USC: Starting Over (Again)

The news came out Monday that Clay Helton was out as head coach at the University of Southern California.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially after the then-14th ranked Trojans got shellacked, 42-28, in the Coliseum by unranked Stanford.

Boat raced is the term I used. And that’s accurate.

Every time you looked, Stanford was moving the ball at will.

I mean, on the first play of the game, USC’s kicker got tossed for targeting. This should have been a red flag (or yellow) on how this was going to go. And boy, did it go.

It was so bad the Coliseum had to announce a NASCAR race just to get people to forget it. I’m kidding—more on that later.

So when it rolled around that Helton was canned, it came as no real surprise; he seemed to be a coach that was hanging on by a thread anyways and that USC has wanted to move on from for some time now. 

It seems that every major program following an NCAA rules violation has a Helton. Here in the south, we refer to them as  “______’s Shula” after Alabama’s Mike Shula. The general gist is the same: “No self-respecting top head coach wants this job right now, so let’s hire an eager-but-ultimately-overmatched guy to get us through the crappy next few years and sack him when we get back on our feet. And go get us a winner.”

It happened with Shula. After Dennis Franchione bailed after the ‘01 season to disappear into the ether (where IS that guy?), and Mike Price *ahem* didn’t work out, the program hired Shula, a promising assistant coach, the son of coaching royalty, and oh by the way, a former Alabama quarterback. 

And he did his job. He got them through some really bad times, won a couple of games, and impressed some people along the way.

The problem was, he started winning. In 2005, he won a lot. 10-straight games. At one point, the Crimson Tide looked like an outside contender for the national title. And you can’t justify canning a guy when he’s red hot like that. It all unraveled during a beatdown of Florida when team star Tyrone Protho suffered a gruesome leg injury while the Tide was up big. The Tide then lost to LSU and Auburn to sink any hopes of a title, National, SEC, or otherwise. And put Shula on the warm seat. When you can’t beat your rivals, the heat turns up.

But you also can’t fire a coach after a 10-win season. And so it took two more seasons to move on from him, despite being ready to do so much earlier.

The same goes for Helton. He took over after the USC NCAA issues under Pete Carroll, the Lane Kiffin debacle on the tarmac, and Steve Sarkisian struggling with addiction. He was given a mess, and told to get through it.

And he did. If you look at his record, in six-and-three-thirteenths season, he’s the sixth-most tenured coach in USC history. And he’s won almost double what he’s lost with a 46-24 record. That’s not bad at all.

The problem is, it’s not USC good. A close loss in the abbreviated season PAC-12 title game to Oregon last year didn’t help. Close losses to BYU and Notre Dame in 2019 didn’t help. And losing to Washington State in 2017 while ranked fifth certainly didn’t do Helton any favors, just like a 2-3 bowl record didn’t.

Helton also never seemed to fit the mold of a USC coach. You think of John McKay, John Robinson, and Pete Carroll— California cool, polished, older guys who seem to have it under control. Helton has always struck me as a salt-of-the-earth guy who just loves football and would be as happy doing it in Catawba, NC, as The Coliseum. 

Hopefully he can move on (I expect him on the Alabama sidelines in the Saban Coaching Rehabilitation Clinic soon) and find a niche somewhere else. He seems like a good coach, and there are plenty of places that need one.

For USC, they can’t play around any more. They’ve got to find their guy. THE guy. The coach that is going to take them to promised land and not violate a bunch of rules doing it. Because they are falling further and further behind the haves, not only nationally, but in their conference too.

I’m not a USC fan, but it’s good for college football for them to be good. The colors, the pageantry, the Coliseum, and the history of standout players make them a marquee program. They’re like Notre Dame—except they have won something this millennium. I believe they rank among the top 10 programs of all time just on historical merit alone. They also fill out the nationwide football map as a cornerstone program of the west coast.

All that’s great, but they’re in danger of becoming like Miami. A lot of hyping and hoping for a return, but nothing yet. And like we’ve seen with Miami, the more you keep stopping and starting again, the further away the glory days become, and the closer an aura of mediocrity gets to setting in. Maybe for good.

 That’s why this time, they’ve got to be sure they get their person.

Because starting over again isn’t an option.

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