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It's another race for USC's Clay Helton to stay ahead of the critics

It's another race for USC's Clay Helton to stay ahead of the critics
Despite being the most successful two-year coach in USC history, Clay Helton hasn't won everyone over with his unapologetically unassuming nature. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Clay Helton had a favorite summer movie. He watched it at least 50 times. He cheered with each climactic scene. He grew emotional with each dramatic ending.

He viewed the flick so often, he knows precisely how long it runs.

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“It’s right there on YouTube,” he said. “Exactly three minutes and 15 seconds.”

This blockbuster is the video of USC track star Kendall Ellis chasing down the leaders on the final leg of the 1,600-meter relay to steal the NCAA track and field championship for the women’s team.

“Everybody in the park knows they have to win that race, and they almost drop the baton, and then she’s like, ‘I have to dig, I have to fight, I have to give every ounce of energy I’ve got,’ ” Helton recalled in an interview this week, his voice rising. “That makes a statement about how championships are won.”

Come to think of it, that also makes a statement about how a certain USC football coach will begin his third Trojans training camp Friday.

Helton, despite the best two-year start of any coach in USC history, will begin this latest race running from behind.

He is the first coach to begin his Trojans career with consecutive full seasons of at least 10 wins. But, oh no, he’s not fiery enough.

His teams have never lost in the Coliseum — never — with a 16-game home win streak that is the longest since Pete Carroll roamed the sidelines. But, heaven forbid, he’s not Pete Carroll.

Certainly, at times, his teams have collapsed. One season opened with a debacle against Alabama and another ended with a nightmare against Ohio State. Then there was the last-minute meltdown at Washington State that still has Helton walking the floors.

“Up at 3 a.m.,’’ he said. “It still haunts me.”

But also under Helton, the Trojans have rolled to arguably the most exciting USC Rose Bowl victory ever, their first Pac-12 title since 2008, and three wins in three games against UCLA.

In many other situations, Helton would be cheered as a coach who has won 73% of his games. But here, for some, it’s all about how in three seasons he’s won 0% of national championships while possessing 0% of the aura usually associated with a USC football coach.

I know one thing. He’s 100% better than the situation he inherited. He’s picked up the pieces from the Lane Kiffin madhouse and Steve Sarkisian sideshow and rebuilt the rowdy joint into a smooth, settled, steady program that is the foundation for any title run. That’s not an easy job in this town. Turns out, that’s not even an easy job at that school.

Admit it, given the recent horrors that have embarrassed other parts of the university, did you ever think one of the most sane parts of USC would be its football program?

Helton has done that. He continues to do that. This winter he was given a contract extension through 2023 because athletic director Lynn Swann is a politician who understands that a thriving economy is only possible with peace on the streets. Helton is now capitalizing on that peace by recruiting highly regarded players and placing them in the sort of distraction-free environment where championships can happen.

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He’s not witty like John McKay. He’s not a sideline giant like John Robinson. He’s not hip like Carroll. But with an unapologetically unassuming nature that really does seem to reflect his motto of faith, family and football, he’s a consistently authentic Clay Helton.

That counts. That works. That wins. Eventually, that wins big.

If you act like something you’re not, 18- to 20-year-olds smell it in a hurry


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USC linebackers Porter Gustin, left, and Cameron Smith, right, pose for a photo with coach Clay Helton at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles on July 25.
USC linebackers Porter Gustin, left, and Cameron Smith, right, pose for a photo with coach Clay Helton at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles on July 25. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“If you act like something you’re not, 18- to 20-year-olds smell it in a hurry,’’ Helton said. “You be who you are, and there is a consistency in them knowing what they’re getting day to day, knowing exactly what I stand for, knowing what our program stands for.’’

This consistency can be found not only in what is evident on Saturdays, but also in what is missing during the week. When was the last time a program that seems to sweat controversy been embroiled in any sort of controversy? Where’s the dissension? Where’s the chaos?

“I’m proud of how we’ve built this winning culture the right way, built on principles and hard work,” Helton said. “As long as we’re progressing toward the title, I hope the Trojan family allows us the time to get it done.”

Make no mistake, it’s admirable how USC’s football expectations annually rest on a national championship. That’s what makes the program unique, and Helton should absolutely be held to that standard.

But I hope, for now, there is a portion of the Trojans family that will just chill. For the second time in three years, Helton will be rebuilding under a kid quarterback, this time probably freshman JT Daniels. The first three weeks include games at Stanford and at Texas. They could struggle to win eight games. Patience will be tested.

Helton knows what’s coming. He knows his contract could be extended into eternity and yet one bad year could still place him back on the brink. He doesn’t fight it. He embraces it.

“It’s fair,” he said. “This is USC. Winning a Rose Bowl is great, a Pac-12 championship is great, but what we strive for is national championships, that’s what is demanded, what is expected, and we work daily trying to get there.”

Yes, he really talks like that, nothing flashy, one long old-fashioned locker room pep talk, and the USC players respond to that, because it’s real, it’s him, and they love that he’ll stay in the shadows and let them shine.

“I have three children by birth, and 110 that I’m honored to adopt,” he said.

How can you not like a coach whose main offseason mission was not promoting his brand, but promoting those children? As The Times’ Brady McCollough recently chronicled, Helton spearheaded the production of a “One for All” series of videos highlighting his individual players’ lives.

Helton, not coincidentally, did not commission a video on himself.

“This program has been established, it’s time to make it about the players, it’s their experience, it’s their time,” Helton said. “Coaches get way too much publicity, way too much credit, this is about the kids.”

You can watch these videos on YouTube. Helton watches them nearly as much as he watches Kendall Ellis, her baton now his baton, another season upon him, another maddening chase beginning for the coach who should be miles ahead, yet is running from behind.

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