Over the years, many of the USC football veterans had built up multitudes of evidence to suggest that they were untouchable in the eyes of their teddy bear of a head coach.
Clay Helton did not create that sense of comfort by design. As a big-hearted Texan, it happened naturally. But, during an offseason that demanded a look in the metaphorical mirror, Helton made it a priority to change his tune.
Starting in the spring, that meant his Trojans could no longer be the “loves of my life,” as Helton called struggling senior center Toa Lobendahn last November as USC imploded en route to a 5-7 season.
Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., as a 2019 redshirt senior who has done everything right, was all set up to be a Helton favorite. But, like other Trojans who assumed Helton’s pedestal was awaiting them, it wasn’t long into spring ball before he learned otherwise.
Michael Pittman, meet Commando Clay.
“The first time, I was kind of shocked,” Pittman said Wednesday at Pac-12 media day at the Hollywood & Highland Center. “I remember, I got into a little scuffle at practice, and he really ripped me. And that’s the first time he’s really ripped me like that.
“But I was kind of, like, almost proud of him. It sounds funny to say, but I was like, ‘Yeah, OK!’ Because guys who normally I guess wouldn’t get called out, anybody is getting their butt ripped now.”
Even with Helton’s increased intensity, a USC practice isn’t exactly an episode of “Fear Factor.” But his message — sent clearly with orders for hundreds of up-downs over 15 practices — did resonate.
“It was ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy,’ ” senior defensive lineman Christian Rector said, “which, I love to see that.”
In his three-plus seasons as the Trojans’ head coach, Helton has prided himself on being authentic. He has said players can tell when their coach isn’t genuine in his actions. He felt his new persona fit him well and was necessary, particularly given the circumstances that spurred him to action.
“I’m going to focus on what wins football games, and I’m going to have a passion towards that,” Helton said. “I’m going to make sure our players feel that because when they feel it, they know there’s a sense of urgency, an importance, and it’s demanded of them. So, yes, the heat got turned up a little bit in the spring.”
The more fire Helton can conjure up inside, the better chance he has of not feeling how hot his seat is perceived to be on the outside.
Entering a high-stakes 2019 campaign that will unveil the renovated Coliseum as a fully operational $315-million battle station, it will be up to Helton to lead USC back to the old realm where the Trojans faithful can lord their superiority over the rest of the college football universe.
If Helton can’t, well, all of that tough-guy stuff will have been for nothing, and his time at USC will likely come to an end. A large contingent of his fan base would claim he’s on borrowed time as it is. His detractors can say and think what they want, but nobody can claim he hasn’t tried to make the most of his second life.
After losing Kliff Kingsbury to the Arizona Cardinals, he hired Graham Harrell to run his offense, transforming the Trojans into an “Air Raid” outfit that aims to execute simple schemes perfectly.
After losing strength coach Ivan Lewis to the Seattle Seahawks, he brought former USC strength and conditioning staffer Aaron Ausmus back to toughen up his kids in the weight room.
“Aaron Ausmus has taken me places I didn’t think I could go,” Pittman said. “Some of those workouts, I never thought in like 10,000 years I’d be able to do. Graham is just a really good disciplinarian coach.
“Somebody missed class, and we went out and ran like six full gassers and were doing 25 up-downs between each gasser. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and everybody had to do it.”
Rector credited Helton for surrounding the Trojans with the right coaches this offseason. As painful as 5-7 felt, it may have been necessary to help the program hit the reset button.
“We let too much stuff slide as leaders from the top down,” Rector said. “We thought the wins would get handed to us. We thought we would just come in and get wins because we’re SC and that’s what we do.”
Helton was asked Wednesday how he would describe the difference in last year and this year with one word. He chose “accountability,” a change that started with himself.
“The most important thing as a leader is that when you have good seasons like a Rose Bowl year and a Pac-12 championship year that you give the accolades to the people that are around you that got you there,” Helton said. “And when you have a 5-7 season, that you own it and you look at yourself truthfully.
“You can either hide your head in the sand or you can address the issues. And that was the biggest thing.”
Helton said starting left tackle Austin Jackson, who this summer gave his sister a bone marrow transplant, is recovering. Helton could not answer whether Jackson could participate in fall camp, which begins Aug. 2. … Helton said USC is awaiting word from the NCAA if freshman transfers Bru McCoy and Chris Steele will receive immediate eligibility waivers for this season.