Column: This victory removes all doubt: Make Clay Helton USC’s permanent football coach

Coach Clay Helton and the Trojans will take on six teams in AP's preseason top 25 rankings.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Every hit was a prayer. Every run was a plea. Every time a USC player punched a UCLA player in the mouth on a bruising, revealing afternoon at the Coliseum, there was a message.

Hire Clay Helton.

It was heard when Adoree’ Jackson caught a punt, shrugged off a shot by Cameron Judge and raced 42 yards for a touchdown. It resounded when Claude Pelon racked Josh Rosen into a fumble that was carried 31 yards by Rasheem Green for a touchdown. It echoed when Darreus Rogers bullied through the grasp of Nate Meadors for a touchdown.

Hashtag Helton2016.

Pat Haden had to be listening. The Trojans alumni and boosters are surely understanding. There is absolutely no way anyone with any Trojans influence can argue against the reality of what is happening.

In the wake of USC’s 40-21 blasting of UCLA on Saturday, it is clear that Clay Helton should be named the Trojans’ permanent head coach, and it should happen now.

Don’t wait for the outcome of the game against highly ranked Stanford in next week’s Pac-12 Conference championship bout. How fair is it to judge an interim coach with a 6-2 record, a bowl victory, a win over UCLA and six decorated years on the USC staff on whether he can lead a team from the dregs of a distracted season to the Rose Bowl?


UPDATE: USC names Clay Helton as permanent head football coach

Save the announcement for after the game to avoid distraction, but get the news conference and paperwork ready now. The coronation occurred Saturday, when Helton’s culture change was brutally evident in how the Trojans outmuscled, outhustled and simply outfought a Bruins team that had spent the previous three seasons beating them double-digit senseless.

Stand on the field and listen to a sweating, grass-stained linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, one of the many young players who are finding their voice.

“I say he’s staying, he’s staying, he’s staying,” Nwosu said of Helton. “This game does it for him.”

Linger outside the Trojans’ locker room and listen to Su’a Cravens, a veteran linebacker who has seen the team’s physicality and passion radically change.

“We want Coach Helton, plain and simple, we don’t need to meet with Pat Haden, he knows we want Coach Helton, the way he’s got this team back together … everybody on this team would give an arm and a leg for Coach Helton,” he said. “Now we take it personally, Helton’s job being on the line is making us fight even harder.”

If you’re still not convinced, go back in time to former Trojans great running back LenDale White, who was hanging around after Saturday’s game to offer a bit of perspective.

“We beat UCLA for the chips, he put us back in a situation to win a championship, what’s holding them back?” White said. “Sometimes you’ve got to go with something different. He’s not a Pete Carroll era guy, Sark [Steve Sarkisian] and Ed [Orgeron] and Lane [Kiffin] were too much about emulating Pete Carroll. I like that he’s his own guy, doing it his own way.”

Bill Plaschke and Lindsey Thiry discuss the future of USC interim Coach Clay Helton.

On Saturday, Helton’s way was the same way it’s been since he took over for Sarkisian in early October. The Trojans rushed for 235 yards, including a crunching 103 yards in a fourth quarter that left powder-blue tire tracks across the Coliseum floor. The Trojans hounded Bruins phenom Rosen with three sacks and constant pressure that led to two interceptions and a fumble, while the Trojans committed zero turnovers. And, oh, yeah, the Trojans scored on a special teams play while the Bruins blew a field goal.

“I was just telling the team back in the locker room, running the football and playing defense and making something happen on special teams, that is Trojan football,” said Helton afterward, his voice filled with emotion in a cramped Coliseum hallway during an interview that was interrupted by a couple of hugging players expressing their love.

That is, indeed, Trojans football. It’s what Trojans fans have been begging to see since Carroll left town six years ago. It’s not only what Helton preaches, it’s what his team practices, and that is why he needs to stay.

His two career interim losses, both this season, were to two teams that are arguably among the nation’s best, Notre Dame and Oregon. He’s won the games he’s supposed to win. He has yet to lose in the Coliseum, which on Saturday was once again filled with the eternal chant of “We … are … SC.”

And still, none of it ever seems to be about him. Late Saturday afternoon, Helton stood for a television interview in which the cameraman politely asked him to raise the brim of his trademark low-riding ball cap so they could better see his eyes. He raised it only imperceptibly. That’s Helton.

It was written in this space a couple of weeks ago that USC should make him the permanent coach, and when I told him I was going to write it again, he tugged the brim low again.

“When you have trust in your kids and they trust in you, you can do great things together,” he said.

Typical of Helton, he brightened when asked about the black T-shirts worn by every Trojan that read, simply, “Finish.”

“We said all week, it was our time to finish,” he said. “It’s pretty neat to see us live that out.”

He was just as enthusiastic during his earlier postgame news conference when talking about a player he considered one of the game’s stars. Only it wasn’t Justin Davis and his 130 yards rushing or Iman Marshall and his two interceptions.

“I have to point out the fourth-string center, Nicco Falah,” he said, noting that Falah replaced injured Khaliel Rodgers during the game. “They had it in their mind … we were not going to fail.”

Finally, the football man’s football coach seemed proudest when talking about, yeah, footballs. During the week, he emphasized defensive and special-teams touchdowns so much that he ordered any player who scored one to immediately bring him the ball.

“I told him, ‘You score and then you bring me that football, I want that football,’” he said, smiling. “Turns out, they actually did.”

Indeed, after Jackson’s punt-return touchdown he immediately ran to Helton for the handoff. The same thing happened with both of Marshall’s interceptions. And what did Helton do with the footballs? Did he keep at least one for the trophy case?

Turns out, he didn’t save them, and admitted that he hasn’t kept any game balls all season.

“Nah, I just gave them back to the ball boys,” Helton said, shrugging. “They didn’t belong to me.”

Unlike the permanent head coaching football job at USC, which does.

Twitter: @billplaschke