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What’s Love Got to Do With It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Love Coach, my husband coaches my son in football, but last week he put another boy in my son’s place at quarterback. I love my son, but I also love the guy who benched him. What should I do?”

Kim Helton, alias Love Coach, might get a question like that Friday morning at KRBE radio in Houston, just before he gets on a plane to Los Angeles.

But he figures it won’t be Pam calling.

“Basically, my wife has to do her job and that’s to raise kids and to help me in development and support of the football team, paint Cougar paws on the street, raise money and be gracious at the games,” says Helton, coach at Houston, which plays UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

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“And any advice she gives me usually has to do with mine and her relationship, not with my coaching.”

So breakfast last Sunday morning was no problem at the Helton household after the coach had replaced the son, Tyson, with Jason McKinley, and then beat Minnesota, 45-43?

“You didn’t buy that, did you?” Helton says, laughing.

“No, she’s been great. She’s a football woman. She’s been involved for a long time. She had another son that I benched. . . .

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“The other quarterback played exceptionally well against Minnesota, won the game and he’s our starting quarterback and Tyson’s our backup quarterback. . . .

“It’s a tough decision for him, but unfortunately, he doesn’t benefit from being named Helton and he’s not going to get punished for being named Helton. At some point in time, he understands that when I’m in this office, I’m Coach Helton and when I’m at home, I’m Daddy Helton.”

And at KRBE, he’s the Love Coach, an advisor to the lovelorn. Helton was at the station two years ago, talking with announcers on the air about the rebirth of the Cougars, when the professional counselor who was to follow him on the show was late.

As a lark, Sam Malone, co-host of the show with Maria Todd, passed the first call to Helton, whose impromptu advice was so impressive he was asked to do it again.

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“Love Coach, my husband is cheating on me.”

“Do you think he’s cheating on you or do you know he’s cheating on you.”

“I know he is.”

“Dump him. Tell him if he wants someone else, then you’re going to trade upward and get someone better.”

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It has grown into a no-nonsense, straight-shooting 45 minutes every Friday morning during the season and once a month during the rest of the year, and it’s governed by a philosophy that is simplistic, perhaps, but never simple.

“I’ll handle the questions,” Helton told the Houston Chronicle, “if you can handle the answers.

“There are all these issues in the world today, nepotism, favoritism, racism, all the ‘isms.’ It’s very difficult to be a confront-and-demand person.”

It would be impossible for him to be any other way.

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“He’s not a politician by any stretch of the imagination,” says Howard Schnellenberger, whose national championship at Miami in 1983 was aided by Helton’s presence as line coach there from 1979 to ’82. “He has strong convictions.”

Clay Helton, Tyson’s older brother, was aware of that it when he transferred from Auburn to Houston before his father became Cougar coach in 1993. His father had been hijacked by Houston en route from a job as the Raider line coach to one with the Miami Dolphins. Finally, Kim Helton was a head coach, but of a woebegone program that was down to 45 scholarship players and was a laughingstock in the Southwest Conference, no easy thing for a league that had gone through Southern Methodist’s “death penalty” and was already talking about breaking up.

Houston had asked John Jenkins to resign just after spring practice, and just before the NCAA and others were about to look into such allegations as the coach paying for an apartment for a player, a graduation rate that was next to nil and scenes of topless dancers spliced into game tape to entertain the team.

So embarrassed by it all, the university’s Faculty Senate had passed a nonbinding resolution to scrap the football program.

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Kim Helton needed players, and he really needed a quarterback who wasn’t fused into Jenkins’ run-and-shoot offense.

Whether he needed Clay was open to question.

“I started four or five games my senior year [1994],” says Clay Helton, now the Cougars’ running back coach. “And Chad O’Shea [now the wide receiver coach] started four or five games. When either of us got hot, coach would play the hot quarterback.

“We knew we both had to be ready. And right now [on Tuesday] Tyson Helton is in the film room, watching film of UCLA and getting ready for this week. He knows like I know.

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“When I’m in here, it’s Coach Helton and we’re talking about football. On the ride home [Kim and Tyson live five minutes apart in Houston], it’s Daddy and we’re talking about where we’re going hunting or where we’re going fishing or where we’re going to play golf. It’s not all that difficult.”

It was at first, as it would be for any son who has played for his father.

“When I got here, I felt like I had to work a little harder to prove myself to the team because my father was the coach,” Clay says. “That was OK.”

He was a co-captain during his senior season. O’Shea was too.

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Clay and Tyson are products of the 26-year union of Pam, a former Florida recruiting aide. They are refined and polite. Kim is part of a family of 12 who lived in a two-bedroom home on the other side of the tracks in Gainesville, Fla.

Water came from an outside well. Light came from a single bulb in the kitchen. C.H. and Frances Helton had one bedroom, the girls had the other and the boys did the best they could, working odd jobs, hunting alligators at night and selling the meat by day, and sleeping wherever they could find a spot.

They lived in an absolute, right-and-wrong world. Dinner might well be game or fish harvested that day, and when C.H. picked up Kim one day during his freshman year at Florida and told him he was embarrassing himself and the family with his grades, “he didn’t mean, ‘Let’s have a conversation,’ ” Helton told the Houston Chronicle.

Kim went back, picked up a book and got his degree, playing three seasons at center to earn it.

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“It was never a problem,” he says. “There were some advantages that we all got from being through that environment. We went through it together. We’re probably all better people because of it.”

Honest people, certainly, straightforward and not prone to pretense.

Ask the Love Coach.

“I have two kids and my boyfriend has two kids. He just got a job in Miami, but my kids don’t want to move. I feel like I’m choosing between him and my kids. I’m worried that, no matter what I do, the stress is going to split my family. What should I do?”

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“I don’t make a decision like that based on what my children want. I love my kids and they love me, but I wouldn’t let them influence a decision for me because I know they’re going to leave me when they’re 18 or so. I’d like to think a spouse is going to be around a lot longer than that.”

The quarterback kids can’t influence a decision when the bottom line is 12-36-1 over four-plus seasons at Houston, where the record was 7-5 in 1996 and a co-championship in Conference USA and the reward was a Liberty Bowl trip.

The Cougars are 1-3, and Jason McKinley is the quarterback. A born quarterback. His middle name is Namath.

Tyson Helton is the backup. A quarterback born to a coach.

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“Actually, I’ve got four [quarterbacks] very close to me,” Helton says. “I feel a responsibility for all the quarterbacks and kids on this team. One of them just happens to have the same name. I benched him last week and played the other kid.

"[When the season started], we rotated them on each series, and both kids had identical stats. Both kids were very productive. Both kids were not the reason that we lost the games. Both had the same interceptions, both had the same touchdowns, both the same yardage, both the same percentage, both are great kids, both have pretty mamas, everything is about equal with them.

“They’re good buddies, they get along fine and I had to make the decision and I chose Jason McKinley.”

It was the decision of Coach Helton, not Daddy Helton.

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The Love Coach.

The Tough Love Coach.


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