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When it comes time to replace Clay Helton, USC needs to look outside its own bubble to rebuild its downtrodden football program

When it comes time to replace Clay Helton, USC needs to look outside its own bubble to rebuild its downtrodden football program
USC wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown fights for extra yardage against California in the second quarter on Saturday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The idea of Pete Carroll returning to USC is more fantasy than a realistic solution, a fanciful wish that is raised in particularly humbling times for the school’s football program.

Such as now.

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And it so happened that Carroll’s return to the Coliseum on Sunday coincided with the latest crash to rock bottom for the Trojans, who endured a humiliating 15-14 defeat to Cal on the same grounds the previous night.

In the wake of his own Seattle Seahawks’ 36-31 defeat to the Rams, Carroll was asked about the segment of USC supporters who …

Carroll wouldn’t listen to the remainder of the question, which he interrupted by raising his right hand and saying, “I’m not going to answer that.”

Except what he did next was something parts of this city have waited almost a decade to see again.

Carroll turned around and made the familiar walk toward the USC locker room, which is shared by the Rams. You half-expected a Trojans booster to emerge from the shadows and shove him inside.

Carroll smiled when he realized his mistake and retreated to the visitor’s side.

Almost, Trojans fans.

And so it’s back to reality for the Trojans. If they aren’t at their low point of the post-Carroll era, they’re close, their decade-long descent from national powerhouse to mediocrity encapsulated in the loss to Cal.

They were undisciplined. They were short on resolve. They lost control of a game they should have easily won.

The Trojans can win their rivalry game against UCLA, play in a bowl game and it won’t change the reality this season was a calamity. Their problems extend beyond their 5-5 record, their mathematical elimination from the Pac-12 conference championship game, or their overmatched coach in Clay Helton.

The on-field failures are symptomatic of a sense of entitlement that pervades not only the football program, but also rest of the athletic department and university. Decision making over the last decade has been guided by an unfounded conceit that assures the parties involved that whatever they do will work because they are USC.

And that started at the top with former university president C.L. Max Nikias.

To rebuild a program that was saddled with the NCAA sanctions in the wake of Carroll’s move to the NFL, Nikias hired Pat Haden as athletic director. A former USC quarterback, Haden had no previous experience in athletic administration.

Haden did everything possible to extend Carroll’s glorious reign. Of the four full-time or interim coaches Haden entrusted with the football team, three were assistants to Carroll: Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian.

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The other, Helton, was their assistant.

As much as USC has tried to maintain the glamorous image it developed under Carroll, preserving the fundamental spirit of that period has proven difficult over the subsequent nine years and multiple coaching changes. The erosion of culture has resulted in a lack of identity, which has affected everything from recruiting to on-field performance.

“USC is still trying to figure out who they are a couple of years into the Clay Helton program,” one NFL team personnel executive told Sam Farmer of The Times under the condition of anonymity. “Basically, when Pete Carroll was there, it was a machine. It was Alabama and USC, just pumping guys out. They knew exactly what they wanted in their players. I go into USC now and look at their defense, they look slow. They don’t look like the same athletes. Even some of the skill-position players.”

The same executive compared that to what was happening on the other side of town at UCLA.

“The one good thing is you look at UCLA and you know they’re heading in the right direction,” the executive said. “You know that Chip Kelly is going to do a good job. He’s identified the type of player he wants and I expect three years from now, we’re going to be looking at three, four, five, six prospects in the first few rounds of the draft that will be Chip’s guys.”

The task of cleaning up this mess will fall to the latest athletic director hired by Nikias, Lynn Swann. Like Haden, Swann is a former USC football star with no previous experience in athletic administration.

Swann is here for the same reason Haden was. His long-standing ties to the school make him an effective fundraiser. What remains a mystery is whether Swann is any more qualified than Haden to identify a football coach capable of leading the crown jewel football program of the West Coast.

Whenever Swann decides it’s time to search for Helton’s replacement, it will be important for him to look outside the USC bubble.

What the program requires is a new culture, a new perspective, a new energy. The Trojans won’t find that within. They won’t find that in another former USC standout such as Jack Del Rio.

They have to look elsewhere, similar to how they did when they made Carroll their coach.

When first asked on Sunday about the state of the USC program, Carroll sounded sympathetic.

“It’s hard, it’s hard,” Carroll said. “They’re trying to get it right. They’re doing everything they can. The coach is doing a good job, battling hard.”

As Carroll tried to gather his thoughts, a familiar voice called out to him.

“How are you doing, coach?”

Carroll looked up to see a security guard he knew from when he coached here. Carroll smiled and embraced him.

It was as if Carroll had never left. In some ways, he hasn’t.

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