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The Sports Report: Clay Helton ran out of chances

USC coach Clay Helton looks on from the sideline during Saturday's loss to Stanford.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Howdy, I’m your host, Austin Knoblauch, filling in for Houston Mitchell, who’s probably busy giving Max Scherzer bunting tips. Let’s get right to the news.

Ryan Kartje on how USC approached Clay Helton heading into the season: The criteria for the most consequential decision of Mike Bohn’s career was established ahead of the football season, weeks before the disastrous defeat that accelerated the end of Clay Helton’s disappointing tenure as USC’s coach.

In the late summer it was understood among Bohn, USC President Carol Folt and Rick Caruso, chairman of USC’s board of trustees, that the athletic director would take stock of his embattled football coach at specific points during the 2021 season. At each pre-assigned benchmark, Bohn would evaluate the criteria they agreed upon, from the energy and culture of the team to its on-field performance and competitiveness to recruiting momentum and fan sentiment, among other variables. How would firing — or retaining — Helton affect each of those variables going forward?

Bohn ultimately needed just one evaluation. The first of four planned benchmarks, according to a person familiar with the decision to fire Helton, came last Saturday night.

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As USC fell in humiliating fashion, 42-28 to Stanford, every discernible flaw of the Helton era was laid bare in front of a half-empty Coliseum. There were sloppy mistakes and ill-timed penalties, a stagnant offense and a defense that lacked discipline. The stands were draining before the fourth quarter, with USC trailing by four scores. The sideline was lifeless, sending an ominous message to the university decision makers watching from on high.

That night, Helton spoke like a coach who assumed he had time. “We didn’t play our best tonight, but I know this, at the end of the season, see where we’re at,” he said. “See where we’re at.”

But that time had run out on Helton after six full seasons, the last three of which were clouded by intense on-field scrutiny. Had he passed that first benchmark, Helton likely would’ve lasted until the bye week, on Oct. 16, which was slated as the next evaluation point.

USC coach Clay Helton runs onto the field at the Coliseum with his players before losing to Stanford on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Bohn said Tuesday that he didn’t want to make a major decision Saturday night, “in the heat of the emotions associated with a game,” but the next step was clear at the time to the program’s decision makers.

That seemingly sudden choice would call into question why Bohn bothered to keep Helton past the 2020 season and what has changed since USC’s athletic director told The Times in January that he “can’t think of one area we didn’t improve [in 2020]”.

“I just don’t think we had that same sense of belief that with all the resources and the commitment that we put together that we could really aspire to those national championship aspirations that we talk about all the time,” Bohn said on Tuesday. “It just felt like the right time. There’s a sense of knowing when to play things a certain way and just having that gut feeling. I think that we have the right one.”

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More on USC football

‘We wanted him to be the next Pete Carroll’: USC players regroup after Helton’s firing

Donte Williams’ coaching status is interim; his place in USC history is permanent

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DODGERS

Dodgers teammates (from left) Justin Turner, Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Corey Seager celebrate an 8-4 victory.
Dodgers teammates (from left) Justin Turner, Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Corey Seager celebrate an 8-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Jorge Castillo on the Dodgers: The Dodgers became the second team to clinch a postseason berth in 2021, officially extending their streak of playoff appearances to nine seasons, with their 8-4 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday.

It’s a checkpoint just 10 of 30 clubs will reach. They reached it despite having several key contributors miss significant periods of time and using more players than any other team in franchise history. They just rather would have waited another day.

The Dodgers sealed their spot Tuesday because the San Diego Padres lost to the San Francisco Giants, the overnight juggernaut the Dodgers are still chasing for the coveted National League West title. As a result, instead of gaining a game on the Giants in the standings, the Dodgers remained 2½ games behind their rivals to the north in the division race with 16 games remaining in the regular season.

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The context produced a muted acknowledgement on the field after Kenley Jansen got Christian Walker to ground out to end the game. The big screens overlooking the diamond displayed a graphic announcing the accomplishment. Below, players and coaches went through their usual handshake line. They didn’t dog pile.

“It’s a special moment, to be able to get to the postseason for, what is it, nine years in a row now?” Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy said. “It’s a quite an accomplishment. You can’t take the postseason for granted. It’s a special moment, and everyone’s excited about it.”

In the clubhouse, the team was given blue “Built for October” T-shirts and gathered for a champagne toast. Manager Dave Roberts and third baseman Justin Turner relayed two messages to the group.

“You don’t ever want to get jaded and not appreciate getting to the postseason because it’s not a rite of passage,” Roberts said. “We also acknowledged that we have a lot of work to do and that this is just the beginning.”

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ANGELS

Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani runs to first against the Houston Astros on Saturday.
(Eric Christian Smith / Associated Press)

Jack Harrs on the Angels: Long out of the playoff picture, the Angels lost the need for any scoreboard watching this September.

On Tuesday afternoon, manager Joe Maddon said he hasn’t been consumed by the tight race for the major leagues’ home run crown either.

For the first time since June 28, Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani entered Tuesday trailing in the long ball race, after Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. passed him Monday by belting his 45th of the season.

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While that development reignited the MVP debate between Ohtani and Guerrero in some baseball circles, Maddon tried to isolate its importance to the all-around year-end award.

"[Guerrero is] having a wonderful offensive year, no question about it, but so is our guy,” Maddon said. “And I hope that people don’t get swayed to think that just by winning the home run title, that would impact the MVP race.”

Guerrero and Ohtani have been jockeying for both honors — MVP and the home run title — for most of the summer.

RAMS

Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp stretches for the end zone against the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Gary Klein on the Rams: Getting open seemingly has never been a problem for Rams receiver Cooper Kupp.

Sometimes it requires a move or a burst of speed. Other times, the fifth-year pro achieves it with patience, by letting a well-designed play develop.

On Monday, Kupp acknowledged that until he watched it on digital replay, he had no idea he was so wide open when he caught a long touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford in the Rams’ 34-14 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday.

“It was really just about running down the middle of the field,” Kupp told reporters during a video conference.

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Jefferson’s 67-yard touchdown in the first quarter and Kupp’s 56-yard touchdown in the third helped coach Sean McVay show future opponents that the passing game will not be limited this season.

The Rams signed veteran DeSean Jackson to provide a deep threat. But every receiver — and tight end Tyler Higbee — also could fill that role.

CHARGERS

Chargers coaches gave rookie offensive tackle Rashawn Slater high marks for his blocking against Washington.
(Daniel Kucin Jr. / Associated Press)

Jeff Miller on the Chargers: He was one of the NFL’s most-talked-about players Monday — one day after barely hearing his name.

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Rashawn Slater was so good in his NFL debut that it took 24 hours for everyone to notice.

Accomplished offensive linemen want it that way, and Slater, the Chargers’ rookie left tackle, accomplished plenty in the team’s season-opening 20-16 victory at Washington.

“He was outstanding,” coach Brandon Staley said. “When you don’t talk about him a lot that means he probably performed at a high level. And that’s what the film told us. I’m really proud of him. Not surprised, but really proud of him.”

Slater starred on a day when the Chargers’ offensive line starred. That’s right. The Chargers’ offensive line.

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After back-to-back seasons of injuries and inconsistency, a rebuilt front gave quarterback Justin Herbert enough time to seize control from the impressive opening drive to the final, clock-draining kneel down.

PRO FOOTBALL

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib plays against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

LZ Granderson on Carl Nassib: Raider Nation was its usual eclectic self for the season opener in Las Vegas on Monday, with some fans going with a Captain Jack Sparrow-meets-Darth Vader vibe that nicely complemented the team’s new $1.9-billion “Death Star” stadium.

One fan in particular caught my eye because while he was dressed like middle management, the Chucky doll he was carrying — a tribute to coach Jon Gruden — was decked out head to toe in Raiders gear. Assuming it had toes.

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Anyway, I guess because there was so much color from all around to soak in, it felt strange not seeing a rainbow, given the moment.

The lack of hoopla during the preseason was a pretty good hint that the first game of the season for the Raiders’ Carl Nassib, the NFL’s first openly gay player, wasn’t going to be treated as a momentous occasion. Certainly nowhere near the kind of fanfare the NBA’s Jason Collins received in 2013 when he became the first openly gay active player in any of the big four sports leagues.

Still, while no one expected a parade, the death of this NFL bogeyman warranted a bigger funeral. But I didn’t see anything in the stadium adorned with pride-related paraphernalia to mark the presence of Nassib, who posted a video on Instagram in June sharing that he was gay.

Now, he may have wanted it that way, and good on him. He deserves the reception he wants. I just don’t want people to start acting like it wasn’t as recently as 2018 that at least one team was still asking prospects questions about their sexual orientation during interviews at the combine, presumably to avoid drafting gay players.

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AUTO RACING

An iRacing simulation of NASCAR at the Coliseum.
(Matt Humphrey / Courtesy of iRacing)

John Cherwa on NASCAR in Los Angeles: In a long-standing break with tradition, NASCAR will not have the first event of its 2022 season in Daytona Beach, Fla., but instead in Southern California. In an even bigger break with protocol, it won’t be at a traditional racing facility but inside the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

NASCAR announced Tuesday that the Clash, an exhibition of top drivers, will be held on a temporary quarter-mile asphalt track inside the Coliseum on Feb. 6, two weeks before the Daytona 500. The last time the first event of the year was not at the Daytona International Speedway was in 1981, when it was at the road course on Riverside International Raceway, which was closed in 1989.

Details of how the race will be run are still being worked out, but the event, which will have races over two days, is set.

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“It’s a one-of-a kind event,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of strategy and innovation. “We’ve never done anything like this before in our sports history and can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.”

It might be held more than once as the deal between NASCAR and the Coliseum is for one year with two one-year options.

The Clash, which in the past has had a purse of $1 million, is an exhibition that has taken on many different forms since it started in 1979. This year it was on the Daytona road course with two segments of 15 and 20 laps. In previous years, on the speedway portion of Daytona, it was three segments totaling 75 laps. It’s an invitation-only race.

OBITUARY

Nan Wooden enjoys a light moment with friend Mary Lou Smith.
Nan Wooden, left, enjoys a light moment with friend Mary Lou Smith at the unveiling of a statue of her father, John Wooden, outside Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus in October 2012.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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Ben Bolch on Nan Wooden: Long after her father coached for the final time inside the old building, Nan Wooden continued attending UCLA basketball games at Pauley Pavilion.

She loved the Bruins every bit as much as her legendary father, who guided the program to a record 10 national championships. After John Wooden died in 2010, Nan would often occupy his favorite spot behind the team bench in Section 103B, Row 2, Seat 1.

Nan was there when Tyler Trapani, her grandson and a walk-on who had never scored a point in three seasons, grabbed an airball and banked it through the net in February 2011 during the final seconds of a game against Arizona. It was the last basket scored at Pauley Pavilion before it was closed for a $136-million renovation.

“Watching this was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Nan said after the game. “Knowing the connection between Tyler and his great-grandfather made this perfect.”

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One of UCLA basketball’s leading ambassadors before declining health kept her home in recent years, Nancy Anne (Nan) Wooden died early Tuesday morning from natural causes, the school announced. She was 87.

Before a series of strokes confined her to a San Fernando Valley care center, Nan had represented her family whenever she could at awards ceremonies, luncheons and games.

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1899 — Willie Smith wins the U.S. Open golf title, beating George low, Val Fitzjohn and W.H. Way.

1923 — Bill Tilden wins the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association championship, beating William Johnston in straight sets, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.

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1962 — Frank Tripucka of the Denver Broncos passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-20 win over the Buffalo Bills.

1971 — Stan Smith wins the U.S. Open title over Jan Khodes and Billie Jean King beats Rosemary Casals for the women’s title. It’s the first time in 16 years both titles were won by U.S. players.

1973 — Three-year-old Secretariat wins the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap in the then-world record time of 1:45 2-5 for 11/8 miles.

1973 — Archie Griffin of Ohio State starts his NCAA record string of 31 games of rushing for at least 100 yards, leading the Buckeyes to a 56-7 rout of Minnesota in Columbus.

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1978 — Muhammad Ali becomes the first three-time heavyweight champion with a unanimous 15-round decision over Leon Spinks at the Superdome in New Orleans.

1991 — The United States women’s gymnastics team makes history with its first team medal — a silver — at the World Championships in Indianapolis.

2002 — Sam Hornish Jr. wins another incredible race at Texas Motor Speedway, and his second straight IRL title. Hornish side-by-side with Helio Castroneves for many of the last 25 laps in the season-ending Chevy 500, crosses the finish line 0.0096 seconds — only a few inches — ahead of the other driver in contention for the season championship. Hornish wins his IRL-record fifth race of the season and becomes the first driver to win two IRL championships.

2012 — LSU beats Idaho 63-14 to give the Tigers an NCAA FBS record 40th-straight non-conference regular season victory. LSU also set a Tiger Stadium mark with 20 straight home wins. Kansas State had 39 straight non-conference regular-season wins from 1993-2003.

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2013 — Philip Rivers is 36 of 47 for 419 yards and three touchdown passes to Eddie Royal to lead San Diego to a 33-30 victory at Philadelphia. Michael Vick of the Eagles passes for a career-best 428 yards and two touchdowns and runs for a score.

2017 — The Cleveland has its AL record run stopped at 22 straight games as the Indians are beaten 4-3 by the Kansas City Royals.

2018 — Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores his 500th worldwide goal in the Los Angeles Galaxy’s 5-3 loss to Toronto FC. The 36-year-old Swede joins Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the only active players with 500 goals for in club and international play.

And finally

Max Muncy used Albert Pujols’ bat to knock out a 436-foot, two-run home run against the Diamondbacks on Tuesday. Watch the feat here.

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Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.


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