Now we know, and yet we don't

Clay Helton is the guy, USC announced Monday, but is he the guy? No way to know that right now.

We knew they were working on something -- and something involving Clay Helton -- over the weekend. But the thinking was they couldn't get it done this quickly.

Or wouldn't want to get it done -- at least not until after Saturday's Pac-12 Championship game against Stanford. Why hurry? there's plenty of time.

At least Monday's news is not the surprise we got when Steve Sarkisian was named two years ago. We pretty much saw this one coming.

There was a reason the coaching search was so quiet. USC had its man all the time.

After a seven-week-on-the-job interview, Clay won the job. And after all the tumult and uncertainty, some of it on the sidelines in those seven weeks, he won the Pac-12 South, going an unbeaten 5-0 in the division.

And he won his players over. Won them big-time. And did so in a way different from how Ed Orgeron did it. They're two different people, two different personalities.

Where Ed was the inspirational uncle with wonderfully interesting life stories you loved to be around as a kid, who made you feel great just with his love and energy and ability to connect, Clay is the strong, steadfast stepfather the family felt it needed to step in and take over.

There's a group Clay won't win over for months, maybe years, maybe ever. They're the guys who had their Fantasy-footballized hearts set on a big NFL name, even if his college football fitness would have been a flip of a coin.

As if all hires aren't essentially that. Especially at USC, it seems, where the only good coaching hire in decades has been one with the tag "interim" in front of his name -- or a fourth-choice "retread."

Talk about rolling the dice with Stanford coming up in five days. Hey, it's almost as much time as Clay had to get the Trojans ready for Notre Dame seven weeks back. So this won't be new to him -- or the Trojans.

Is this the right thing to do or the right way to go? Who knows. You can't possibly know.

Now you do know some things. Clay's approach to football with the increased emphasis on physicality, the ability to run the football first and stop the run and take advantage of turnovers is USC football.

It's what many of us -- and many of the great Trojan football figures out there -- have been yearning for.

Now whether Clay is the person to make that happen, the person to put together the kind of tough-minded staff that can accomplish that, is something he's going to have to show us.

Surely he's been explaining his plan -- and the coaching personnel needed to get it done -- to the people who made this decision. But it's a leap of faith here. Clay has yet to put together a staff. We'll see.

All we can do is look at what we know. The Oregon game planted all sorts of seeds of doubt. The UCLA game did the exact opposite. Clay went for it. There was no coaching scared. None of that "what if this doesn't work?"

The Trojans went for it. Went with their talent. Went with their fourth-string center, Nico Falah, whose preparation to step in says as much good as you can possibly say about a coach and a staff and a game plan.

And yes, Clay will have some hard calls to make about this coaching staff going forward. This is not going to be easy. The top college football coaches didn't get there by doing the easy things. Sure, you have to get all those right. They're the gimmes.

But it's the tough stuff that you have to do -- letting a coach go. That's the test. Clay can recruit and evaluate.

He looks and sounds like a big-time head coach. But he's had to be an offensive coordinator under two of the least-attractive role models you could ever want. Two guys who wanted to be their own play-callers. Two guys who mostly wanted Clay to hand the ball to the quarterbacks at practice.

Now he's got their job. And the challenge is the same. Get this USC program, the one that's been stalled in place by the NCAA and its own inattention and ineptness, for much of the last five years.

And yet, there are lots of programs who would trade places in terms of talent and prospects -- and that place in Saturday's Pac-12 Championship game.

The one thing this does for certain is it gives USC a head start on next season. No disruption, no learning curve, no starting over from scratch. With Alabama on the horizon and a Trojan team that will be once again favored to win the Pac-12 title, that's a good thing.

But this cannot be about short-term thinking. USC has had enough of that. Lane Kiffin was going to save that 2010 recruiting class. Sark "got USC."

This is about who is the best person to lead this USC program in the long run. For some solid reasons, Clay Helton might be.

But for some others, many others really, we can't possibly know. None of us. Not even Clay. Not these players. Not the fans who are expressing so much disappointment right now. Not even Ryan, whose coaching search bracket goes down in flames this morning.

“Choosing a coach is an inexact science," AD Pat Haden said in a statement Monday before an 11 a.m. press conference to introduce Clay to the public. "In Clay’s case, there is exactness. We have a man with unquestioned integrity. He is a fantastic person and he is real. Clay is a leader of young men. He is a terrific communicator. He brings high character, stability, continuity, consistency, toughness and resiliency to our program.

“We have known Clay well for the past six years. He earned this opportunity. He has been positive and upbeat handling adversity. He was built to be a head coach. Football is his family business. He is a coach on the rise and he will be coaching a team on the rise. As our interim head coach, Clay brought back USC’s style of physical football. I have been impressed with how hard and how inspired our team has played for him, as well as the support they have shown for him.

“Clay was not hired because his team defeated UCLA Saturday. He was not hired because many current and former players voiced their support for him. And he was not hired because he is a Trojan. He is our choice because we believe he can win Pac-12 and national championships here. Clay Helton is the right man at the right time for the USC football program.”

There's the case. It's a far better one than what was made the previous two hires despite more extensive resumes. It's a qualitative judgment not a quantatative one.

We'll take that any day. But is it the right one?

Here's all we can say: It has a chance. And that's something neither of the past two, nor five of the last six, realistically had.

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