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Going, going . . . but not a goner

The conversation about Clay Helton has changed as dramatically as any you could imagine. In a little more than two months, he's gone from the dead list to the 'A' list and it started that night in Salt Lake City when the new coach (above) had the right answer for his Trojan team.

He was finished, obviously. It was no longer a matter of "if" but simply "when."

It was only a matter of time. Does he finish out the season after an embarrassing 1-3 start? Or does that honor go to someone else?

The decision for once-proud USC, for the third time in four years, to let a head football coach go in the middle of the season would not only be unprecedented -- after all, twice in three years had never happened before in college football history -- it would be beyond embarrassing.

But calls were being made to assess the feasibility and finances of another sudden transition if necessary. 

USC would move on, cautiously, having come close at Utah in a Friday night game the Trojans clearly should have won behind Sam Darnold, their exciting if inexperienced newly named redshirt freshman starter at quarterback.

But Sam wasn't so much the talk around Troy that next week. Clay Helton was.

For some, he was a goner. For others who posted here and took his gentlemanly Southern way of speaking for the first-time head coach as a personal affront, he was "Gomer."

Unprepared. Undeserving. And without any doubt, so over his head, the critics said, he had no shot at bringing the Trojans back from the hole where the NCAA and USC's own bad head coaching decisions had buried the program.

The only question seemed to be whether USC should go for an established "A"-list college coach or one of a couple of the rising stars -- or should they look to the NFL? Who's on your list, they would ask, here's mine.

Maybe the climate would have changed had they been there in the USC lockerroom late that night after the Utah loss that should have been the turnaround win. And had heard what this Trojans team heard.

But heard it this USC team had. And took it to heart.

Strong and solid, with every eye on him, in the immediate aftermath of a 31-27 mistake-filled finish that turned a victory into a defeat with 16 seconds left, Clay said simply: "I'm proud of you . . . I'm proud to be your coach. That's [Utah] a good football team -- and a great football game. It went down to the end and you competed with honor. If you keep on competing like that and get rid of the mistakes, you will win football games, I promise you."

They did -- and they did. They kept competing, stopped the mistakes and won football games. Eight straight. Including three against ranked teams at the time including both Pac-12 championship game competitors -- Colorado and Washington.

Just the way Clay Helton said they would.

But this wasn't simply about listening and doing. They figured out how to practice -- coaches and players together -- on separate tracks to start before coming together in a serious meeting of the minds as to how they would proceed. With a focus on fundamentals and an attention to detail. Just the way Clay had said they would -- but didn't -- in September.

They listened to their coach and their coach listened to them. He didn't overreact, and neither did they. Together, they both simply got better week by week. Just the way he promised they would.

"Clay's like a father figure to us," senior tackle Chad Wheeler said of why and how that happened. "We knew we were going to pick ourselves up."

"I don't know when the exact moment was when we knew it but after Utah, we knew we could be a pretty good football team," sophomore outside linebacker Porter Gustin said. 

And here they are -- in the Rose Bowl,, for the first time in eight sesons, against Big ten champ Penn State in maybe the most attractive, interesting and compelling game in the 40-game bowl season.

What would the odds on that have been back at the end of September? No odds, really. They take crazy bets in Vegas. But none that crazy.

You could get a bet that this USC team wouldn't finish with a .500 record. And even an argument or two way back then that they didn't have to win again. 

But none of those would have been odds as long as these -- that Clay Helton's name would appear on this list: Paul Chryst (Wisconsin), P.J. Fleck (Western Michigan), James Franklin (Penn State), Clay Helton (USC), Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), Mike MacIntyre (Colorado), Nick Saban (Alabama), Bob Stoops (Oklahoma) and Dabo Swinney (Clemson).

Those are the finalists for the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award. And no one doubts that Clay belongs there. His ninth-ranked 9-3 Trojans have beaten one of those coaches already and get a shot at a second Jan. 2.

There's a reason why, offensive coordinator Tee Martin says. "Through thick and thin, our leader hasn't changed . . . and these players stuck with him."

Senior tailback Justin Davis agrees. "To be a part of a team that's come together like this, I'm truly blessed."

"To be honest, I believed everything Coach Helton said [after Utah] -- and everything he says," Darnold said after practice last week.

"He's a great coach and an even better guy," Sam said. "He definitely called it . . . he did."

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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