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USC Sports

Lessons from the swamp: USC football will try to win the Helton way

Clay Helton
Clay Helton says he will win at USC the way his father taught him, through consistency and principle.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The gators congregate near the Heltons’ house in Everglade City, Fla., after big rains, when the rivers flood the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico with brackish water.

In one inlet, Clay and Tyson Helton have seen as many as 20 alligators. They call it Alligator Cove. Near there is where they make annual family fishing trips with their father, Kim.

Navigating the shallow waters is tricky, and a piece of their boat’s motor sometimes snaps off. So Kim will tell one of them, “OK, jump in and get it.”

Clay and Tyson exchange glances. Doesn’t he see the rows of jaws and jagged teeth?

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They have taken these trips since the boys were little. They learned to avoid the snakes and gators, and to reel in snook, tarpon, redfish and trout. On these trips, Kim taught them about courage and compassion. These days, Clay and Tyson bring their own children, but the last day of each trip is sacred.

That day is reserved for Clay, Tyson and Kim, together for one more lesson.

Clay, 44, will draw on these experiences before the most important year of his career, his first full season as USC’s football coach. Tyson will be with him as the quarterbacks coach and pass-game coordinator.

Clay and Tyson joke that if everything is falling apart on the football field, they can always picture the boat on the water — their “happy place.”

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Out there, Kim says, “there is no third and long, there is no Alabama in the opener, there is no bad media story.”

It’s been eight years since USC won a Pac-12 Conference title. Since Pete Carroll left after the 2009 season, there have been three different full-time head coaches, five coaching staff transitions and 30 scholarships lost over three years, part of NCAA sanctions from which the program is still recovering.

Mired in similar mediocrity, Alabama hired Nick Saban. Ohio State, Urban Meyer. Michigan, Jim Harbaugh.

USC turned to a career assistant who lost his first two games as full-time coach and has a season opener against Saban and his defending champion Crimson Tide looming.

To steady USC, Clay said he won’t try to be Saban or Meyer or Harbaugh. He believes that he can win the Helton way, the way his father taught him, through consistency and principle.

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It was Kim who told Clay exactly what he needed to hear, right after he won the job. Simple and sensible: You’re not those men, Kim told his son. “Just be yourself.”

To Clay, that means being like Kim.

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::

Kim fought for everything as a boy. Born poor in Pensacola, Fla., he grew up in a house with 12 children. The two girls shared a room, and so did the 10 boys. There were two bunk beds between the 10, and mattress privileges were contested nightly.

Losers threw down a palette on the floor and slept there.

Kim often fished and hunted for dinner. At night, he’d hunt gators, dangling chicken as bait and using a flashlight to look for the glow of eyeballs in the murky water. Afterward, he’d feast on the tails.

He climbed out of poverty through coaching and toughness. After starting at Florida as an undersized center, he became an assistant coach, first in college, then in the NFL. At Miami, working for coach Howard Schnellenberger, his fishing excursions in the Panhandle became legendary.

“We saw a couple big damn snakes that they have up there,” Schnellenberger recalled. “Scared the hell out of me. The damn things look like a firehose laying out there.”

Kim was difficult to live up to, Clay said. To the boys, Tyson said, “he might as well be John Wayne.”

Kim believed a boy should know everything he needed by the age of 6. During those early years, he dispatched wisdom on fishing and hunting excursions.

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This on marriage, for example: “If I come home and your mom’s happy, y’all happy.”

There were lessons on football, too, such as: the offensive line coach only looks as if he hates his players. Actually, he loves them.

Kim had two core tenets on life. First, try to be a good person. Second, tell the truth and get it over with. They were simple and overarching, but even Clay, who could do no wrong in Kim’s eyes, found them hard to fulfill.

“Dad has always been way up here,” Clay said, reaching a hand above his head. “He’s always been on a pedestal for us.”

Clay thought that even before he started playing for Kim, before he really understood his father’s football teachings.

Dad has always been way up here. He’s always been on a pedestal for us.
Clay Helton

Clay began his college career at Auburn. After Kim became Houston’s coach, Clay mulled a transfer.

“Don’t come here,” Kim said. “Best guy’s gonna play. Period.”

Clay came anyway. Teammates respected his work ethic and, privately, his counsel. But Clay was not the “best guy.” He didn’t start. Five games into his senior season, though, the first-string quarterback was injured. Clay started against a far superior Texas A&M team.

He got bludgeoned, sacked repeatedly, shoulder torn up, legs shot. He completed just seven passes — and three were tips or near-sacks that plopped mercifully into the hands of a teammate. Each series, as he dragged his shattered body to the sideline, the home crowd booed him.

But Clay refused to leave the game. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Kim called over the third-string quarterback, Chad O’Shea, Clay’s childhood friend who is now wide receivers coach for the New England Patriots.

“Hey, I’m not subjecting him to this anymore,” Kim said. “You’re gonna go.”

Clay limped off the field feeling conflicted. He was proud to have started a Division I game, but he felt as though he let down his school and his father.

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Kim felt differently.

“He earned the honor to go get beat up,” Kim said. “It just happened to be my wife’s son out there getting killed, which was not an easy day at the house for me. But, you know, he took his butt kicking; I go home and take my butt kicking.”

Like equals, at least for a night.

::

Duke Coach Fred Goldsmith was pacing the sidelines early during a game against Rutgers when his headphone crackled. A young voice came through.

“Coach,” Clay said, “I figured out all their signals.”

A few months before, Clay had graduated from Houston early with a mathematics degree —breaking his mother, Pam’s, heart by falling a few credits shy of his engineering degree — to take the job at Duke, as a graduate assistant.

Goldsmith was an old friend of Kim’s. Clay, 23, made $832 a month and it was his fourth game. Now he was radioing straight into the head coach’s ear.

And he was right. He had, in fact, intercepted Rutgers’ offensive signals.

Duke didn’t win much back then, but they won that game.

 The next year, Clay was promoted to running backs coach. For his first recruiting assignment, he was dispatched to the Florida Panhandle.

Coach Clay Helton and the Trojans will try to avoid a 1-3 start with a win at Utah on Friday night.
Coach Clay Helton and the Trojans will try to avoid a 1-3 start with a win at Utah on Friday night.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times )

“Well, late that afternoon, I got a call from Clay,” Goldsmith recalled. “He says, ‘Hey coach, I got a problem.’ I say, ‘Well what is it?’ He said: ‘I’m stuck in the airport. They won’t let me rent a car. They say I’m too young.’ Because he was only [23]. So I said, ‘Well, don’t worry about it Clay.’ I said, ‘Duke’s got plenty of money. Just go take a taxicab.’ ” 

Other coaches, with slicker rides — including Kim — were also recruiting the player. But the recruit chose Clay, and his yellow taxicab.

By the end of that season, a position opened at Houston. Kim offered, and Clay came back home.

::

Clay strode into his office at USC earlier this week, a spacious room with a balcony overlooking USC’s practice fields. Each time he enters, he passes under a sign in the anteroom, reading: Faith, Family, Football.

The saying is common in football, a cliche. Clay’s belief in it is earnest.

Kim is a regular, if quiet, fixture around practices. When Clay became the offensive coordinator at Memphis, he began calling Kim to pick his brain. He still does, around three times a week, on his commutes home.

And down the hall from Clay, maybe 10 steps away, sat Tyson, eyeglasses on, his office door open.

No one can recall Clay getting into trouble in his life, unless it involved allowing Tyson to find it. Once, while playing catcher in a childhood baseball game, Tyson took a bat to the head and required stitches.

You only get one opportunity to be the head coach at USC. So no, I didn’t hesitate.
Clay Helton

The wait for Kim to return home, recalled O’Shea, Clay’s childhood friend, was among the longest in his or Clay’s life. When he got home, Kim grabbed both by the scruff of the neck and told them: Never forget, you’re responsible for your brother.

Hiring Tyson, who is five years younger than him, opens Clay to allegations of nepotism, despite Tyson’s success coordinating Western Kentucky’s prolific offense. Clay said Tyson adds a creative, experienced assistant capable of game planning, which frees Clay to focus on big-picture concerns.

“You only get one opportunity to be the head coach at USC,” Clay said. “So no, I didn’t hesitate. I get one chance, and at the end of the day it’ll be about results and production and wins. Any good leader is going to surround himself with great people.

“He just happens to have Helton as a last name.”

Family has a habit of infiltrating USC’s staff. Two of USC’s previous three coaches, Carroll and Lane Kiffin, hired family members. For Kiffin, whose father, Monte, ran the defense, it got messy at times, though Monte Kiffin said the problems were overblown.

“I did just fine,” Monte Kiffin said. “I think if you’re a good coach, you’re a good coach. It’s got nothing to do with what your last name is. I don’t go by that.”

The Heltons have had success navigating similar dynamics in the past. By the time Tyson was a quarterback for his father’s team at Houston, Clay coached the running backs.

Kim handled it by riding Tyson harder than anyone else, said Jason McKinley, the starting quarterback. McKinley said the family dynamic was never an issue.

“Not only did they handle it like no one else I know would’ve handled it, but they kind of went over and above,” McKinley said.

Clay says he will be slightly harder on Tyson than his other coaches, but only because Tyson coaches the quarterbacks, the position Clay knows most about. With his father, he has one rule: Kim isn’t to give advice unless asked.

When Clay needed to hire an offensive line coach, for example, he asked Kim for five names — Neil Callaway, a longtime friend of the family, was on the list, and he won the job. Kim said he didn’t lobby for Tyson but would have if counseled.

“Am I glad he hired his brother?” Kim said. “Yes. Did I think his brother was the right guy to hire? Yes. If he’d have asked me, and I didn’t think his brother is a really good football coach, I’d have said don’t get your [butt] fired hiring your brother.”

::

The boys were 31 miles deep inside the Everglades not long ago, fishing for snook, when their engine sputtered, stalled and died. Now, being stuck in the Everglades isn’t like being stuck out in the Gulf of Mexico. There was no radio, no satellite, no phones. No service if there were, anyway.

If darkness set in, creatures would come out, which was bad enough. If they weren’t home by 5 p.m., Pam Helton would come searching, which was worse.

“Bottom line,” Kim said, laughing his gravelly, chesty laugh, “your mom’s gonna wear me out when I get you home sometime tomorrow!” 

There was still plenty of sunlight, so they decided to wait and hope for a boat to pass before attempting an improvised repair. An hour melted away. Then another. They fell into a rare “visit,” panhandle speak for deep conversation.

Interim USC coach Clay Helton kisses his son, Turner, at midfield after the Trojans beat Utah 42-24 at the Coliseum on Oct. 24, 2015.
Interim USC coach Clay Helton kisses his son, Turner, at midfield after the Trojans beat Utah 42-24 at the Coliseum on Oct. 24, 2015.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times )

They talked about fears, what bothered them, concerns for their family. Clay’s kids were growing up more quickly than he was ready for. His eldest, Reid, was getting a car, looking at colleges. (He will be a freshman at USC in the fall.) Clay asked Kim: How do you handle that?

“Hey, you need to make sure you stay on him,” Kim said.

In the end, another boat did putter along. A man loaned out the part they needed, they fixed the boat and set off for home. Safely back, they all agreed it was among their favorite trips ever.

But while they were sitting out there, something had felt different. At one point, Kim turned serious.

“You know,” he said, “I’m not gonna be around forever.”

They turned silent. The sun was getting lower. The bugs thrummed. Maybe five hours had passed since the engine gave way. Normally in such a pinch, the boys would look to Kim.

This time, though, Kim, as calm as the black water, was looking to Clay.

“He’s far smarter than me,” said Kim, who is 67. “He’s a lot better person than me. He’s tough as me. He can outrun me. He’s stronger than me. Why the hell would I think I know more than he does, you know what I’m saying?”

If the other boat hadn’t come, Kim assured, Clay would have figured a way out.


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