Shortly after embracing USC’s most exhilarating victory of the season Friday night over Utah, the Coliseum was immediately beset with the murmurs of buyer’s remorse.
“Wait a minute. Does this mean Clay Helton isn’t getting fired?”
Admit it, Trojans fans. Many of you were thinking it, or your companions were feeling it, or the dude in the row above you was actually saying it.
“Great win, but, man, are we now going to be stuck with Helton for the rest of the season?”
It was indeed a night when many believed the certainty of a loss to the undefeated and 10th-ranked Utes would make this one of the final games for a coach who many thought should have been fired last year.
In the minds of many, it was all planned out. The Trojans get trounced by the more physical Utes, then travel to Washington next week and get wiped out by the smarter Huskies, then the coach enters the bye week with a 2-3 record and no more protection from Lynn Swann and ... boom ... done ... Helton out, Urban Meyer in, bring on Notre Dame!
Then came the magic of Friday night, the flinging Matt Fink, the roaring late defense, the return of “We Are S.C.” chants, and if you don’t think that 30-23 victory was big, consider the following:
USC must now be considered the favorite to win the Pac-12 South and play in the Pac-12 title game.
Considering the lack of great teams in the Pac-12 North, USC might now even be an early favorite to land in the Rose Bowl.
And, oh yeah, like it or not, it is now difficult to imagine a scenario in which Helton is fired during this season.
The win over Utah probably bought him at least eight more games. With no permanent athletic director in place and new President Carol Folt witnessing the inspiration in person, it feels like Helton just won a two-month reprieve.
“He’s a coach. He’s going to stand on his record,” interim athletic director Dave Roberts told The Times’ Ryan Kartje recently when asked about Helton.
That record is now 3-1 and, if the talented Trojans can hold it together, they could finish the season with nine wins, and then what happens afterward? Helton now has a fighting chance to keep his job, but it’s still going to be one heck of a fight.
If the Trojans play their way into the Rose Bowl, Helton is not getting fired. Period. But that is still the only sure bet.
Simply advancing to the Pac-12 title game does not make his retention a slam dunk. Remember, back in 2011, UCLA was so fed up with Rick Neuheisel that he was fired the week before leading his team — as a lame duck — into that conference championship game.
Bottom line, Helton needs for the Trojans to keep winning their Pac-12 games and finish strong in a stretch of six consecutive winnable bouts in the second half of the season against Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona State, California and UCLA. Then he needs to be competitive in the conference title game and cross his fingers.
Working against him is that, with Swann gone, he’s lost his guardian angel and any new athletic director is going to want his own coach. But working in his favor is that, with the sudden Swann firing, Folt has shown a desire for an unsullied program, and if Helton can win, it certainly helps that he has been squeaky clean.
Working against him is that three-time national championship coach Meyer is looking over his shoulder, even literally Friday as Meyer was doing on-field commentary for FS1. But working in Helton’s favor is that, for reasons having nothing to do with football, hiring Meyer would be insane.
That’s right, insane. Do you really want to hand over the marquee program in a scandal-ridden athletic department to a guy with history of rostering criminal players and trivializing domestic violence?
At Florida, Meyer’s players were arrested for all kinds of alleged crimes while he continually protected them, stretching the truth so much that he became known as Urban Liar. At Ohio State, he was suspended for three games for employing receivers coach Zach Smith amid multiple accusations of domestic violence by Smith’s former wife, Courtney. Throughout the Ohio State investigation, once again, Meyer lied and played the part of the victim.
USC doesn’t need this. If Folt is true to her word, USC won’t go anywhere near this.
In an interview this past week, Folt told The Times’ Matt Hamilton and Harriet Ryan, “You need to get coaches doing the things coaches are supposed to be doing, and we need to start getting that organized in such a way that you can do that with integrity.”
Unless Folt defines “integrity” as “winning” — and here’s guessing she does not — then Meyer is not a qualified candidate. If there is eventually a hiring process, this space will constantly remind Folt of that pledge.
But the job isn’t open yet. Clay Helton still has it. How about that? Yep, surprise everywhere, including here.
It was written in this space last year that “it seems impossible that Helton will keep his job ... his players aren’t listening ... his players aren’t learning.”
Some of this is still happening. They crumbled at Brigham Young last weekend, then they racked up 117 yards worth of penalties against Utah, including several nasty personal fouls that could have changed the game.
The team is still undisciplined. The focus still isn’t constant. Face it, they have won three games not with any relentless and consistent approach, but on the backs of incredible receivers in an exciting new offensive system. How else can you explain three tremendous performances by three completely different quarterbacks? Is there any better trio of receivers anywhere in the country than Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns?
The Air Raid offense is being run by new assistant Graham Harrell, who calls the plays, but this is where Helton deserves the credit. When his job was on the line after last season, Helton swallowed his ego and gave up the offense first to Kliff Kingsbury, then to Harrell. In stepping up, Helton stepped out of the way, which set the tone for an unselfish culture that has led to the appearance of new Trojans heroes every week.
Helton also deserves credit for fostering the notion of Trojans family by allowing players such as Fink and Velus Jones to return to the team last summer after they entered the transfer portal. Not every coach does that. Some misguided coaches even brag about not doing it.
During Pac-12 media days, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said: “If you go to the portal, then you’re done here. There’s no coming back.”
Helton believes differently. He understands these great athletes are still young men struggling to find their way, and it was appropriate that Fink led Helton’s team to victory Friday over that tough guy Whittingham.
Big win for USC. Bigger win for Helton. Like it or not, he’s not going anywhere just yet.