Column: USC is keeping Clay Helton. What is Mike Bohn thinking?

USC is bringing back coach Clay Helton for the 2020 season.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
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Mike Bohn has been here 10 minutes, and already he’s challenging a philosophy that has thrived for decades.

Seriously, new guy, what were you thinking?

By not making a change with Clay Helton, the recently hired USC athletic director just changed everything.

Fight On has become Trudge On.

“Conquest” is now “Kumbaya.”

Traveler IX must be fitted with blinkers.

By making the call to retain Helton as the Trojans football coach Wednesday in the wake of the program’s inexorable slide into irrelevance, the new boss has perhaps revealed the fine print on his resume.


None of it matches the script long ingrained in the USC championship football culture.

Clay Helton isn’t going anywhere. Despite rampant speculation, USC athletic director Mike Bohn has decided to keep Helton as the Trojans’ football coach.

Dec. 4, 2019

Bohn appears to be accepting of mediocrity. There is no other way you keep a head coach who has gone 13-11 in the last two seasons and hasn’t won a truly big game in three years.

Bohn seems to think USC fans are also accepting of mediocrity. That is the only reason to ignore the dwindling Coliseum attendance under Helton and the mounting threats from boosters to stay home if Helton sticks around.

Bohn apparently believes USC football sells itself. There is no other explanation for discounting the many recruiting losses the team has endured under Helton, with the Trojans currently ranked 67th in the country in the 2020 recruiting race.

Bohn must have the idea that a nice little Trojans football program run by a nice man is enough, that the Holiday Bowl is enough, that giving everyone a neat little extracurricular activity on a Saturday afternoon is enough.

Bohn must have completely forgotten he’s no longer at Cincinnati, Colorado, San Diego State or Idaho.

USC football still aspires to be USC football, it aspires to national championships and Heisman Trophies and landscape domination, yet the decision to retain Helton aspires to none of that.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn speaks at his introductory news conference with USC President Carol L. Folt on Nov. 7.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

No, you don’t fire Helton because Twitter rips you. You don’t fire him because boosters threaten you. You fire him because you believe the program is capable of greater achievements than those that are possible under him.

You fire Helton because you believe the obvious truth that USC football can be better with someone else. Yet Bohn made it clear Wednesday that he’s happy with things just the way they are.

Again, sir, what the heck were you thinking?

If new President Carol L. Folt pushed you to this decision, as some have suggested, what was she thinking?

If the Board of Trustees forced your hand, as some believe, what were they thinking?

“I am pleased to let you know Coach Helton will continue to be our head coach,” Bohn wrote in a letter to the Trojans’ athletic family. “His commitment to our student-athletes and to leading with integrity is vital to restoring our championship program, which is the goal for all of our teams.”

Helton has as much class and integrity as any coach of a major sports operation in this town’s history. But surely Bohn knows that there are other coaches out there with similar traits?


Coaches whose teams don’t rank 124th out of 130 teams in penalty yards. Coaches whose teams don’t rank 112th in turnover margin. Coaches whose teams didn’t lose by 32 points at home to Oregon last month in their biggest game of the year.

A closer look at the sad demise of former Trojan and Charger Kevin Ellison.

Dec. 4, 2019

There are great coaches out there, clean and accessible coaches, ones who could inspire a fan base and embrace recruits like Helton has failed to do.

You didn’t have to wade through the baggage of Urban Meyer to find a transformational head coach. You didn’t need to concede complete power to Bob Stoops to find a championship-caliber leader.

There were probably a half-dozen suitable candidates to lead the Trojans, and yet Bohn couldn’t figure out how to woo any of them.

“I believe Clay Helton probably did his best coaching job this year,” Bohn told reporters after the announcement. “With the incredibly tough schedule. With the adversity associated with injuries. Clay Helton deserves to have the right to continue to lead this program. He’s got the full grasp of his team.”

Did he really? With all those on-field discipline issues? With an 8-4 record that included only one win of significance against a team — Utah — that finished the season with a winning record? Helton’s best coaching job was three years ago, on the night of the Rose Bowl against Penn State, and he has scuffled since.


There was talk that the university was concerned over paying a buyout that could have been as much as $20 million. Bohn denied that was an issue, saying, “Irrelevant, was never a factor, never.”

Because Bohn didn’t announce this decision until three days after the Trojans’ season fate was sealed, there is some thought that he actually pursued other options, but, in the end, Folt and the trustees didn’t want to give up control of the football program to a swaggering big name who would have demanded it. A lack of university control led not only to football problems dating back to the Pete Carroll era, but also recent USC scandals in other departments.

USC fans sure are a vocal bunch. Here’s a collection of some of the best tweets and letters sent to the sports editor.

Dec. 4, 2019

This could very well have been a Folt power play with Bohn as the hammer, the new university administration letting everyone from fans to players to future coaches know that they are now running the show.

Although Bohn said he never actually interviewed another candidate, he acknowledged that he used the time to check out other possibilities, saying, “I really believed it was important to have a thorough process. ... I did that as much as I could in this short period of time.”

Now that Folt and Bohn are tied to Helton, then they better be standing behind him next Sept. 5 in Arlington, Texas, when the Trojans open the season against Alabama. And they better be there when the Trojans play at Oregon and at Utah.

USC must now endure a brutal 2020 football schedule with a coach whose teams have traditionally struggled in brutal environments. The accountability for those games no longer rests only with Helton, but also with the administrators who put him there.


And you thought Lynn Swann was under siege?

A similar heat is now on the new guy, his motives challenged, his priorities questioned, with Helton’s tenuous success as the only thing standing between him and failure.

In his first official act, Mike Bohn did the one thing that great Trojans are never supposed to do.

He stood still. He kept status quo. He trudged on.