Clay Helton said after USC’s 34-27 loss to crosstown rival UCLA that all he knows to do at a time like this is put in 24 hours of work in the hope of getting another 24 the next day.
At minimum, Helton’s effort Saturday in the latest loss of a humbling 5-6 campaign for the Trojans was enough to accomplish that. If USC athletic director Lynn Swann has made up his mind about Helton’s future, Swann did not find Sunday a suitable time to announce it one way or the other. So Helton went back to his safe haven at the McKay Center Sunday morning, having the same meetings with the same people and discussing the same topics while trying to produce a much different result than the Trojans have found in losing four of their last five games.
“Nothing changes,” Helton said during his weekly Sunday night call with reporters, “and so it is status quo here right now.”
Another Pac-12 South division school, Colorado, elected Sunday not to give its head coach, Mike MacIntyre, another 24 hours. The Buffaloes also fell to 5-6 but have lost six in a row. It was just two years ago that MacIntyre had Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game with a 10-win season.
Entering this year, Helton had produced back-to-back 10-plus-win seasons that included a Rose Bowl victory and the program’s first Pac-12 championship since 2008. Despite not having won over a surprisingly large segment of the fan base coming into 2018, it was nearly unfathomable in August that Helton and his players could have spent the entire UCLA week fielding questions about his job security.
It appears that USC will enter another rivalry week with the same cloud of uncertainty hanging over the program as it prepares for unbeaten Notre Dame, which is No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and would solidify its place in the playoff with a win in the Coliseum. There is little doubt USC players will spend more time talking about their coach than what they have to do to upset the Fighting Irish and qualify for a bowl game.
Helton spent much of the offseason trying to move the focus from him to his players. He said he wanted more of their stories to be told. But the biggest game of the year is here against the Fighting Irish, and all anyone is going to focus on is Helton until there is a resolution.
He has expressed great confidence in the support he has received from Swann and the powers that be at USC, but the one thing he hasn’t gotten is a guarantee he will be back for his fourth season in 2019.
Helton was asked Sunday if Swann could make this week easier for the program by making Helton’s status known.
“I worry about one thing,” Helton said, “and that’s trying to compete against a good Notre Dame team and try to help our team win that game. It isn’t my job to worry about speculation. It isn’t my job to worry about what’s said. It’s my job to be able to raise kids and help them win games. That’s all I’m focused on.
“Out of honor and respect with Mr. Swann, he will address it when he feels the time is appropriate. All I can say is, I’ve been given every ounce of support that is needed by Mr. Swann to be able to do my job and feel comfortable in his support of me, and not only now, but the future. When he’s ready to make a comment, I know he will. That’s his right.”
Helton and Swann meet each Monday, and Helton said after Saturday’s game that Swann hugged his neck and told him he’d see him Monday.
It was in that meeting Oct. 29, two days after the Arizona State loss, that Helton detailed to Swann his intention to fire offensive line coach Neil Callaway and take over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin. Helton said Swann approved of the moves. On Tuesday of that week, Swann called into USC’s weekly radio show “Trojans Live” and gave Helton a strong vote of confidence, saying “I stand solidly behind Clay.”
With three winnable Pac-12 games ahead of Notre Dame, Helton bet on himself to fix USC’s offense. The Trojans have looked competent and improved in the first half of all three games but struggled to maintain their success. Against California, USC blew a 14-0 lead and was shutout in the second half of a 15-14 loss. Against UCLA, the Trojans led 24-21 at halftime but mustered only a field goal in the second half of a 34-27 loss.
Unless Helton gets some crushing news Monday in his meeting with Swann, the embattled coach will get one more chance against Notre Dame to prove he deserves to lead USC without having to worry about getting his next 24 hours.