The play clock finally ran out on Clay Helton. It’s amazing that he lasted this long. USC athletic director Mike Bohn pulled the plug on the Clay Helton Experience on Monday. The only surprise was the timing. There must be a feeling of absolute misery for a college football coach to be fired two games into a season.
This was an ending we could all see coming. The moment Bohn was hired in November 2019, Helton was coaching on borrowed time. The one thing we know about athletic directors: they love to bring in their own guys. The question was not: could Helton survive? The question was: how long would Bohn wait before making a move?
Helton originally got the USC gig, one of the most prestigious jobs in college football, only because of Steve Sarkisian’s leave of absence and eventual firing in 2015. But even after being promoted to the permanent position, he never really shook the label of being an interim coach. Helton did enough to stay employed for six-plus years and had some good seasons (10-3 in 2016 and 11-3 the following year).
However, USC’s entitled fanbase never warmed up to him. You always got the sense that they were ready to pounce. Helton had one losing season (5-7 in 2018). During that year, a plane flew a banner outside the Los Angeles Coliseum that read: “Lynn Swann–Please Fire Clay Helton.”
— Bill Rosinski (@RosinskiBill) November 24, 2018
At least they were polite.
Swann, the former athletic director, stood by Helton. But when Swann resigned in September 2019, a change in leadership at USC was inevitable. Helton bought himself another chance with a 5-1 record in a pandemic-plagued 2020. And with a star quarterback in Kedon Slovis returning on a preseason top-25 team, Bohn had to let this play out a little longer.
So, he waited. Exactly two games.
An embarrassing 42-28 home loss to Stanford was the opening Bohn needed. He wasn’t going to give Helton an opportunity for a turnaround. He shoved Helton and his 46-24 record out the door with a $10 million buyout to soften the landing. The timing is cruel. No coach deserves to be ousted after a 1-1 start. But college athletics is a business and tough decisions are necessary.
“Our university and its leadership are committed to winning national championships and restoring USC football to glory,” Bohn said. “I accept the enormous responsibility I have to our current and former players and the entire Trojan Family to live up to our incredible heritage.”
This was a strategic move. By making a change now, USC has a leg up on the hiring season. The Trojans have let everyone know that they are ready to mingle. If they had waited until November and December, the pool of potential candidates might be smaller.
USC is attractive. A coach has everything necessary to compete for a national championship: a fertile recruiting ground so plentiful that you don’t even have to leave Southern California, a tradition-rich history that has produced 11 national titles and seven Heisman Trophy winners, and a passionate (albeit sometimes fickle) fanbase.
Predictably, you can’t talk about the USC job without mentioning Urban Meyer. That’s the fantasy football hire for any athletic director. However, Meyer is employed by the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL. Landing him appears far-fetched at this point.
Unless Meyer is willing to pull a Bobby Petrino and just abandon his job in his first season, there are more reasons for him to stay in Jacksonville. He has a stud rookie quarterback in Trevor Lawrence and a lot of power in the organization. You’d figure he’d be there for at least a couple of years.
More realistic options could be Luke Fickell, James Franklin, Matt Campbell, and Bill O’Brien. The biggest prize on that list is Fickell. Not only does he check all the boxes, but Bohn hired Fickell at Cincinnati in 2017
Bohn saw Fickell build the Bearcats into a perennial top-25 program. Fickell also has experience at blueblood programs, serving as an interim coach at Ohio State in 2011 after Jim Tressel resigned. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reports that: “The USC job is Luke Fickell’s to turn down.”
Filed to @CBSSports: The USC job is Luke Fickell's to turn down. If he does, Bob Stoops might be waiting in the wings.
— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) September 13, 2021
Other interesting choices: former big-name coaches who are currently out of work, such as Bob Stoops and Chris Petersen.
Athletic directors are calculating. Usually, they don’t fire a coach without having a list of obtainable replacements waiting. It’s quite possible that Bohn already knows who the next USC coach will be. If so, kudos to him.
The Trojans haven’t had a championship coach since Pete Carroll won titles in 2003 and 2004. It’s time for the athletic director to make USC relevant again.