Helton: Changing the culture from within

This is Pat Haden's call and he's calling Clay Helton's number -- and rolling the dice big-time, if for no other reason than what could be a daunting first three games for the new head coach.

Clay Helton's next three games might seem a bit daunting. A Stanford team with a shot at the College Football Playoffs -- not to mention a 41-31 win over USC in Week 3. That challenge comes in the Pac-12 Championship Saturday in Santa Clara, just down the road from Palo Alto.

Then maybe an Ohio State or Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

Then Alabama in Dallas to open 2016.

"Should be fun," Clay said with a big grin after signing what AD Pat Haden described Monday as "a guaranteed five-year deal" but others are calling three years with an option for the final two.

Fun. That's how it's supposed to be -- if you're USC.

Saturday's UCLA game was fun, for sure, once USC got going. As was the romp over No. 3 Utah, two of the Top-25 wins for Helton who is now 5-2 this season since taking over seven weeks ago from Steve Sarkisian the Sunday before Notre Dame.

Clay is 6-2 counting the Las Vegas Bowl two years ago. And if you're into numbers, that 75.0 winning percentage is just above John McKay's 74.9 (127-40-8) and John Robinson's 74.1 (104-35-4) and equals the 75.0 of Howard Jones (121-36-13) and Ed Orgeron (6-2). Pete Carroll's pre-NCAA-sanctions 97-19-0 is, of course, an unapproachable .836.

And of course none of those are comparable. in any way. This wasn't a numbers-driven decision. There really aren't enough of them yet for Clay.

This was about Haden, under withering criticism for weeks, wanting to make it right for his alma mater, it would appear. And to do so with Helton, who unlike the man he's succeeding, really does appear to "get USC" -- USC football, that is.

USC football is physical. The Trojans are the team that when they're doing it right, as was the case at the end of the UCLA game, their opponents just want them to go away and leave them alone. Or at least to not keep running that same play right at them.

That's what caught the eye of some of the greatest names in USC football history who have been telling Clay how much they like what he's doing and telling Pat how much they approved of this recent return to real Trojan football.

Having for a time been convinced that the uptempo spread was the way to go for an updated USC program, Pat seems to have seen the light. Many of the qualities he praised in Helton were his ability to deal with and overcome issues inflicted on this program by Haden himself in the shortsighted Sarkisian hiring exactly two years ago.

"We needed a re-boot," Haden said in an impromptu McKay hallway interview after introducing Helton as his coach.

Yes, there were others interviewed, Haden said. No, Chip Kelly wasn't one of them. Reports have it that Raiders coach and USC alum Jack Del Rio was one of those contacted as was Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, looking to move on. Although Haden wasn't saying.

Helton, the kid who knew he wanted to be a football coach when he was in the eighth grade, has "changed the culture" at USC, Haden said. Which is a pretty nifty trick when you consider Helton has been a part of that culture in need of repair the last six years under first, Lane Kiffin, then Sarkisian.

One allowed to stay far too long by Haden, the other inexcusably hired by him. Both eventually forced Haden to fire them. Not the way the lifelong Trojan wanted to go out, talking about a "culture" he had to find someone to restore.

And now it's pretty much a roll of the dice here. Helton's team might not be favored to win any of the next three games. Not that that matters.

What matters will be whether Helton can be that "next man up" just the way Nico Falah shifted over from guard and tackle his first two years here to become the fourth center the Trojans have had to call on when it was his turn Saturday against UCLA and he did so flawlessly. As he may have to do this Saturday.

McKay was an assistant coach when USC hired him as was Robinson, Haden said. They won five national championships between them.

Stanford's David Shaw and Oregon's Mark Helfrich were likewise assistants bumped up to the Pac-12's top two programs right now. And No.1 Clemson, well Dabo Swinney went from assistant to interim to head coach.

Not that any of these are precedents. Each call has its own unique set of variables. And its critics.

"I understand plenty of people will disagree with this," Haden said. But it wasn't their call.

"It's my call," Haden said.

And for those who thought maybe he wouldn't want to, or would at least shy away from the "limelight" here that Helton said he himself doesn't need, Haden did not. Not a bit.

They said Pat wasn't going to speak. He went first. And spoke eloquently on why Helton was the right choice. They said Haden wouldn't take any questions. But he did.

He's standing by this pick, he made clear.

Why Helton? "This is the right guy," Haden said he decided after a second sitdown interview Sunday.

But why announce it right now after a weekend of meetings and activity sandwiched around the UCLA game that didn't at all seem to take Helton's -- or his team's -- collective eye off the ball.

Well, by the time it was wrapped up late Sunday, the decision was made to tell the team at their early Monday morning meeting and then tell the world.

And the world responded in ways Haden had anticipated. Yahoo's USC-hater Pat Forde said it was the perfect hire for USC -- the University of Self-Congratulation," going with a Trojan. An ESPN talker said it was both a "lazy" and "scared" hire.

Helton didn't seem to mind. Said he knows he's not one of those "glitzy" guys driving in from the South Bay on a clear day with that HOLLYWOOD sign clearly visible. Then he said he started to think about what USC football is all about.

And as he did, Clay said he saw images of hard-scrabble West Virginian John McKay and Hall of Fame Trojans like Marcus Allen and Ronnie Lott, the blue-collar guys who helped build the USC tradition of tough, hard-nosed football.

Senior quarterback Cody Kessler gave Helton his complete endorsement: "I wish those that don't know him could be in our locker room and be at practice," he told ESPN. "Our attitude since the day he took over has been awesome. He didn't blink an eye after taking over in an unfortunate situation. I constantly hear Coach Helton's voice in my head. He is a great football mind."

And with a very big -- and immediate -- challenge.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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