Clay Helton led USC players through an agility drill this week, hustling and high-stepping over a series of large rectangular bags as other assistants barked encouragement.
Afterward, players gathered tightly around their latest interim coach.
“Remember this,” Helton shouted. “How you react to adversity defines you!”
Trojans players endured a tumultuous season: the firing of coach Lane Kiffin, the emotional departure of interim coach Ed Orgeron and the arrival of new Coach Steve Sarkisian.
USC assistants also were caught in the crossfire.
Now, with most coaches facing the loss of their jobs, they are charged with preparing the Trojans for the Dec. 21 Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State.
Sarkisian, who will not coach the bowl game, has announced that receivers coach Tee Martin will remain with the staff next season. But other assistants and graduate assistant coaches have been given no guarantees, and Sarkisian has informed several they will not be back.
“These are good football coaches,” Sarkisian said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out because of circumstances.”
Like Sarkisian, recently hired assistants Johnny Nansen, Keith Heyward and Peter Sirmon will not coach in the bowl game. Instead, they have begun recruiting.
Meanwhile, the current staff carries on.
Helton said coaches made “a promise” as a staff to do “everything” for the players as the 9-4 Trojans attempt to finish the season with 10 wins.
“Obviously, we have to take care of ourselves and families at some point in time,” Helton said, “but until that last game is over and done with, we owe that to USC and to these kids.”
USC practiced Monday and Tuesday and will resume workouts Saturday. Players said the coaches’ focus remains on point.
“No one appears to be thinking about, ‘Oh, where’s my next job?’” junior safety Dion Bailey said, adding, “The coaches are making it a fun experience.”
The coaches, however, acknowledge the circumstances.
“I don’t want to say it’s exactly business as usual,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said of the ups and downs players and staff have experienced this season.
Running backs coach Tommie Robinson has been a college and pro assistant for 23 seasons.
“I’ve been through this a few times,” he said of the uncertainty.
Robinson, Pendergast, offensive line coach Mike Summers and linebackers coach Mike Ekeler joined the Trojans staff this season. All or some probably won’t return.
Robinson said the best way to cope was to continue coaching, with a primary goal of helping the players.
“It can be a little stressful when you’re saying, ‘Well, what’s going to happen next?’” he said. “But at the same time you come to work every day and do the very best that you can.”
With Sarkisian’s hiring of Sirmon, formerly Washington’s linebackers coach, Ekeler said he was informed he would not be back.
“It’s not fun,” Ekeler, chuckling, said of his situation. “I’m not going to lie to you.”
Ekeler, however, remains upbeat. He said he feels “like a substitute teacher” but does not regret his decision to come to USC.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said.
Ekeler met with Sirmon last week and spent about 90 minutes going over players.
“He’s a great guy, a hell of a coach and he’ll do a great job with these guys,” Ekeler said. “It’s like being a parent: At least you know you’re handing them off to someone who knows what the hell they’re doing.”
Martin can take comfort in knowing he will be back in 2014. But the situation surrounding him “hits you hard,” he said.
“It’s my first time ever going through anything remotely close to this,” he said, adding, “People always say it’s part of the business and all that, but no one prepares you for a situation like this.”
After firing Kiffin, and seeing Orgeron leave the program when he was not hired as Kiffin’s replacement, Athletic Director Pat Haden deemed Helton ready to guide the Trojans in their final game.
When USC plays Fresno State, Helton will join a fraternity of interim coaches who guided their teams in the Las Vegas Bowl the last 12 years.
Ed Kezirian oversaw UCLA in its 2002 victory over New Mexico, and DeWayne Walker coached the Bruins in a 2007 loss to Brigham Young. In 2011, Dennis Erickson had been fired by Arizona State after the regular season, but he coached the Sun Devils in a loss against Boise State.
USC is playing in the Las Vegas Bowl for the first time since 2001, when it lost to Utah, 10-6.
It is not a Bowl Championship Series game, but Helton has been impressed by the USC staff’s professionalism.
“It’s like we’re preparing for the Super Bowl,” he said.