The long, long journey to Pasadena

It's taken Clay Helton and James Franklin more than two decades to get to "The Granddaddy of them All" in Pasadena. Some of the ways they went about it seem like they came from the same playbook. Some not so much.

Brent Pry, the Penn State defensive coordinator and longtime friend of Clay Helton, since their days together on the Memphis coaching staff back in the early 2000's, says that Helton and his current boss, James Franklin, are a lot alike.

Comparing the two, Pry says "absolutely" when asked if Clay reminds him of Franklin: "A player's coach, definitely a player's coach, values relationships very much. High-character guys, tremendous workers. There's a lot of similarities in Clay and James. Got tremendous respect for both of them."

And in a line very few USC fans would have uttered back at the end of September, Pry says: "I'm not surprised at all to see Clay having the success he's having."

But Pry adds this to his description of Franklin. "He's got more drive and determination than anybody I've ever worked with."

So they're a lot alike -- but different, definitely different. As different as two 44-year-old former college quarterbacks who have been coaching football half of their relatively young lives get set for their debuts in "The Grand-daddy of them all" in Pasadena Monday. And as they talked about Saturday morning at the head coaches press conference at the LA Hotel Downtown.

But back to that "driven" tag for Franklin. Let him describe it when he talks about the closest he'd ever gotten to the Rose Bowl as a coach before this week.

That was the time in 1998 when Franklin took off from his native Philadelphia "in a Honda with 186,000 miles on it for a 37-hour drive straight through to Pullman for a grad assistant's job" coaching tight ends at Washington State a month after the Cougars had played in the 1998 Rose Bowl.

He did get to see Ryan Leaf working out for NFL scouts, Franklin says, but after a four-year college career as a quarterback at East Stroudsburg State and year-long coaching stints at Kutztown, then back at his alma mater, then James Madison, it was his first move into the big time.

A year later it was on to Idaho State, then Maryland for five years, the Packers for a year, then Kansas State, back to Maryland for three more years as the No. 2 guy before his first head coaching job at Vanderbilt for three seasons when he got the Commodores to three straight bowl games -- with two wins -- before moving on to an NCAA-sanctioned and pretty-much discredited Penn State program in 2013. The program was down to 65 scholarships and Franklin walks in as "the fifth head coach, counting interims, in 27 months," he recalls.

Sound familiar? Clay's resume can outdo at least that last part. He was USC's third coach in three months -- as the interim -- and fifth in 24 months, counting himself twice, from 2013 to 2015. He'd had a win over a No. 3 Utah team and a big bowl romp in Las Vegas over Derek Carr and Fresno State with 44 scholarships in the wake of Ed Orgeron's departure when Ed was passed over for Steve Sarkisian.

But if Clay's path to Pasadena wasn't as winding as Franklin's, and with fewer stops with coaching first at Duke as a grad assistant after playing at both Auburn and Houston, and then back to coaching for his dad, Kim Helton, at Houston, it may have been less predictable. That Las Vegas Bowl romp almost certainly secured him the last spot on Sark's staff at USC. And had Lane Kiffin not called him out of the blue seven years ago two months into his new job at Arkansas State, there's almost no way he'd be headed to Pasadena.

And at USC, Clay has mostly had to coach, first as the quarterbacks coach and then the offensive coordinator for a pair of head coaches who also thought of themselves as quarterbacks coaches/offensive coordinators. That left Clay the chance to show what kind of person he was more than what kind of head coach he could be.

And when this USC team was off to a 1-3 start with embarrassing flameouts to Alabama and Stanford, it was good Clay understood, from his own family upbringing, how to handle what was coming his way from the calls for his immediate firing to no sooner than a minute after the final loss to Notre Dame. Only that moment never came. There was no final loss. There was no other loss.

And through it all, Clay stood strong. "You have to be thick-skinned," he said of the coaching business.

"You have to have blinders on. You have to focus on doing your job, and that's winning games and progressng your team. That's a hard-enough job as it is. If you're focused on anything else outside of that, what other people think, you're not doing your job. So that's what our staff did. I know Coach Franklin's staff did . . . Our job is to win games. We're in a production-based business. The media's job is to do what? To report what's going on and to have an opinion."

And did they ever. Most wrote Clay off as a dead man walking. That neither he nor his players ever did that is the one endorsement he needed. Not to mention those eight straight wins to finish the season. 

His charge at USC was to get this Trojans team past all the recent issues that have the fifth-year seniors here having played through the in-season departure of three head coaches. So family man Clay, in both his coaching and personal life, has made this USC program in his image. It's about family.

"It shows what a group of men, a group of brothers, a family can do together," Clay says. "You go back and trust the process and trust the men around you."

And "if you continue to compete the way you're competing, trust the process, eliminate the mistakes, you're going to look up come November and be really, really happy," he told them. And so are your fans. And the same for December. Now if that can only extend into January. 

That sense of family and trust shows what a team can do when it's playing behind a dynamic, decisive, strong-armed, accurate quarterback who can extend plays as well as anyone in the country. And who was gotten ready for his moment even when he wasn't a starter with both a red zone and short-yardage packages. When Sam Darnold stepped in for Max Browne at Utah, it was pretty seamless.

And then when they have the kind of talent a USC team should always have, and as Franklin has said USC does on a number of occasions this week, they're maybe going to be able to take themselves to the Rose Bowl.

"A quality person, high energy, detail-oriented," Pry said of Clay. "He's a very well-rounded football coach. He's in it for the right reasons. He cares about those guys. They're going to play for him. And he's very smart. So we've got our hands full." 

Credit Franklin for doing the same thing, Clay said, starting with recruiting those same kinds of athletes as his scholarships increased from 65 to 75 and then 85 this year as the NCAA took two steps back in settling up with Penn State.

"He's brought in athletes," Clay said. "That's why they're the Big Ten champs. The one thing you can't coach is speed." 

But while USC fans knew the whole NCAA case against the program was bogus as heck, Penn State had by far the bigger challenge. The issues were as serious as you could have. Jerry Sandusky hasn't been the only staffer there who has had to face the long arm of the law and the shame that hit State College. For Franklin, this was more than football.

"He's done a tremendous job," Pry said of his boss. "That's a national job. He's a coach that wants to be involved in everything. He feels he needs to be. He's done a tremendous job managing our operations, and not just our players, but our staff, the community, the fan base, the students. He realizes and recognizes he's done a great job getting everybody involved, getting everybody pulling the rope in the same direction."

Franklin explained the four-step process he's initiated for his program starting with the belief in a set of core values, a work ethic, the willingness and commitment to compete and finally, "the most difficult of them all," Franklin says, the willingness to sacrifice.  "That's a lot of changes," he said.

"Can you give up small things now for big things later," Franklin asks his team.

If you can, you can make it to Pasadena in January.

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

Not a member? Sign up now and you'll get a seven day FREE trial! Join the Peristyle Family and get all the great information from USC football practices, Trojan football games, access to the Peristyle and all of the premium recruiting updates on! Become a member today! Top Stories