As USC ended practice Sunday, Clay Helton stood in the middle of the field as the team crowded around him.
Helton, USC’s offensive coordinator, would not be officially introduced as the Trojans’ interim coach until a few minutes later, when Athletic Director Pat Haden informed the same players during a team meeting in the McKay Center that Coach Steve Sarkisian was taking an indefinite leave of absence.
It was a leave that became permanent Monday when USC fired Sarkisian.
“I want to thank Clay Helton for stepping into the interim head coach role, and I want to add how proud I am of our coaching staff and players and the way they are responding to this difficult situation,” Haden said in a statement.
This is the second time in less than two years that Helton, 43, has been tapped by Haden to lead USC, which plays 14th-ranked Notre Dame on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
In 2013, Ed Orgeron became interim coach after Haden fired Lane Kiffin. When Haden hired Sarkisian as Kiffin’s permanent replacement, Orgeron bolted and Helton, who jokingly described himself as the Trojans’ “third-string head coach,” led USC to a 45-20 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.
Helton was one of only two coaches retained by Sarkisian, who guided the Trojans to a 9-4 record last season.
But in August, Sarkisian was involved in an embarrassing incident at the annual “Salute to Troy” booster event on campus. On Sunday, after Sarkisian failed to show up for practice, Haden announced the indefinite leave and elevated Helton.
Helton described his return to the role as “a very unique honor” and he indicated that USC still has much to play for. The Trojans are 3-2 overall and 1-2 in the Pac-12 Conference.
“Once again very fortunate to have a group of first-class kids that are extremely talented and want to do something special here,” he said. “They still have a lot of things out there that we can obtain.”
Helton cited the Notre Dame game and the opportunity to compete for the Pac-12 South title.
Defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow said on Monday that the Trojans were eager to support Helton.
“We have a lot of older guys here now that are able and old enough and mature enough to step up and get everybody rallied behind Coach Helton as we go forward,” he said.
Tight end Connor Spears said Helton was “going to be a great leader.”
“We all kind of know what we have to do, and I think Helton’s going to do a tremendous job of keeping us in line and making sure we perform,” he said.
Now Helton must not only rally players but also assistants who are no doubt anxious about their futures.
“Very fortunate to have a group around me as a staff that is as first class as they get,” Helton said.
“Once I got into it,” he once said of football, “it was an addiction.”
Helton began his career as a graduate assistant at Duke in 1995. Two years later, he went to work under his father, Kim, at the University of Houston, where Helton had been a backup quarterback after transferring from Auburn.
Helton moved from Houston to the University of Memphis and spent 10 seasons there. He worked briefly at Arkansas State before Kiffin hired him as quarterbacks coach in 2010.
Last December, before the Trojans played Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, Helton reflected on his brief tenure as USC’s head coach during the 2013 bowl season.
“It was a great learning experience,” he said, “and I walked away from it a better coach.”
Now he has another opportunity to show he can lead the Trojans to more than one victory.