USC Needs to Fire Clay Helton, Retaining Him Would Be a Massive Mistake

Ryan Phillips
Clay Helton
Clay Helton / Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

USC should fire Clay Helton. It's as simple as that after years of missteps and ridiculous self-inflicted wounds that have sent the Trojans reeling into mediocrity. If USC president Carol Folt and new athletic director Mike Bohn want to oversee a top-level football program, they need to find a top-level head coach. Attaching themselves to Helton for another year would be a monumental mistake that could bury the program for years.

The Athletic's Bruce Feldman wrote a piece on USC and Helton on Wednesday in which he reports Folt and Bohn have both warmed to Helton and may wind up retaining him. First off, Bruce? Take a few days off for Thanksgiving buddy. You're a phenomenal writer and reporter, you've earned a break for the holiday. Second, if he's right, Folt and Bohn are leading USC in the wrong direction.

Helton has USC at 8-4 this year, despite a loaded roster and an outstanding young quarterback in Kedon Slovis. Some have defended him by claiming the Trojans have dealt with a rash of injuries. That may be true, but they also dealt with ton of injuries during a 5-7 campaign last season and that was used as a reason to retain him for the 2019 season. That can't be an excuse each year, especially when every football team deals with major injuries.

Helton has been the full-time head coach for four years and he's never lost fewer than three games despite all the inherent advantages coaching at USC brings. He won the Rose Bowl at the conclusion of the 2016 season and won a Pac-12 title in 2017, but with Sam Darnold at quarterback, both of those results felt a bit hollow. It felt like Darnold willed USC to both of those accomplishments.

The Trojans opened the 2016 campaign getting shellacked by Alabama 52-6, and Ohio State hammered them 24-7 in the Cotton Bowl to end the 2017 season. USC has consistently failed to show up for big games under Helton. That was never more obvious than during the team's 56-24 blowout loss to Oregon a few weeks ago. If the Trojans had won that game, they'd have clinched a spot in the Pac-12 title game by now.

Helton took over as USC's interim head coach during the 2015 season after Steve Sarkisian's departure. Since then he's 39-21 overall and 31-12 in the Pac-12 (he also won the Las Vegas Bowl as the interim coach in 2013). Neither of those records is acceptable at USC. You can't average three conference losses a season in the Pac-12 and hope to be considered a big-time program.

Since taking over, Helton is 1-4 against Notre Dame, and 4-8 against top 10 teams. A key mark of good coaches is how well they prepare their teams for big games. Helton has largely failed in that department, especially when USC has played away from its home stadium.

A common knock on Helton is the lack of intensity during USC's practices. There's very little live tackling and a lot of down time. That's not the way to build up a tough, intense football team that can go into hostile environments and consistently perform. The team is also wildly undisciplined and is routinely among the most penalized squads in the nation. Penalties and discipline were a huge part of Helton's offseason focus and the team currently ranks -- (checks notes...) -- 124th nationally in penalties after being 123rd last season. Bang up job, Clay.

This season USC lost at Washington and at Notre Dame, while also inexplicably dropping an overtime game against an incredibly average BYU team. Then, of course, there was the Oregon massacre. That's an unacceptable resume given the talent available to Helton.

After last season, fans clamored for Helton to replace defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coach John Baxter after their units had under-performed for years. Helton retained both, and the defense and special teams have been a disaster again this season. He knows and trusts Pendergast and Baxter, having worked with them for years, so he's been hesitant to kick them to the curb. That's a ridiculous stance. Neither should currently have a job at USC after how poorly their units have performed over the past two seasons.

The fact that Helton hasn't gotten rid of two bad coaches sooner is just more reason to believe he'll never be a big-time college football coach.

As if Bohn and Folt need more reasons to get fire Helton, consider recruiting. Granting Helton another reprieve will just lead to him being on the hot seat next season. All the discussions about his job security have led to legions of top recruits not even considering USC. Kids don't want to commit to a coaching staff that may not be employed in a few months.

The Trojans have dominated recruiting on the west coast for years, but with Helton's status up in the air, only two of California's top 20 prospects committed to the Trojans. They wound up adding two more as receiver Bru McCoy and cornerback Chris Steele transferred in after not enjoying their initial destinations. The 2020 class is shaping up to be even more of a disaster. None of California's top 20 prospects is currently committed to USC. Things aren't getting better and they won't as long as Helton is still employed. Fans don't want him there and recruits won't attach themselves to a guy who might not be around.

Helton is a heck of a nice guy. He's genuine, friendly and truly cares about his players. His kids aren't just numbers on jerseys, they are family to him. That's great and, honestly, it's easy to like and root for a guy like that. But USC isn't any old school and shouldn't aim to just have a nice guy as its head football coach.

USC deserves better than the results Clay Helton has delivered. At this point, the only correct move is to make a change and aim higher.