On Monday, USC coach Clay Helton placed a big bet on himself by taking over offensive play calling for the rest of the season. On Tuesday night, athletic director Lynn Swann went out of his way to back him up.
Swann called into USC’s weekly “Trojans Live” radio show on ESPNLA 710 with the strategic purpose, one promoted on the athletic department’s Twitter account, of addressing the state of the football program with the Trojans 4-4 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12 Conference.
In a nine-minute interview conducted by Jordan Moore of the athletic department and former USC receiver John Jackson, Swann preached patience to the fan base and expressed unequivocal support for Helton.
Swann, who took over as athletic director in 2016 after Helton had been appointed coach by Pat Haden, extended Helton’s contract through 2023 after last season’s Pac-12 championship, the program’s first since 2008. Tuesday, Swann stopped short of guaranteeing that Helton would be back in 2019 but left no gray area about his faith in Helton to get the job done.
“I believe in Clay Helton,” Swann said. “I like the position he takes. Clay is passionate about what he does, and Clay is honest and real about what he wants to accomplish and how he wants to accomplish it. There’s no false chatter in Clay Helton. He is concerned about the welfare of his student-athletes, his football players, his coaches. He wants them to grow up in the program and win the right way. I stand solidly behind Clay to move those things forward.”
Helton said Tuesday that his decisions to let go of offensive line coach Neil Callaway and to take away play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin were not prompted by pressure from Swann. Helton and Swann meet every Monday and both said that Helton informed Swann of his intentions during this week’s meeting and that Swann agreed with the moves.
Swann, an NFL Hall of Fame receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers who played at USC from 1972 to 1974, said he believes the program is in “good shape” and several times referred to Helton’s first two seasons in which the Trojans won 21 games and brought home a Rose Bowl victory and a Pac-12 championship trophy.
He did not seem dismayed by another season passing without the Trojans earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“We are rebuilding this program,” Swann said. “And you don’t get back in the hunt for the biggest prizes overnight. People want to believe that after our scholarship reductions and the sanctions and everything else, as soon as those things were up, that suddenly the USC football team would be at the pinnacle of collegiate football. But the reality is, it takes time, and it’s a process. And I think we’re headed down the right track in this process.”
Swann did not sound as if he was a trigger-happy athletic director giving the token “vote of confidence” to a coach while surveying other options. As a Steeler, he has seen the success that franchise has had during the last five decades with only three coaches during that span. Continuity is important to Swann.
“I believe every time you change a head coach you start from the beginning,” Swann said. “You start all over again. And you have got different ideas. You’ve got a new system, and a new coach is going to want maybe a different mix of personnel, so they feel like they don't necessarily have the mix to execute whatever their strategy might be. And I think Clay can get this done. I believe it’s important to have patience.
“This is the time that we talk about the Trojan family. We need the Trojan family to stand behind this team. It’s easy to be a fan and come out to the games when the team is undefeated, when they’re rolling and everything is looking good. But this is the moment, this is the time, when the Trojan fans, our students, our alumni, need to be there and support these young men who are giving everything they have to play the best football they can.”
Martin said after practice that Helton has told him throughout the season that he was starting to get the itch to call plays again. After the Texas loss, Martin said, Helton took more ownership over the running game and Martin handled more of the passing game.
Still, during the games, Helton said Martin was calling all but three to four plays per game. He said those moments when Helton jumped in were usually in the red zone or if he saw an opportunity for a big play.
“He’s been feeling this for a while,” Martin said. “It’s not like he just woke up one morning and decided this.”
Helton said he did not know for sure until Monday morning that he was going to make the switch official.
“When I first took the job, I knew how big the job was at USC,” Helton said. “I wanted to be able to get comfortable in my own skin as a head coach. Now, being the third year in, I know the groundwork, I know where everything lays and feel extremely comfortable.”
Helton said that he would like to continue calling plays after this season. He seemed to be considering this a test drive.
“I’m going to take the next four games,” Helton said. “I would like to do it. I’m going to make sure that I can do everything that encompasses the job. I truly believe that I can.”
Martin said his responsibilities during the week won’t change. On game days, it will be much like in 2015 when Helton took over as interim coach but still called the plays with Martin helping from the booth.
“Just being the spotter, if you will,” Martin said. “Down and distance, this was the coverage, these are the pressures, just kind of give him a road map. But ultimately it’s on him to decide the plays that he’ll call. We’ve been here before.”