The USC head coaching search enters week No. 5, but there are those inside the program that believe athletic director Pat Haden isn’t looking very far for a new head coach.
Sources have indicated for the past couple of weeks that interim head coach Clay Helton has become a favorite to be named the Trojans next head coach. However, those statements often come with two stipulations. One, USC has to win its next two games against Oregon and UCLA. Two, Pat Haden has to be the one hiring Helton.
With rumors abound of Haden potentially resigning as athletic director due to health concerns, the head coaching search could see a sharpe pivot in Heritage Hall. But regardless of Haden's role in the search for a new head coach, Helton being able to beat Oregon and UCLA back-to-back would certainly add to his resume. As candidates go, Helton’s resume lacks many of the components that make names like John Harbaugh, Chip Kelly and even Tom Herman popular among USC fans.
Helton coached at both Houston and Memphis before arriving at USC as an assistant under Lane Kiffin in 2010. By 2012, he was promoted to passing game coordinator and then offensive coordinator. Helton spent 10 years at Memphis — three as a offensive coordinator for the Tigers. His 2006 and 2007 offenses were ranked among the top 30 nationally.
Helton is a quarterback coach by trade, having played quarterback at Auburn and then Houston. In six seasons at USC tutoring quarterbacks, Helton has helped Cody Kessler set the Trojans’ season record for completions (315), completion percentage (69.7) and passing efficiency (167.1).
“It’s been tough, these guys have been pushed to the limit. Thank God for this guy (Clay Helton). He’s kept us together. He preaches family and we’ve stuck together.” — USC quarterback Cody Kessler after beating Utah
The 43-year-old interim head coach has never been a head coach at another university. His first opportunity to lead a team came in the 2013 for the Las Vegas Bowl, where the Trojans defeated Fresno State 45-20. Helton’s father, Kim, spent more than three decades coaching in college, the CFL and the NFL. The son of a coach, Helton understands the motivational aspects of the game and is known for speaking in mottos.
Charismatic with a touch of Texas twang, Helton has a sincerity to his message. As a motivator, Helton coaches through encouragement and positivity. In fact, Helton rarely criticizes or raises his voice in frustration on the practice field, which in itself can raise the cynical ire of the media.
Helton has always been the good cop on the USC coaching staff, praising his head coach and speaking through cliches. Now, Helton is accountable for the Trojans success and failures. Through it all, his attitude and drive to have the Trojans play as a brotherhood has won Helton favor among his players.
“We definitely want to keep him here. We’ve talked to the young guys, and they love him. We all love him. We want to keep him here. That’s what we’re playing for — the future.” — USC senior running back Tre Madden
Helton has a bachelor's degree in mathematics and interdisciplinary science from Houston.
Helton came to USC after coaching running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks at Memphis. Most coaching candidates we have profiled bring with them an established system and playbook. Helton is unique in that he is presently running his system at USC. Or at least, that is the assumption.
Helton’s roots are based in the run and shoot offense, although he has affectively run a spread offense with pro-style passing concepts at USC. However, the current system USC runs is really Steve Sarkisian’s incarnation. What Helton would do differently going forward as head coach is unknown. He could continue to run the exact same offensive system USC has now, which has seen its share of success, or go to something new. Seeing that Helton cut his teeth at USC under Lane Kiffin and Sarkisian, it is unlikely the play book would change significantly.
Helton prefers quarterbacks that can pass over those that run. While USC has zone read option looks in its running game, Helton has been hesitant to use designed runs at the quarterback position. This would make USC redshirt sophomore Max Browne the obvious successor to Cody Kessler as the Trojans’ starting quarterback next season. It may also clearly define what type of quarterbacks USC recruits moving forward.
But more than system, staff retention would be an even more complicated matter. Helton is working with Sarkisian’s assistant coaching staff, and while his coaching connections may be more limited than other candidates for the job, he will be pressured to make changes. USC’s defense, while criticized early in the season, is now statistically among the best in the conference in several categories, including rush defense, total defense, interceptions and scoring defense.
On the other hand, USC is only No. 9 in the conference in total offense. The Trojans are No. 7 in pass offense and No. 8 in rush offense. Surprising statistics, seeing that most Trojan fans would like to see more coaching turnover on the defensive side of the football than the offensive side. The Trojans’ most dominant defense in recent years came with Clancy Pendergast as defensive coordinator in 2013. Pendergast is currently a linebackers coach for the San Francisco 49ers.
Helton has been an offensive coordinator with teams that have run both 4-3 and 3-4 defensive fronts, so his preference is less about system and more about coaching personnel. Of course, as on the offensive side of the football, emphasis on certain aspects of Helton’s game plan may result in a staff shake up at several positions. Meanwhile, with Helton being on the low end of the coaching candidate pay scale, USC would have more money toward hiring assistant coaches.
But it is important to note, at one time, the media lauded Steve Sarkisian’s move to hire Justin Wilcox, Peter Sirmon, Keith Heyward and Tosh Lupoi at Washington. It was considered a dream team staff of great recruiters and up-and-coming coaches. Without a head coach in place that establishes a culture of consistency and accountability, a good assistant staff only goes so far.
Helton is a good recruiter — diligent and personable. Most of his bigger signings came at the quarterback position, although under Lane Kiffin, Helton was also in charge of recruiting the Bay Area for USC. For the past two years, USC has recruited by position. Meaning, Helton has been responsible for recruiting the quarterback position exclusively.
On that front, USC has seen several top quarterback targets in the 2016 and 2017 classes commit elsewhere. With Steve Sarkisian also playing a big role in quarterback recruiting, it’s not fair to place the total blame on Helton. In the recruitment of Glendora (Calif.) three-star quarterback commit Matt Fink, Helton and Sarkisian were clearly on different pages. Helton was not aware of Fink’s scholarship offer from USC until Sarkisian broke the news to the senior quarterback in his office last spring.
Sources say USC gave quarterbacks Shea Patterson, K.J. Costello and Tate Martell similar mixed messages throughout their recruitments. The divide between Helton and Sarkisian often centered around mobility. Helton prefers pocket-passers while Sarkisian became more enamored with mobile quarterbacks.
Thus far, the Trojans have maintained the same recruiting strategy they used under Sarkisian. Whether Helton would continue that strategy as head coach next year remains to be seen, but it’s an approach which has been successful for USC the past two recruiting cycles. Simply being more decisive in recruiting quarterbacks would make USC more effective in signing top talent at that position moving forward.
As it stands now, USC has the nation’s No. 17 recruiting class with 14 commitments. Most of the Trojans’ commits have been openly in favor of Helton being retained as head coach. USC did have two de-commitments after Sarkisian was fired. One came from Ann Arbor (Mich.) four-star linebacker Daelin Hayes, who USC is not expected to pursue further. The other de-commitment came from Torrance (Calif.) five-star linebacker Mique Juarez, who USC is still heavily recruiting.
The retention of certain assistant coaches and an overlap in recruiting strategy would be beneficial toward USC signing another top 10 class in 2016. However, there is an argument to be made that Helton as head coach further enforces the perception of instability within the program. Like other inexperienced head coaching candidates, Helton would have to prove himself as a winner at USC before speculation and conjecture about his future would cease.
Steve Sarkisian arrived at USC on the coaching hot seat after never winning more than five conferences games at Washington. If Helton wins out this season, he will have taken USC back to the Rose Bowl. If he simply beats Oregon this weekend and UCLA the next, he will be 7-1 with a Las Vegas Bowl win as head coach. That would be six Pac-12 wins, which is one more than Steve Sarkisian ever had at Washington.
However, one good partial season will not temper the angsts of USC fans or recruits. The failures of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian will haunt their former offensive coordinator turned interim head coach until he can string together multiple season of double digit wins.
USC is not starting with a clean slate in hiring Clay Helton. That has its advantages an its disadvantages. Helton was hired by Lane Kiffin, who USC fired midseason and retained by Steve Sarkisian who USC fired midseason. In essence, athletic director Pat Haden would be promoting a coach hired by two people he unceremoniously fired.
Fair or not to Helton, that is a tough pill to swallow for Trojan fans who want to break away from the failures of the past. At the same time, Helton is not the same coach or person as Kiffin or Sarkisian. Helton has no external experience as a head coach, but he has experienced many ups and downs at USC. He knows the terrain, and is winning games this season under less than ideal circumstances. Helton has galvanized this year’s USC football team when many anticipated a total collapse.
However, USC took a chance on young, unproven coaches in Kiffin and Sarkisian mainly because of their association with the football program’s successful under Pete Carroll. That translated knowledge did not result in Rose Bowl victories or national championships. But make no mistake about it, USC would be changing course in hiring Helton. Instead of hiring an unproven coach because of his association to past success at USC, Haden would be promoting Helton in spite of his association with past failure.