Shortly after noon on Monday, as a group of USC donors gathered in the Founders Room of the Galen Center for a luncheon organized by the Trojan Athletic Fund, Clay Helton took to the dais. The USC football coach, fresh off a 45-20 victory over Stanford that ranked among the most inspiring of his tenure, was greeted with a warm standing ovation.
The Monday Morning Quarterback luncheon, which cost attendees at least $50 and was live-streamed for other donors online, was the first of five scheduled lunch appearances for Helton, who was expected to offer “special insight” into the program and the previous game.
But as Helton stood in front of the crowd, smiling and answering questions, one key bit of insight about USC’s athletic department was left unmentioned. Just an hour or so earlier, Lynn Swann, USC’s embattled athletic director, had abruptly resigned.
That decision, which The Times reported just before 1 p.m. on Monday, sent shockwaves through USC’s athletic department, where several senior administrators had been completely unaware such a landscape-altering move was afoot until the news broke.
For Helton, whose future already was uncertain, Swann’s resignation carried especially massive implications. It was Swann who offered Helton a highly criticized contract extension in February 2018, and Swann who chose to keep him last fall, even as the Trojans experienced their first losing season since 2000.
But until just before university president Carol Folt publicly announced Swann’s resignation Monday, Helton had been in the dark with the rest of the department.
Now, as he stood in front of donors, news spread through the room, putting the coach in a precarious position. Soon, Helton was asked for his thoughts on the departure of the athletic director whose vote of confidence had kept him in his job.
He sidestepped the question. Asked Tuesday about when he first heard of Swann’s resignation, Helton answered, “just a little bit before it hit.”
“We have utter faith in Dr. Folt that she’s going to bring a great AD,” Helton said, “one that’s going to be great for this university and great for this athletic program.”
As Folt considers the future of USC’s athletic department and its football program, the perceived disconnect between her and Helton was notable for a coach many suspect won’t last past this season, barring a stellar finish. With Swann now gone, some wonder if the bloodletting in a department filled with longtime administrators has only just begun.
“There’s still a lot of really rotten apples in the barrel,” said Petros Papadakis, a broadcaster and former Trojans captain. “If Carol Folt is really doing her job, she’s got to do for USC athletics what she’s doing for the rest of the university, which is removing people and bringing in new people who have experience in that job outside the university. Which is what USC should’ve been doing all this time.”
Many around the program interpreted Folt’s decision to name her special advisor, Dave Roberts, as interim athletic director over Steve Lopes, the department’s longtime chief operating officer, as sending that very message.
How a potential purge of USC’s athletic department would impact Helton’s job remains to be seen. Some familiar with the program openly wonder if Helton could win his way into favor with the university’s new leadership.
On Monday, Roberts, an interim member of that leadership who has known Helton since his hiring, visited with the coach and spoke to the team.
Hours before, when asked if a new athletic director could replace Helton, Roberts, who previously served USC’s vice president of athletics compliance, said he would “do anything and everything we can to make sure that Clay has the most successful season yet here at USC.”
As it pertains to his future, though, Roberts noted, “He’s a coach. He’s going to stand on his record.”
That record seriously dwindled a season ago, as USC fell to 5-7 and missed a bowl game. Over his two previous years, the Trojans had won at least 10 games under Helton, twice earning invites to New Year’s Six bowl games.
But even as USC opened this season 2-0, concern over the program’s direction persists. Whether Helton is capable of quelling that widespread concern, while also proving his value to a new president and prospective athletic director, is an open question.
“She’s setting up Clay Helton now a little bit with more pressure,” said Riki Ellison, a former USC linebacker who had been an outspoken critic of Swann. “She’s going to have her own athletic director, and if Clay doesn’t perform, that athletic director is going to pick the new head coach.”
On Tuesday, Helton said he spoke directly to both Folt and Swann in light of the news. Folt, he noted, offered to “help him in any way so you and your team can be successful.”
That help didn’t extend to an early heads-up on Monday. But Helton still has other supporters entrenched within the department, many of whom continue to praise his integrity and sincerity.
After being kept out of the loop on Swann’s abrupt resignation, Helton noted on Tuesday that change at the top could beget further change elsewhere.
“Any time you have change in leadership, there’s transition in other positions,” Helton said. “It’s just a natural occurrence.”