach and defensive passing coordinator Donte Williams will take over for the remainder of the season.
Helton later released a statement regarding his dismissal:
The announcement finally ends Helton’s career with USC after several seasons that could be described as frustrating for Trojans fans; he returned to full-time head coaching in 2016, going 10-3 and 11-3 in his first two years, respectively. After that, the Helton Trojans have never won more than eight games in a season, going 5-7, 8-5, and 5-1 in 2018, ’19 and ’20, respectively (horses of Troy were only able to play six games in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). He faced considerable pressure during the 2019 campaign, but gained Bohn’s support – with one caveat – on December 4, 2019:
“Coach Helton and I will work together to take a close look at all aspects of the business of football,” said Bohn, “and make the tough decisions necessary to compete at the championship level.”
It looks like Bohn’s patience and support ran out after Helton’s last loss. With that, Sporting News breaks down USC’s decision to fire Helton, his career as the Trojans head coach and where the program is heading from here:
Why did USC fire Clay Helton?
Bruce Feldman of The Athletic reported on Monday that USC was “disheartened” by the team’s resounding loss to Stanford. Despite Cardinal 408-375’s outburst, the Trojans allowed five touchdowns in 10 drives and an interception return of 31 yards for a touchdown. The score also didn’t indicate how well Stanford beat USC: the Trojans faced a 42-13 deficit in the fourth quarter before scoring two touchdowns in the final six minutes.
SOURCES: USC executives were disheartened by what they saw from the Helton team on Saturday night when they were knocked down by Stanford. DA Mike Bohn knew he could no longer keep Helton; just had to sort out the schedule and an interim.
– Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) September 13, 2021
However, Helton was not fired simply because of a poor performance against Stanford; it was just the last straw in what has been a largely frustrating time for Trojan horse fans.
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What was Clay Helton’s record at USC?
Helton was 46-24 at USC with a 0.657 winning percentage. It ranks ninth all-time in program history, but fifth among seven USC coaches who have coached at least as many games as Helton (70). His 46 wins are sixth all-time, but penultimate among coaches who have tied his scoring count.
Additionally, USC went 9-12 against ranked opponents after taking over full-time in 2016, with three of those wins in the Trojans’ 10-game winning campaign that year. They were even worse against top 10 opponents, with a 3-6 record; their last such win was a 30-23 win over Utah’s No.10 to open the 2019 season; the Utes then finished 17th in the final AP Top 25 standings.
Helton also struggled to coach against rivals USC, going 1-3 against Notre Dame, 3-3 against Stanford and 4-1 against UCLA. He won a Pac-12 football championship and finished 1-2 in bowls.
Finally, Helton never lived up to the expectations college football in general had for the USC program. Aside from the 2016 season, Helton’s Trojans never finished at the same rank or higher than they were in the preseason:
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Who will replace Clay Helton as USC coach?
In his announcement, Bohn made it clear that he wanted USC to compete for the national championships. To this end, the program will conduct a nationwide search for a coach “who will fulfill the championship aspirations that we all share for our football program.”
In reality, only a few of these coaches are able to take over – without making a downward or sideways movement – and live up to the incredible pressure in Los Angeles. Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell has had great success at the American Athletic Conference, but would he be willing to quit a program he built to become a fringe national powerhouse that appears to be heading into the Big 12? ? James Franklin has a proven track record, too, but he’s once said that Penn State – a traditional Big Ten powerhouse – is his dream job. Urban Meyer has been linked to the work of the Trojans before, but is in his first year as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL.
Apart from these three, which coaches are they staying? Billy Napier has been linked with top coaching positions for several seasons, but he has taken his time waiting for the right Power 5 coaching position to open up. Louisiana’s jump to USC would be significant. Other coaches to consider include, potentially, Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, although he failed his two-year tenure as Mississippi State head coach (he is gone 14-12).
Former USC coaches Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin at Texas and Ole Miss respectively are unlikely to be considered.