Column: USC just isn’t USC if it doesn’t pursue football excellence

USC President Carol L. Folt, left, shakes hands with athletic director Mike Bohn during a Nov. 7 news conference.
USC President Carol L. Folt, left, shakes hands with athletic director Mike Bohn during a Nov. 7 news conference.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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University administrators, like politicians and football coaches, speak in code. Rarely are they direct.

So when Carol L. Folt said last month that USC’s football coach would have to be someone with “impeccable integrity,” her audience could only guess what she was actually saying. The new USC president used the word “integrity” again when introducing athletic director Mike Bohn, resulting in further speculation.

Was “integrity” an empty word? Was it a warning to the Trojan Family that Urban Meyer wouldn’t be hired? Or did it mean something else?


The answer came Wednesday in Folt’s defense of Bohn’s indefensible decision to retain Clay Helton as head coach.

“[Bohn] believes very strongly that coach Helton has led the football team with integrity,” Folt said to Ryan Kartje of The Times. “He’s deeply committed to student-athletes’ success, on and off the field.”

Folt gave some lip service to winning — she described her expectation as “excellence with integrity” — but the excellence part was optional, evidently. If she were looking for a winner without Meyer’s history of ethical lapses, Helton would have been fired. Helton isn’t the only coach in the country who doesn’t have Meyer’s baggage. Some of the others actually win.

Instead of making a move to inspire the USC fanbase, athletic director Mike Bohn has opted to keep the football program mired in mediocrity.

Dec. 4, 2019

So if winning is a luxury, the “integrity” she requires is to be scandal free and NCAA compliant.

If Folt’s quote above has a familiar feel to it, it’s because something similar was said last winter.

The speaker? Then-athletic director Lynn Swann, who, like Bohn, upset the program’s fan base by refusing to fire Helton.


Addressing the Trojan Athletic Fund Club of Orange County in February, the since-resigned Swann said, “As long as our program stays compliant, as long as our coaches are doing it to the best of their ability, working hard, as long as we recruit and treat our players with respect and help them grow and graduate and have a great college experience and we have a good culture at USC, then I’m going to give them an opportunity to do the things they need to do.”

In other words, if the football program stayed out of trouble and graduated its players, he would be satisfied.

Swann’s resignation was expected to be the start of a new era for USC’s athletics, but Folt’s ambitions for the department’s signature team appear oddly similar to Swann’s.


Why Folt would adopt such a stance is understandable — to a point.

Her job is to restore order to a university diminished by the college admission scandal as well as its recent employment of a gynecologist charged with criminal sexual assault and a medical school dean cited for illegal drug use and association with criminals. Her concerns extend far beyond the football field.

By accepting the mediocrity resulting from Helton’s inability to reduce penalties or improve the Trojans’ special teams, however, Folt is punting her most valuable asset.


There aren’t many blue-blood college football programs in the nation and this is one of them. Only Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Ohio State can compare.

And the football program is the most visible part of USC. It’s a symbol for what the university aspires to be. Keeping Helton sends the message that USC views excellence as something that is nice to have rather than an expectation.

Granted, outside of Meyer, none of Helton’s possible replacements represented a sure bet. That shouldn’t have stopped the administration from making a change. So maybe the school will have to swing-and-miss on a few hires before finding the version of Pete Carroll who won’t land them on probation.

Or maybe it will never find him. That’s not the point. The striving is what matters. Striving inspires hope. Striving reinforces ideas of self-identity.

The moment USC football abandons its pursuit of national championships is when it stops being special and becomes like any other Power Five program.

That’s what USC has become.

This isn’t permanent. Not yet. A year or two more of Helton won’t erase the program’s incredible history.


But the longer Helton is around, the more his successor will have to overcome.

USC’s 2020 recruiting class is rated 11th in the Pac-12 and 67th nationally, according to’s composite rankings.

The Trojans’ recruiting efforts were presumably affected by the perception that their program is a dumpster fire. The same concerns will be there next year as Helton will be on the hot seat as soon as USC is blown out by Alabama in its season opener.

USC’s next coach will not only have to inherit Helton’s players, he will also likely have to win over fans alienated by this administration.

Rather than take responsibility to create the kind of football program worthy of support, Folt placed the onus on the fans to continue backing an underperforming and undercoached team.

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

“I’d say to the fans, you’ve been loyal for so many years,” Folt told Kartje. “That has been something the university has always really valued and still values now.”

Her comments were less offensive than Bohn’s, which blamed the fans for creating obstacles in recruiting.

He said the frustration that comes from the base “sometimes doesn’t help us particularly with that.”


Bohn also defended Helton’s next incoming class of players.

“Recruiting is going dramatically better than anybody wants to admit,” Bohn said, as if there were an anti-USC conspiracy involving multiple publications.

The absence of accountability extended to the decision on Helton. Bohn said his “recommendation” to Folt was for Helton to be retained, implying the final decision was hers, not his. Folt offered a different story of the process, saying, “I hired Mike to make this important decision.”

None of this will go over well.

And it shouldn’t. By looking at the big picture, Folt and Bohn missed something small but fundamental — the bold spirit that was the foundation of the university’s greatest triumphs, both on the football field and its rapidly improving classrooms. Years will be required to repair the damage.