For the juniors, seniors and fifth-year seniors on the USC roster, adjusting to an interim head coach midway through a football season has become the norm. Been there, done that.
Embracing the chaos has become a way of life.
This week’s news that Trojan head coach Steve Sarkisian had been put on leave to tend to a health issue and then fired marks the second time in three seasons that athletics directors Pat Haden has pulled the plug on his head coach.
It’s also the second time in three years that Notre Dame, which hosts USC this Saturday night, will be squaring off against a interim head coach leading the Trojans.
In 2013, under a bit less dramatic circumstances, head coach Lane Kiffin was relieved of his duties following the Trojans’ return trip from Tempe, where the Sun Devils lambasted USC, 62-41, as the Trojans fell to 3-2. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was elevated to interim head coach in place of Kiffin five games into the season.
USC defeated Arizona in Orgeron’s first game, dropped an ugly 14-10 decision at Notre Dame, and then won five straight before losing to UCLA and finishing 6-2 under his direction.
When Haden looked beyond Orgeron for a full-time successor to Kiffin, offensive coordinator Clay Helton led the Trojans to a 45-20 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.
Helton finds himself back in the role he served 19 USC games ago.
“A lot of these guys, fortunately or unfortunately, have been in this situation before,” said Helton of the USC players. “We were in it two years ago when we had a coaching change and I thought that staff did exactly what this one is doing: we bonded together as a Trojan football team.”
When USC lost a 17-12 decision at home to Washington last Thursday, the initial reaction was that the Trojans would come to Notre Dame extremely motivated following an embarrassing loss. Then came the announcement that Haden had put Sarkisian on a leave of absence because he was “not healthy,” which quickly was followed by Sarkisian’s permanent removal from the position.
The motivation of a loss quickly evolved into a team in real upheaval – again.
By naming Helton as interim head coach for a second time, Haden defused some of the uncertainty that goes with such turmoil.
“We talked about there being an interim coach and we talked about what that means,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly Tuesday. “Teams come together under those circumstances. They’re going to play their very best.
“Other than that, we haven’t talked much more about it and we won’t. We’ll focus on ourselves because that’s the most important thing.”
Helton announced Tuesday that he’ll continue his role as offensive coordinator and play-caller, a position that he’s held for the past three seasons.
“I’m certain that the system that’s in place is one that we’ll continue to see,” Kelly said. “But play-calling is such a combination of art and science, and now that (Helton) clearly is running the program, you tend to see a little more of the individual come out where maybe Steve had his stamp on it.
“Certainly it would make sense that Clay would have a little bit of his (stamp), but I don’t think you go too far from what they are and who they are as an offense.”
Helton, who stated that his goal in life is to be a head football coach, talked about having fun on the practice field, which was a primary focus of Orgeron’s when he took over for Kiffin two seasons ago.
“One of the things I learned from Coach O is how you bring a team together as a family,” Helton said.
Helton also said that “iron sharpens iron, and another man sharpens another,” so a combination of love and hard work appears to be the formula he’ll hang his hat on.
Kelly is preparing his team for USC’s best shot.
“They have the finest athletes in the country,” Kelly said. “I recruited a lot of them. They have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride. They will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there’s no question about that.”
Helton would concur with Kelly’s assessment of the Trojans.
“They are a good football team, they are good people, and they are good players,” said Helton of his squad. “Both the staff and these players want to do our Trojan family proud. We will compete every day like Trojans and we will try to win every game we have.”
Kelly couldn’t say the same thing about his Irish after last year’s 49-14 shellacking from the Trojans to conclude the ’14 regular season. He’s confident, however, that the team that took the field against the Trojans 11 months ago no longer exists.
“It was an embarrassment,” said Kelly of the 35-point loss to USC. “I think it’s fair to say that. There were circumstances in that game where we were not at full strength. What stands out more than anything else was the mental toughness that we didn’t exhibit that we needed to exhibit in that game.
“This group, this football team, has exhibited (mental toughness) every single day, so we don’t go back into that. This group has not shown anything that resembles the 2014 team that played on that day. We put that away. It’s in the drawer. We know about it, but I think they’re pretty clear (in) recognizing the way Notre Dame football needs to be played.”