Clay Helton spent much of this week addressing his job status after having taken his team to a major bowl game in each of his first two seasons.
Chip Kelly, who’s won all of two games in his first season with his team, mused about the fall of Milli Vanilli and narrated a video about a papa bear and his cub.
These are strange times in the crosstown rivalry, with both teams wishing they really could throw out the records when UCLA faces USC on Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl.
The Bruins (2-8 overall, 2-5 Pac-12 Conference) and Trojans (5-5, 4-4) enter the game with more combined losses than they had in any of their previous 87 meetings in a rivalry that dates to 1929.
USC is assured of finishing the season with a better record than UCLA, but the Trojans are the team under more duress. The Bruins have a new coach in Kelly who’s being given the college football equivalent of eons to restore his team to prominence.
There’s a chance Helton may not make it to 2019.
The USC coach assured his players that he would be back next season regardless of how the team fares over its final two games, even though losses to the Bruins on Saturday and No. 3 Notre Dame next week would give the Trojans their first losing record since Paul Hackett’s final season in 2000.
The intrigue drew more television cameras to USC’s campus this week than had come since before the Trojans played Stanford in September, which also happened to be before their first loss. Reporters barely asked anything about the game against the Bruins, focusing their questions on Helton.
Helton answered each query patiently and evenly, giving no visible signs of any strain he might be feeling inside.
Meanwhile, there were mixed messages about the coach’s fate on social media. Some Bruins fans wanted Helton to stay and many Trojans fans wanted him to go. Helton didn’t seem to care that he was trending.
“Coach Helton’s worried about the ballgame,” USC quarterback JT Daniels said. “He’s not worried about what some random dude in his pajamas is saying on Twitter.”
Helton did acknowledge feeling some pressure — to help his senior class finish 4-0 against UCLA after having won each of the last three meetings.
“To be able to say, you know what, through my four years at USC, I garnered the Victory Bell each year, that’s a huge thing,” Helton said. “As a player and competitor, that’s our opportunity right now. Now we have to go out and earn it.”
A win over UCLA would also make USC bowl-eligible no matter what happens against Notre Dame next weekend at the Coliseum, where the Trojans are sure to be heavy underdogs.
Across town, the Bruins are trying to close a down season on an upward note, even if Kelly made it clear he was not a believer in any sort of carryover between seasons.
To make his point, Kelly asked reporters who was the No. 3 team in the nation at this point last season. No one guessed the correct answer: Miami, which is now unranked after four consecutive losses.
Kelly also mentioned how quickly things can change, referencing a certain late 1980s and early 1990s R&B duo whose undoing was tied to a lip-syncing scandal.
“At one point and time, Milli Vanilli was on top of the world, right?” Kelly said. “And then it all crashed and burned. So we’re not thinking about momentum, we’re thinking about having a really good Monday.”
Kelly seemed to be having an enjoyable Thursday when he spoke at a pep rally on campus in a rare public appearance. He played a video he had narrated showing a bear cub continually sliding down a snow-covered mountain before finally making his way to the top, a metaphor for a young team struggling to find its footing.
“Sometimes he falls back down and he finds himself at the beginning,” Kelly said in the video. “He’s at the bottom. He looks like he’s worse off than he ever was, except he’s not — not at all. He’s made his mistakes and he’s learned what he’s learned, he knows what he knows.”
And then, finally, as the bear reaches the top …
“The bear goes over the mountain and sees what he can see,” Kelly continued, “which is going to happen Saturday.”
Not far away from where Kelly stood, the most iconic bear on campus couldn’t see much of anything.
The bronze Bruin statue was in need of eyewash after someone infiltrated the protective wooden crate housing the two-ton creature to paint it red and yellow. A UCLA student group announced Friday that it was starting a campaign to match the estimated $20,000 in damage with an equal amount that would go toward a wildfire recovery fund.
The group called it “retaliating with kindness,” though any revenge on the field Saturday figures to be far less sympathetic.