Clay Helton will be back as USC's head football coach in 2020 and Trojan fans are not happy about it. USC athletic director Mike Bohn dropped a bomb on his fan base Wednesday afternoon and in the process alienated virtually all of his support. That decision could haunt Bohn and the university for years.
Helton will return after a disappointing 8-4 record in 2019, which followed a terrible 5-7 season in 2018. USC fans overwhelmingly wanted him gone after underachieving in back-to-back seasons and repeating the same mistakes over and over. Bohn chose to bring Helton back despite knowing fans would be furious at that decision.
Here's the thing, USC can still attract a top-level coach if it wants to. The school has gobs of money to spend, plenty of wealthy donors willing to help pay a top coach's salary, fertile recruiting grounds, top-notch facilities, a newly-renovated stadium and a stellar academic reputation. Plus, it has all the football tradition a coach could possibly want and near-perfect weather. Plenty of coaches would leap at the chance to run that program. Instead of swinging big, Bohn opted to stick with what isn't working.
We've told you about Helton's shortcomings repeatedly. He's 13-11 over the past two seasons, his teams are undisciplined and make bone-headed mistakes regularly, they turn the ball over and don't create turnovers, while also being terrible tacklers on the defensive end. Oh, and recruiting has fallen off a cliff over the past two years. That's the program Helton is going to run no matter what cosmetic changes he and Bohn make over the next days, weeks and months.
The biggest problem for Bohn is going to be the lack of support the program will get moving forward. With Helton back, don't expect any buzz to develop around USC's football team. Expect the stands to be noticeably empty next season. Bohn's athletic department is likely facing a stiff revenue hit from that and the wealthy donors who will close their wallets as long as Helton is around. That's the reality of the situation and it will hit Bohn swiftly.
In his statement announcing his decision, Bohn implied he was going to get Helton the resources he needed to compete. USC's coaching staff and support staff are not funded in the same way other top-level programs are. If the new athletic director actually cares about having an elite program he'll need to put his money where his mouth is.
The first step for Bohn and Helton will be to find a way to retain offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. Harrell is a highly-attractive commodity after the work he did transforming USC's offense and mentoring freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis this season. He's already been connected to several other jobs and will almost certainly need a raise to stay with the Trojans.
Meanwhile, the defensive side of the ball must be completely overhauled. Clancy Pendergast's defense was atrocious this season and none of the personnel groups really stood out. Despite a ton of talent, the Trojans were consistently soft defensively and were beaten up by less talented teams. Long-time special teams coach John Baxter also needs to get the boot as USC's return units have been a disaster for years.
Even with all those changes and potential help on the support staff and recruiting side of things, USC's fans aren't going to like this. And why should they? The expectation is for the Trojans to be a nationally-relevant program on a consistent basis. USC hasn't been at that level for more than a decade and all of that can be traced back to terrible, rushed coaching hires. Helton is just the latest in a line of mediocre to disastrous hires that have damaged USC's brand.
Does anyone have confidence USC can get back to national prominence under Clay Helton? I certainly don't. He's a really nice guy but he's the kind of coach you expect to lose at least three games a year. His teams aren't focused, they're not tough and they make poor decisions on a maddeningly frequent basis.
Helton will enter his fifth full season as USC's head coach in 2020 and his first opponent will be Alabama. Is there a single person on the planet who thinks a Clay Helton-coached team can even compete with Nick Saban's Crimson Tide?
With Helton back, no one should take the Trojans seriously as a nationally-relevant program. It's a team that's ceiling is an occasional Pac-12 title. That's simply not good enough given the tradition and expectations at USC.
The decision to bring back Helton has alienated a huge portion of USC's fan base. Bohn and his athletic department will need to do a tremendous amount of work to dig out of the hole he created.