LOS ANGELES — Although Clay Helton has lost the support of a sizable portion of Southern California’s fan base, athletic director Lynn Swann still believes in him.
Helton will remain USC’s head coach despite presiding over the Trojans’ first losing season since 2000, Swann announced Sunday.
Swann secured his coach’s future one day after the Trojans finished 5-7 with a narrow loss to Notre Dame. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with Helton among USC’s boosters and fans, Swann is staying with the coach who got a contract extension through 2023 from Swann just nine months ago.
“I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve,” Swann said in a statement. “One season does not define a coach.”
Helton is 32-17 in his first head coaching job, which began midway through the 2015 season. His Trojans won the Rose Bowl two years ago to cap a nine-game winning streak, and they won the Pac-12 title last season.
But USC lost five of its final six games this season, capped by back-to-back losses to archrivals UCLA and Notre Dame. Helton survived it on the strength of his previous success, his clean program at the scandal-plagued school and Swann’s desire for continuity.
Helton Brought Stability and Professionalism
“We see top programs across the country have down years and the fans want to change coaches,” Swann said. “In fact, it happened a few years ago with (Saturday’s) opponent, but that administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly. That will happen here at USC.”
Swann’s decision extends the unlikely reign of the genial longtime assistant coach atop the West Coast’s most storied college football program. Helton was the Trojans’ offensive coordinator when he was abruptly promoted to head coach after Steve Sarkisian was fired following a series of alcohol-related misbehaviors.
Helton immediately brought stability and professionalism to a program that had been repeatedly rocked by turmoil ever since Pete Carroll’s departure six years earlier. His 21 victories in his first two seasons were the most by a coach in USC history.
Yet Helton has never won over a significant portion of USC’s fans, who feel his two years of success rested on the shoulders of the Trojans’ formidable raw talent base and the brilliance of quarterback Sam Darnold. The Trojans’ second-half collapse without Darnold this season seemed to confirm those beliefs for many boosters, but Swann chose stability over another round of tumult for his department’s marquee program.
Fire Helton Banner Flies Over the Coliseum
“We acknowledge and understand our deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff,” Swann said. “We agree that changes need to be made, and they will. “
The Trojans’ slide culminated in a 24-17 loss to the No. 3 Fighting Irish at the Coliseum on Saturday night in their annual intersectional rivalry game. USC largely played well for Helton in season finale, but failed to gain bowl eligibility — an unthinkable failure at the Pac-12’s glamour school, which has had only four losing seasons since 1961.
A banner advocating for Helton’s firing was flown over the Coliseum before the Trojans faced Notre Dame. Helton was booed while he left the Coliseum field after the loss, but he responded with the school’s signature “Fight On” gesture.
After the game, Helton said he expected to return for another season.
“We understand that championships are what is expected and deserved at USC,” Helton said Sunday. “I have met with Mr. Swann and discussed changes and improvements that will be made moving forward. Our staff, our players and I will work tirelessly this offseason to produce a disciplined football team that executes at a championship level. I truly believe that with the continued development of the talent we have on this team, the best is yet to be. Our number one goal is to win championships and we will not be satisfied with anything less.”
Swann Repeatedly Backed Helton Publicly
Swann repeatedly backed Helton publicly during the season despite the unusual nature of their partnership. Swann inherited Helton when he took over his alma mater’s athletic department in July 2016, but the new AD still gave a lucrative extension to Helton last February.
The Trojans had won their first 19 home games during Helton’s tenure before losing their final three in a row before dwindling crowds at the Coliseum, which is undergoing an expensive makeover this year to entice donors and fans to buy season tickets and suites.
Helton’s Trojans lost eminently winnable home games against Arizona State and California over the past five weeks before a 34-27 loss last weekend to a rebuilding two-win UCLA team in Los Angeles’ annual crosstown showdown.
USC won’t play in a bowl game during a season without an NCAA postseason ban for the first time since 2000 — the final season of coach Paul Hackett’s tenure before Carroll took over.
Helton Transformed the Program’s Culture
Helton, brought to USC by Lane Kiffin as quarterbacks coach in 2010, first led USC to a win in the Las Vegas Bowl in late 2013 during a one-game stint after interim head coach Ed Orgeron left the program when Sarkisian was hired as Kiffin’s full-time replacement — a fairly typical development in this school’s tumultuous post-Carroll era.
Helton transformed the program’s culture by emphasizing a quaint devotion to faith, family and football.
But results matter most at a program of USC’s stature, and Helton is 12-13 in games with any starting quarterback other than Darnold, who took over in the fourth game of the 2016 season.
Helton took away play-calling responsibility from offensive coordinator Tee Martin during the season, and an overhaul of the offensive coaching staff seems necessary with these Trojans mired in 83rd in the FBS in total offense, 91st in scoring and 108th in rushing offense. New quarterback J.T. Daniels had a fairly unimpressive freshman season despite extensive attention from Helton, a former quarterbacks coach.
Major improvement could be tough next year no matter who’s calling the plays. USC opens against Mountain West power Fresno State, and its conference schedule includes Washington and Oregon after the Trojans missed both power programs this season.