Column: Lynn Swann shows how far out of touch he is with the reality at USC by keeping Clay Helton

Coach Clay Helton kisses running back Vavae Malepeai after USC's 24-17 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When Lynn Swann was glamorously hired to run USC athletics in the spring of 2016, there was a quiet concern that he had no experience in athletic administration and no ongoing close connection with the program.

In one stunning move Sunday, both fears were realized.

By retaining Clay Helton as the Trojans’ football coach, Swann doesn’t seem to understand the basic role of an athletic director or the modern soul of USC.

In failing to make a change in leadership after the Trojans’ worst season in nearly 20 years and with the program at one of its lowest ebbs ever, Swann took the easy way out by keeping Helton, almost as if he had no real plan and no desire to dirty his hands concocting one.

In completely ignoring the scores of invested boosters who were demanding a change, Swann also showed a lack of appreciation for the passion that has helped fuel not only the greatness of the football program, but the success of the entire university.

The Trojans family is shouting, yet he’s not paying attention. The Trojans program is in freefall, yet he’s not grasping the gravity of the situation.


The USC football team is the university’s greatest and most important marketing tool, yet Swann is treating it like it will just sell itself. Maybe that was the case when he was a national champion receiver at USC in the early 1970s, but these days, he’s running the wrong route.

If Helton were viewed as the manager of a company’s most visible asset, and that asset was visibly failing, a strong chief executive would hold him accountable. An athletic director needs to be that kind of CEO, but Swann lacks the experience, and it shows.

One day after the Trojans finished at 5-7 with no bowl eligibility and losses to its two biggest rivals in the final two weeks, Swann issued a statement Sunday that was all endorsement and no blame.

“Clay Helton is a good coach … let me be clear to everyone … Clay Helton is our head coach and he will continue to be our head coach,” Swann said

Yet, in the same statement, Swann mentions there are problems in virtually every important area of the football program.

“We acknowledge and understand our deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff,” he wrote. “We agree that changes need to be made … Coach Helton has a plan in place to get USC back to the top.”

Just wondering, but if those changes are required in every corner of the locker room, should we really trust the plan in the hands of the guy currently running the locker room?

It sounds as if Swann sees what everyone else sees, but instead of making the difficult move to fix it, he’d prefer to shrug and say, OK, Clay, you got us in this mess, you get us out of it.

There were other oddities in his statement, particularly the part where he compares Helton’s struggles to Notre Dame’s stumbles a couple of years ago. In 2016, the Irish were 4-8 but retained coach Brian Kelly, who has since led them to this year’s unbeaten season.

“We see top programs around the country have down years and the fans want to change coaches, Swann wrote. “In fact, it happened a few years ago with yesterday’s opponent.’’

But there’s a big difference between Helton and Kelly. While Helton is still unproven in his first job as a college head coach, Kelly had been a head coach for 25 years at the time, and had led the Irish to the national championship game only a few years earlier.

Swann also referred to the continuity he cherishes, noting that, “I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve.’’

That continuity works for Swann’s Pittsburgh Steelers, who have had three coaches in the last 50 years. But they play in the parity-driven NFL, not in the mercurial college football world, where, for most teams, perceptions and fortunes can change quickly and dramatically. The great Rose Bowl win by Helton’s team two years ago has been all but forgotten by recruits who might see a program that is undisciplined, unfocused and unable to make adjustments.

If Swann better understood the college landscape, he might not have retained Helton. If he had a deeper understanding of the USC landscape, there’s no way he would have kept him.

Does he have any idea how this will affect the school’s efforts to pay for the Coliseum renovation that has reportedly reached the cost of $300 million? It will be awkward next season opening a building with a coach who, in his last game Saturday, was roundly booed even when he was shown on the video board thanking fans for their support. Without a change of program direction, it will be tough selling fancy seats for high prices to a fan base that failed to fill more than 60,000 seats even once this season with a historically low turnout for the Notre Dame game.

USC fans are powerful in their passion, and they have used that power to help steer the program. Why do you think Mike Garrett was so quick to take a chance on an outsider like Pete Carroll? Because USC fans stopped showing up for Paul Hackett, and by their absence, they demanded and received a radical change.

Sort of like now. Only, you know, unlike Garrett, Swann is having none of it.

Finally, this decision will also affect their ability to acquire new coaches and flashy recruits. Yes, surely, Helton will be required to surround himself with new assistants, but what esteemed mind would come to USC knowing that the head coach could be a lame duck? And don’t you think recruits are hearing the same thing?

In endorsing Helton, the truth is Swann risks turning him into a lame duck. And by doing so, Swann might also become a lame duck, both men’s fate tied together forever, or at least until USC appoints a permanent president.

At his introductory news conference in the spring of 2016, Swann said something unsettling for the leader of a giant, basic athletic department. It was something that immediately distanced him from the task he was hired to undertake, and, it turns out, has set the tone for his somnolent leadership.

“I’m not here to clean house or make overwhelming changes,” Swann said.

Not even in the biggest room. Not even with the biggest mess.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke