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USC Sports

USC’s disgruntled fans will learn an important lesson from the Clay Helton decision

Clay Helton is congratulated by USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn at midfield after a 52-35 win over UCLA at the Coliseum.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Carol Folt and Mike Bohn are relatively new to USC, so both probably are still finding their way around campus as they try to incorporate cardinal and gold into their everyday attire. Chances are, they have yet to enjoy the simple pleasures of waiting in line to get into the 9-0 or devouring the carne asada fries at the taco stand formerly known as Chano’s.

Their first big joint decision will come when they decide the fate of Clay Helton. That decision not only will impact the future of the football program but also tell USC fans whether Folt, their new president, and Bohn, the new athletic director, have a finger on the pulse of the fan base or are as tone deaf as their predecessors.

It’s really not a hard decision. Parting ways with Helton actually may be one of the easier decisions they make. It’s not that Helton is a bad coach or had a bad season, it’s just that he simply cannot continue to lead USC’s football program.

You could look at his record over the last two seasons (13-11) or his record without Sam Darnold as his starting quarterback (20-17), but it goes beyond wins and losses. His presence on the sideline is slowly sucking the life out of the program. The average attendance at the Coliseum over the last two seasons is 57,403, meaning there are regularly more than 20,000 empty seats for home games — more when you look at tickets actually used and not just distributed. Not only is there apathy among a dwindling fan base, but there’s also growing apathy with potential recruits — the lifeblood of any successful program. USC’s recruiting classes have been a fixture in the top 10 for years, regardless of the coach, but its 2020 class currently ranks outside of the top 65, according to multiple sources.

USC recruits itself and should never fall outside of the top 25. It’s an indictment of the coach when it sinks to its current depths. It’s not hard to recruit against USC right now. Most opposing coaches don’t need to tell recruits anything they don’t already know about Helton’s uncertain future. Even if USC decides to stay the course with Helton, he would be a lame duck coach in danger of being fired at any point. Few recruits are willing to tie their futures to a coach in that kind of situation.

It’s clear that USC’s new president and new athletic director need to hire a new football coach. The question is whether it’s as clear to them as it is to a disgruntled fan base they’re still getting to know.

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Los Angeles is and will always be a Lakers town, but when it comes to sports television viewing, the NFL is still king. Even in L.A.

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At 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, the Chargers-Denver game was on CBS, the Rams-Arizona game was on Fox and the Lakers-Dallas game was on Spectrum SportsNet. Guess which game had the biggest rating in Los Angeles? Chargers-Broncos, followed by Rams-Cardinals and Lakers-Mavericks.

L.A. isn’t exactly a Chargers town, but TV ratings show it is more of an NFL town than it gets credit for.

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Speaking of ratings, the reunion of former USC teammates Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, along with Urban Meyer, has helped make Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” show must-see television. On Saturday, the show beat ESPN‘s “College GameDay” with a 1.6 rating to a 1.54 rating from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. PT It helped that it was broadcasting live from Ann Arbor, Mich., and led into the Ohio State-Michigan game, but the show typically holdsits own against what for years has been an unrivaled college football pregame ritual.

Before the season, Bush jokingly said he and Leinart would try to recruit Meyer to USC if the Trojans struggled.

“We’ll definitely be recruiting him,” Bush said. “What makes you think we won’t be recruiters? Nothing is off the table … They have to win the division. This is a put-up-or-shut-up season for them, especially for Clay Helton.”

USC did not win the division, and time will tell if Meyer will be back on the show next season or roaming the sideline at USC or elsewhere.

“I believe I’m done, but I’ve also learned to just live in the moment,” Meyer said before the season. “I love what I’m doing and I hope I do this for a long time.”

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