Clay Helton will return as the head football coach at USC in 2019. That was the message sent by Trojan athletic director Lynn Swann on Sunday after the team finished 5-7, completing the program’s worst season since 2000. With that move, Swann tied his fate inexorably to Helton’s. If the coach fails to turn things around, both men should be out of a job this time next year.
In 2018, the Trojans suffered a blowout loss to Texas, failed to score a touchdown against a middling Stanford squad, were blasted by Utah on the road, all but handed Arizona State a 38-35 win, then wilted despite owning halftime leads against Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame. Swann looked at those results and — against all reason — decided to bring Helton back.
Trojan fans, boosters and close observers all believed Helton was done. Despite winning the Rose Bowl in his first season as head coach and taking home the Pac-12 title in his second, most believed he’d be canned after a disastrous third season. Despite a solid crop of seniors and as much talent as any roster this side of Alabama, USC’s 2018 campaign was an unmitigated disaster.
Here’s what Swann had to say about the man he’s tied himself to:
"“It is my firm belief that we have a good team returning next year and a solid foundation in place, and that Clay Helton is a good coach,” Swann said in a statement. “Let me be clear to everyone, our players, our recruits and our fans. Clay Helton is our head coach and he will continue to be our head coach."
"“I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve.”"
"“We see top programs across the country have down years and the fans want to change coaches. In fact, it happened a few years ago with yesterday’s opponent (Notre Dame), but that administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly. That will happen here at USC.”"
Helton, a former offensive coordinator, oversaw an offense that was maddening in the extreme. Despite one of the best receiving corps in the nation, the passing game lacked fluidity and ranked 49th in yards per game (249.1) and 68th in yards per attempt (7.4). Despite a stated commitment to the run, USC ranked 109th in rushing yards per game (133.5) and 87th in yards per carry (4.1). Absolutely nothing looked right offensively all season long and the utter lack of halftime adjustments has easily been the most frustrating chapter of this story.
To throw more salt in the wound for Trojan fans, the team was wildly undisciplined. It wound up ranked 122nd in penalty yardage (883), and failed to turn opponents over, ranking 124th in interceptions (four) and 119th in turnover margin (-10).
Just to reiterate: Lynn Swann saw all of those numbers and watched his team fall apart during the second half of almost every game and decided a change wasn’t needed.
Now look, I like Clay Helton. I’ve said many times he’s one of the very few genuinely good people in the cesspool that is college sports. He’s also a dynamite recruiter who kids love to play for. But that’s where the good news ends. He’s just not a very good head football coach. If he wants to stay at USC, he needs to become the classic CEO-type leader and have two strong coordinators under him. That’s the only way this will work.
So what’s next at USC? Well, if there’s any chance for this to succeed there need to bemassive changes to the way the program is run. If Helton and Swann look at what just happened and decide small tweaks are all that’s required both men should be run out of Los Angeles on a rail.
Helton needs to bring in a top-flight offensive coordinator and let whoever it is run his own system. No more meddling in the offense or combining ideas from other systems as he’s done for years. No, that ends now. There needs to be a new offensive system from the ground up. There should be no negotiating this point.
There will have to be turnover at a number of assistant spots, because the guys there currently are not getting the job done. Defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford is not pulling his weight. Neither is special teams coordinator John Baxter. Linebackers coach Johnny Nansen should probably shift over to coach running backs (he’s done that before) and the new offensive coordinator should bring in his own quarterbacks coach to help develop true freshman JT Daniels.
I’m on the fence with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, simply because the Trojans had so many injuries on that side of the ball this season. The offense also consistently put his unit in awful positions. Pendergast has a track record of success in the Pac-12 so I’d hesitate to boot him, but he definitely needs to shake up his staff.
Helton also needs to commit to physical football. He has always claimed that physicality is part of “Trojan football” but his teams have rarely shown it. If he truly wants USC to be more physical, it starts with tackling in practice, something he has cut down on since taking the job. The Trojans have been atrocious at taking down ball-carriers the last few seasons and that needs to change.
Swann has plenty of work to do too. He needs to commit to getting the program top-flight resources it has lacked. If he really wants to ride with Helton, he must to give his coach everything he needs. From nutrition and strength and conditioning, to assistant salaries and the number of support staff hired, everything has to be upgraded. If you want to compete for championships, you have to invest at a championship level. USC has tried to get by on reputation for long enough.
Lastly, Swann has to have a heavy hand moving forward. He is all-in on Clay Helton, which means he may have to force the changes the program needs. Helton is loathe to fire his friends and has struggled to move outside his own small circle to hire assistants. That needs to change. He has to go big this offseason, and that must to start now.
The phone lines at Heritage Hall and the McKay Center should be lit up right now canvassing the best coordinators and assistant coaches in the country and making huge offers. If that’s not happening at this second, USC’s Board of Trustees should call an emergency meeting and fire Swann and Helton immediately.
If USC wants to get back on the road to the top, major changes need to happen quickly. Clay Helton will be back in 2019, but if he and Lynn Swann want to keep their jobs beyond that, they need to start working now.