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USC Sports

USC plays it safe, but for the long term hiring Clay Helton is risky

Clay Helton

Clay Helton speaks Monday after being introduced as the Trojans’ permanent head football coach during a news conference at USC.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Now we know what it takes to be promoted from within at USC after the previous coach has been fired during the season at an airport, or via text, after a traumatic loss to either Arizona State or Washington.

Interim coach “A” or “B” can lose at Notre Dame so long as he otherwise leads a midseason winning streak and inspires players to the point they use a Magic Marker to write his initials on their shoes.

He can even lose by 20 points at Oregon, so long as it’s a special-circumstances case, like when the Ducks’ quarterback is harder to grab than a grunion.

What the interim USC coach can’t do, we know now, is lose to UCLA.

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Ed Orgeron must be kicking himself.

Two years ago, under similar circumstances, Orgeron got almost all of it right. He was named interim coach after Lane Kiffin was fired, lost a tough one at Notre Dame and then went on a winning streak. He didn’t get the chance to lose at Oregon only because the teams didn’t play that year.

USC was ready to promote Orgeron pending the outcome of a final home game against UCLA.

The Trojans cost Orgeron the gig by losing, 35-14.

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USC players got it right this time for Clay Helton, who went from interim to permanent — whatever that means in college football — on Monday, two days after an inspiring 40-21 win over the Bruins.

The only part of the hire that was surprising was the timing, with Athletic Director Pat Haden making the call independent of what happens in Saturday’s Pac-12 championship game against Stanford.

The move angered some Trojans fans who wanted the school to make a bold outside hire of a big name with head coaching experience. Also not happy is the radio talk-show host who reported that USC was ready to open the bank for a mega-hire, so long as everyone kept it quiet.

USC played it safe, but will it be sorry?

Helton is a fine choice because he brings stability and sanity to a program, and players, who need it. He is a high-character, low-key model of temperance.

Helton clearly won over the locker room and has the respect of the freshmen and their elders.

Senior quarterback Cody Kessler got emotional about Helton after Saturday’s game.

“That man is special,” Kessler said. “No matter what happens, if we win 10 games or lose, he is going to stay the same. He is very real. That’s why we love him. I know it’s not my decision what happens with the coach next year, but we want to do everything we can to give him the opportunity to be the permanent head coach.”

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Mission accomplished.

It didn’t hurt that the Helton hiring was encouraged Sunday by Times columnist Bill Plaschke, which gives the coach some media cover.

But was it the right move?

Players almost always want the interim coach hired because a regime change is difficult.

Short term, the hiring should inspire USC against Stanford, which is possibly playing for a spot in the four-team national playoff.

Long term, it’s a risk.

Promoting coaches from within is hit and miss. Ohio State did it with Luke Fickell after it fired Jim Tressel. It was not good, but it led to the grand-slam hiring of Urban Meyer, which was tremendous.

Hiring the right coach is everything in college football. There is a big difference between Fickell and Meyer.

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Miami promoted Larry Coker after Butch Davis fled for the NFL. Coker took the players that Davis recruited and won the 2001 national title but couldn’t sustain the momentum over time.

However, sometimes continuity pays off. Tom Osborne won three national titles after following Bob Devaney at Nebraska.

Oregon’s handoff from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich was successful, and David Shaw has kept Stanford in contention after the departure of Jim Harbaugh.

Dabo Swinney, who has Clemson undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the polls, was coaching wide receivers when, in the span of two months during the fall of 2008, he was promoted to interim head coach and then hired permanently.

It even worked at USC, when the school hired former longtime assistant John Robinson to replace John McKay.

You get the sense some USC fans expected more. This a big-splash program in a big-splash town. Helton is not a big-splash hire.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and some people would argue that USC needed a bigger name to raise its profile in a town it might soon be sharing with at least one NFL franchise.

The move to Helton smacked of a tired, sick and battered athletic director who settled — maybe for something good — after looking out over a landscape of available coaches that resembles a picked-over swap meet.

Why gamble when you’re holding, if not a royal flush, at least a solid pair of eights?

There will be no honeymoon period for Helton, whose next three games are against Stanford, a bowl opponent and Alabama to open the 2016 season.

The move feels comfortable on a Monday in November.

Will that change if Helton opens 0-3 and word leaks out that Jon Gruden or Chip Kelly was available?

chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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