Clay Helton’s big day came right at the start of an important week for USC’s football team, and it was clear which took precedence.
Dressed in a suit and wearing an ear-to-ear grin, Helton completed his opening remarks during a buoyant news conference at USC’s McKay Center — where he was formally introduced Monday as the Trojans’ permanent coach — when he turned a little antsy.
“I really need to get back to that film room,” he said, chuckling.
A date against Stanford in the Pac-12 Conference championship game was five days away, and he had work to do.
A couple of hours earlier, soon after USC announced in a statement that Helton would shed the “interim” part of his coaching title, he was on the practice field in shorts, a pullover and his trademark ball cap, tutoring some of the younger Trojans on fundamentals.
With his wife and three children looking on, Helton thanked USC Athletic Director Pat Haden for the opportunity to continue with the Trojans.
“I totally understand the high bar of excellence and expectations that come with the job,” he said.
Helton, 43, received a five-year guaranteed contract, Haden said. Terms were not disclosed.
Haden, who has been under fire for hiring Steve Sarkisian and the way the former coach’s situation was handled before he fired him on Oct. 12, described Helton as a leader, teacher and mentor.
“We have a man with undisputed integrity,” Haden said.
Helton grew up in Florida and Texas and speaks with a folksy twang. He noted that while driving to campus from his South Bay home he could see the Hollywood sign in the distance.
“I apologize for not being glitzy, but I believe that that mentality, that blue-collar toughness mentality, is what wins championships, and it has been proven here over a long period of time way before me.”
Helton acknowledged some fans wanted a bigger-name coach for the Trojans but offered no apologies.
“Sometimes the right choice in not always the easy choice,” he said. “I understand I’m not a flashy name.”
In its first game under Helton this season, USC lost at Notre Dame, 41-31. The Trojans then defeated then-unbeaten and third-ranked Utah, California, Arizona and Colorado before losing at Oregon, 48-28.
USC rebounded with a 40-21 victory over UCLA last Saturday, its first win over the rival Bruins since 2011.
Players voiced support for Helton throughout his interim tenure and several started a social media campaign with the hashtag #Helton2016.
Some fans on social media and columnists online criticized USC for not hiring a coach from outside the program, but reaction to the news was met with enthusiastic tweets from several current and former Trojans.
“Helton 2016!” wrote freshman tight end Tyler Petite. “Great day to be a Trojan”
“Seems like people are forgetting its not what the fans at home want,” wrote junior linebacker Su’a Cravens. “Its what the team wants and needs and thats a head coach they’ll die 4! Most important opinion and thoughts are those from the locker room! Never forget that.”
Former Trojans receiver Keyshawn Johnson applauded Helton’s hiring. He dismissed the notion that Haden should have hired a name-brand coach.
“Those three letters make the coach. The coach doesn’t make the school.”
Former USC coach John Robinson, who was part of Trojans staffs that won three national titles, noted that Helton has reinstituted a physical style of play on offense and that he had proved himself twice as interim coach.
“How much more do you need to know?” said Robinson, who works for USC in fundraising. “The guy had two separate practical exams.
“I think everyone is in rhythm with his philosophy of football. We’re looking at a very stable guy who will be here for a long time.”
“Some of them weren’t interested,” he said. “Some of them weren’t the right fit.”
Asked if he had interviewed Philadelphia Eagles Coach Chip Kelly, Haden said no.
USC spoke with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano and former Stanford and Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, a person familiar with the process said. The person requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Haden said he conducted a four-hour interview with Helton several weeks ago and then met with him again for about three hours on Sunday.
“And I think we needed a reboot. That may sound funny because he’s been here for six years, but he’s changed the culture.”
Asked about the timing of the announcement, Haden said the Trojans’ victory over UCLA was considered part of the Helton’s “whole body of work.”
“We don’t discount the win over UCLA,” Haden said. “But winning the Pac-12 South was the more critical thing.”
In the end, Haden didn’t have to look far to find his man, and he offered no apologies for it.
“Sometimes you look at the horizon so far,” Haden said, “you trip over the guy that is right for the job.”