It may be the single-most unexpected occurrence -- at least in a positive direction -- in all of college football this past fall.
Call it the resurrection of Clay Helton's coaching career in a little over three months. From pretty much dead on arrival in September to the head of the class in some Coach of the Year selections by January. You just don't see that kind of thing happen much.
Not at USC. Not anywhere. Which is what makes it such a great story. And one we can't take our eyes off of.
But we must. For other than establishing a precedent for how to do it right in the heat of a season going downhill fast, for how Clay, his staff and his players had to do it in order to do it right, 2016 should be left to the history books now.
As hard as it may be to believe, the next three months may be more important for Clay's long-term viability leading this USC program than the triage he managed nearly perfectly this past fall to allow USC to run off nine straight wins -- the nation's second-longest streak just one behind Oklahoma's.
As special as that is, it's time to forget it. USC has had nine-game win streaks before. Has had a lot longer win streaks than that. Has won 24 other Rose Bowls as well, although none more dramatically -- or more welcome.
But it's 2017 that matters here -- and beyond. And how does USC get there. Because when we talk 2017, we're talking right now. The obvious is closing out recruiting between now and Feb. 1 the way USC closed out the Rose Bowl against Penn State.
Again, let that come-from-behind performance be a one-of-a-kind deal here. The challenge for Clay and USC football is to put in place the kind of program that doesn't have to keep coming from behind.
And not that a USC program that seems to be a consensus top three or so going into next season is back yet. It's not. But if and when it does get back, we must remember the way Pete Carroll often referenced John Wooden's reminder that it's harder to stay on top than to get there. That's something that's playing out for Pete in Seattle as we type this.
But some day in the relatively near future as the lifetime of programs go, Sam Darnold will move on. Later rather than sooner, USC fans hope.
The secret now, right now, is to make sure USC has the program in place -- the Tee Martins, Tyson Heltons and Clay himself when it came to finding and nurturing Sam -- to find, sign and coach up the next Sam and all the other Trojans who combined to make 2016 possible.
It starts with recruiting, obviously. We all can see what happened to Mark Helfrich at Oregon after taking Chip Kelly's players to a national championship game just three short years ago before being sent packing after a disastrous 4-8 season last fall.
And sure, we all know why Chip -- and the kinds of players he was bringing in and the way he was doing it -- was no longer a viable option at Oregon. Even an NCAA with no vendetta against the Ducks couldn't keep looking the other way.
So we learned it wasn't all the uniform combos, the no-huddle, getting-ahead-of-the-officials offense or even "Uncle Phil," who kept the Ducks on top. You have to have the players. And of course it was much more than that as we're starting to learn from the autopsies coming out of a program in total disciplinary disarray not to mention coach and player buy-in.
The history of USC football makes it clear, however, that it starts with the players. No program has had more Heisman Trophy winners, more NFL Hall of Famers, more first-round draft picks or overall picks to brag about and sustain it than USC. John McKay was never more right than when he talked about "the Jimmy's and Joe's" being way more important "than the X's and O's."
So how does USC do that? Well, look at the top three programs in the nation right now when it comes to recruiting -- Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Notice a common thread here? The top recruiters are also College Football Playoff final four participants as well. Hopefully that's not a surprise to anyone here.
Then there's Michigan, working like crazy to get there under Jim Harbaugh. And does anyone doubt that an LSU under Ed Orgeron won't be there soon when it comes to recruiting. And as we saw in the run-up to the Rose Bowl, James Franklin has Penn State on that same path.
"It's the lifeblood" of the program, AD Lynn Swann said this fall of recruiting. Right outside the Rose Bowl locker room, Lynn reiterated that the Penn State win was a great "first step" in the process of restoring USC, but it was just that. Winning Pac-12 championships and putting themselves in the hunt for a national title on a regular basis are the standard here,
We agree. We also agree that now is the time for Clay to call on Lynn to make good on his challenge -- starting with recruiting. Is there anyone who thinks USC has the recruiting infrastructure or personnel -- in its coaching staff or support personnel -- to match Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson or Michigan?
Of course, USC has a number of natural advantages -- academics, location, history, exposure, weather -- over even those programs when USC gets it right so that it's not necessary to have the legions of employees sending out emails and making phone calls that a Clemson, for example, must have. But there is a baseline here that USC must get to.
Tee Martin, for example, can only do so much and be in so many places -- as offensive coordinator and lead recruiter -- on a coaching staff that appears to have more player development people than beat-the-bushes recruiters. We have to ask if this recruiting operation has the people, the expertise and the organizational acumen to get the job done?
Probably not. Not every year. Not for every player. That has to change and Clay has to change it. He'll never have more clout to do so than right now. He must take advantage of that timely opportunity that comes his way.
If there's a standard we think Clay has to set, it's not whether Alabama, Ohio State or Clemson are doing it, but does everything that his recruiting staff, or every person on that staff, give him the best chance to dominate the Pac-12 and get into that four-team national playoff picture. USC clearly isn't there with its recruiting personnel or game plan just yet. But it better get there soon. As in now.
The same goes for the rest of the football support staff. Does everyone on this USC staff, from team doctors to equipment people, from strength and conditioning staff to his own personal support group, give the Trojans the absolutely best shot at winning a national championship -- or multiple ones? That's the standard.
We're not saying USC must spend the $43 million Alabama reportedly spends on its football program. But it better not be too far behind the $29 million Ohio State and Clemson spend.
And yes, we've heard really good things, for example, about newcomers like Torre Becton, in strength and conditioning as an assistant to Ivan Lewis. And football nutritionist Andrea Vanderwoude has had a major impact. But it no longer can be just this person or that, it must be a coordinated effort that is as good as any in the nation. On the cutting edge. With no stone left unturned.
Should we ask what would Nick Saban. or Urban Meyer, or Jim Harbaugh, do? Not really. That would be the wrong question. How would they act right now? How hard would they push? That has to be the standard. This is a competitive business.
Because as uneasy as we might be turning the USC program over to anyone who might have the football tail wagging the university dog, that's hardly a worry with Clay Helton in charge. That's the beauty of the way things are right now with this USC return to the top.
Clay gets it. Gets USC. Gets where football fits. Now it's up to him, in the time between now and spring football, to put USC on the path to the kind of success Trojans fans are accustomed to being accustomed to. Only with the recognition that this is a far different, far more competitive, world from the one Pete Carroll dominated a decade ago.
For example, if there's a football assistant out there who could come in to enhance this USC football staff where it may need the most help -- recruiting -- and the NCAA allows, as expected, another full-timer on staff, does USC aggressively make that move to get that person even if that person might be at Alabama or anywhere else right now?
Or if there's someone or several of them on the staff who make it less likely that USC will compete for national titles in the near future, does good-guy Clay have what it takes to find the exact someone who will?
He had the answers when this team was 1-3. Had the aptitude and the attitude. Don't panic. Stay the course. Rally round the program of "faith, family and football" with the focus on fundamentals, on getting the little things right in practice and having that carry over to games and having the players reinforce all of that because, after all, it's their team.
Now there are a different set of questions and challenges. And if you think they don't matter, ask Mark Helfrich.
This is Clay's call now. The first-time head coach mastered his sideline command in the short time from September to January. Now it's a different sort of competitive challenge for USC football.
But one at least as important as giving Sam the chance to lead this team or make the game-tying throw to Deontay Burnett or to trot Matt Boermeester out to win it all. Maybe more important.
Those are history now. In the record book.
It's the next calls that will determine the future of USC football -- and Clay himself.
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