Coming off their most embarrassing loss in recent memory, there are several uncertainties when it comes to the USC Trojan football team. But there is one thing that has become clear for a team mired in a dreadful 5-5 season: head coach Clay Helton has to go.
Personally, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Clay Helton fan. History has shown he’s not exactly been a “winner.” While he started his college playing career at Auburn, he transferred to Houston after his father was hired as their head coach. Even with his father at the helm, Helton became nothing more than a backup quarterback and he finished his college career completing just 47 of 87 passes with 1 TD and 4 INTs in 16 games.
But did those Blake Bortles-worthy numbers deter a team from hiring him? Not when your father is head coach. Houston hired him to be running backs coach in 1997, a position he held until his father’s final season in 1999. From there, Helton moved on to Memphis where he held the positions of RB and QB coach, as well as offensive coordinator, from 2000-2009. During that time, Memphis went 53-68 , with Helton’s final season as OC ending with a measly 2 wins and a whopping 10 losses.
53-68 hardly screams success. But what does that matter when Lane Kiffin (another one of USC’s unmitigated disasters) is in charge of the hiring process? In 2010 Kiffin hired Helton to be the team’s QB coach. He was promoted to O.C. in 2013, and named head coach in 2015 after the departures of Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, and Steve Sarkisian.
Since his hiring as head coach, Helton has led the Trojans to a respectable, albeit unremarkable, 32-15 record, with a Bowl record of 2-2 (including a humiliating dismantling by Ohio State in 2017’s Cotton Bowl). Fans have watched him squander talent, blow leads, and destroy a once-revered program, and all of this has culminated in one disastrous 2018 season.
And Helton’s problems this season are well-documented and not easily refutable. We’ve witnessed his inability to make halftime adjustments (the Trojans average 3.4 points in the 3rd quarter—ranking 118th out of 130 FBS schools—and an abysmal 11.4 points in the second half). We’ve witnessed his inability to get his team to run the ball (nearly 25% of the Trojans’ runs have gone for no gain or a loss, and their average of 2.07 YPC ranks 122nd in the FBS) or to pass the ball (of the 13 eligible quarterbacks in the Pac-12, JT Daniels ranks 12th). The Trojans do rank inside the top 10 in one category, though, most penalties per game (tied for 8th).
But the most unfathomable moment of 2018 came last week when, after Helton fired USC’s offensive coordinator and assumed play-calling duties, the Trojans suffered an embarrassing home loss to the Cal Bears, 15-14 (the Trojans scored 0 points in the second half, by the way). A loss rife with mistakes, stagnant play-calling, and bungled coaching decisions. The Bears, in case you were wondering, are a team USC had beaten an incredible 13 times in a row, and Helton let them walk onto his field and break him.
It’s clear Clay Helton is not the guy you want to be stuck in the foxhole with. He’s not the guy you look to when the going gets tough. He’s the guy wandering the locker room at halftime looking for anyone else to make a decision. He’s the guy standing on the sideline after his quarterback has thrown a pick-six wondering what the hell he should do. There is zero confidence in the man—and, what’s worse, his players know it.
For most football programs, the Trojans’ stunning loss to Cal would be the last straw. A final cherry on the sundae of a lost season. For now, though, USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann seems content to let the sinking ship sink once and for all. But with scholarships on the line, recruits leery of committing to a fledgling program, and commitments itching to decommit, I ask the A.D.: at what cost are you willing to let Clay Helton drive this storied program into the ground?
Take a step back, read the numbers, read the results, and read the players’ faces, Mr. Swann. They’ll tell you one thing: it’s time for Clay Helton to go.
Also published on Medium