Column: In USC’s search for a football coach, it may already have its guy in Clay Helton
In a couple of weeks, USC officials could begin a national search to find someone to occupy the office of their head football coach.
Warning: They will have to first get rid of the guy who spends three nights a week sleeping on its couch.
“If you think about anything but taking care of the kids and helping them win games, it’s not going to work,” says Clay Helton, who curls up on that couch under a gold Trojans blanket. “This is how I have to do it.”
While they’re in the office, USC officials will also need to clear the coffee tables of this guy’s centerpieces — photos of USC players and their families huddled together at midfield at the Coliseum for pregame prayer. These are the same parents and grandparents and guardians who attend every Tuesday practice and later stick around for a team meal.
The USC officials will then have to walk outside the office to the patio, look down on the practice field, shoo away all the walk-ons and redshirts and little-used players who fill that field every Monday. Helton believes in coaching everyone, not just the stars, and so every week he holds a special practice for the scrubs so they can get the special attention he feels they deserve.
“Every week we get so worried about our opponent, one thing gets lost is the development of the younger kids,” Helton says. “We want those kids to know we care about you, we have a plan for you, we’re all in this together.”
So, yeah, when the season ends and the USC officials are going to clean out this office, they’ll need throw out many of the ideals and imaginations that this program has long held so dear.
Or, they could just let Clay Helton stick around.
If USC defeats Oregon and UCLA in its final two games of the regular season, the Trojans should make the eternally interim Helton their permanent head coach faster than he downs those countless paper cups filled with coffee.
If USC is competitive in both of those games, the Trojans should think seriously about giving him the job anyway.
Seriously, what exactly do they want?
They want a coach used to big-time pressure? Helton has been an interim coach twice during two of the most stressful moments in this program’s history, and he’s 5-1 with the only loss coming to a Notre Dame team currently ranked fourth.
They want a coach who has experienced postseason success? Helton has already won a bowl game for the Trojans, winning the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State while shutting down some quarterback named Derek Carr.
They want a coach who will return the Trojans to their ground greatness? That’s what Helton is doing, as his offense has won the overall rushing battle in his five games, averaging 162 yards per game while holding opponents to 110 yards.
Helton is the son of a renowned offensive line coach Kim Helton, he tutored under defense-minded Southern coaching fixture Tommy West, and his philosophy is simple.
“I believe you run the ball, stop the run, don’t turn it over, play great special teams, and you will win,” says Helton.
In this coaching lifer, the Trojans have everything they have sought in a football leader since Pete Carroll with perhaps one exception. He’s not glitzy or glamorous or even close to being Hollywood. Which, you know, is actually a good thing. Imagine that, a USC coach who would let the spotlight shine on the players.
He speaks in a soft Southern accent. He refers to his wife of 20 years as “Miss Angela.” He leaves that couch every week to return home for Thursday night takeout pizza dinner with Angela and their three children. He spent the night before his biggest win, against then third-ranked Utah, sitting on a bleacher watching son Reid play football for Palos Verdes High.
And then there’s his hair. In a physical attribute that perfectly fits his unadorned style, Helton doesn’t have any. He often wears a baseball cap for both his health and so kids can properly perceive his age.
“I put on that cap, I go from about 55 to my true age of 43,” he says with a laugh. “In recruiting I’ll walk through a door and the kid will say, ‘Coach I thought you were younger!’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, let me go get my hat.’ ”
Spend 30 minutes with him and good luck finding a trace of ego. Yes, he was a big-time college football quarterback. No, he didn’t play very much for either Auburn or Houston, and when he played, it wasn’t very memorable, with the possible exception of a mop-up role for Houston in a game on Sept. 4, 1993. On that day he completed one of three passes for three yards and was sacked for an 11-yard loss in a 49-7 loss. It was unforgettable because, well, the USC coach was beaten by USC.
“I’m a better coach than I was a quarterback,” Helton says.
He is so unassuming that sometimes, on the sidelines, he wears a “Fight On!” hoodie that looks like it was bought at a souvenir shop. He is so connected with his team, during postgame interviews it sometimes sounds like he’s going to cry.
And he’s such a great coaching candidate, he’s not even thinking about being a coaching candidate, and frowns at the suggestion that he is coaching every game for his life.
“It’s all about the kids, it’s a lot harder on them than us,” he says. “We’re grown men and we’ll go on and possibly find another job, but these kids just have one college career, one chance at a great memory, and I want to get that memory for them, let them leave here with a great story.”
They win the next two games, those kids will have that story. Here’s guessing Clay Helton will just be happy to keep his couch.
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