Column: When it comes to why Clay Helton is still the coach at USC, money matters

USC coach Clay Helton watches play from the sidelines during the first half against Arizona at the Coliseum on Oct. 19.
USC coach Clay Helton watches from the sidelines during the first half against Arizona at the Coliseum on Oct. 19.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

Holiday — the most wonderful time of the year; a great Madonna song; a disappointing way to finish the season for USC fans who want the school playing on New Year’s Day again.

As Clay Helton’s team ramps up practices for its matchup against Iowa in the Holiday Bowl, he does so with a large number of the USC faithful still angry that he’s there.

They wanted Urban Meyer. They wanted Bob Stoops. One fan was overheard asking Pete Carroll to come back when the Seattle Seahawks were in town to face the Rams. As fan sites and donors searched for answers as to why Helton wasn’t fired, one angle appears to have the most traction: it was cheaper to keep him.


On Friday, USC received an unwanted Christmas gift: formal notice of allegations from the NCAA regarding its basketball program.

Had this been only one incident, it could be described as bad luck — after all Friday was the 13th. But we all know USC has been riddled with so many scandals over the last two years that Olivia Pope and associates would have needed to lean on outsourcing just to keep up with the workload.

And anyone familiar with the popular character from the television show “Scandal” knows hiring people to handle them is very expensive. Retaining Helton is not a popular decision but it is a frugal one.

At a reported $3.2 million, good for 43rd place nationally, Helton is not even the highest-paid coach in the city. Perhaps for a university facing big bills to deal with big problems, a buyout north of $20 million on top of the cost to hire another coach and staff, as well as funding the requirements said coach would want, wasn’t something leadership wanted to do.

Remember John Robinson said he believes the main reason why he is a consultant at Louisiana State, and not USC, is because Lynn Swann wanted to save money.

USC says it received notice of allegations from the NCAA regarding its men’s basketball program. Former assistant Tony Bland was charged in the college basketball corruption and bribery scandal.

Dec. 13, 2019

When Meyer was at Ohio State, the school leased one plane and was part owner of another. According to the Associated Press, Meyer made 15 recruiting trips and 11 personal trips in one year on those planes, costing $350,000.


People with information on USC’s athletic department spending habits told me that the football program doesn’t spend anywhere near what they spend at schools like Ohio State, Alabama or Clemson.

If true, is it fair to condemn Helton for not winning big if the school spends little by comparison? Of course that all depends on who you are comparing the Trojans to. And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the rub.

By Pac-12 Conference standards, USC is not bashful when it comes to spending. When it comes to revenue generation and distribution, however, the Pac-12 is woefully behind the other power conferences.

According to reports, the Southeastern Conference generated nearly $660 million in revenue during the 2018 fiscal year. Eligible schools in the SEC received $43.7 million each. The Pac-12 brought in $497 million in 2018 and its schools received $29.5 million.

So while anger toward Helton may be somewhat justified given the results of the last two seasons, wondering why USC can’t beat Alabama may not be all his fault. The Pac-12 is not in the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

USC has given Helton the best resources in the conference. It’s the conference, not a penny-pinching athletic department, that is the villain here.


But I don’t hear that perspective from donors very often. I hear “the school is not spending enough and the reason why is because donors aren’t giving the way they used to because the team’s not winning.”

And yes, it’s usually said in a run-on sentence.

Brandon Sosna will join USC this month as a senior associate athletic director and MIke Bohn’s chief of staff, according to a person with knowledge of his hiring.

Dec. 11, 2019

So how can Helton change that narrative? It starts with this month’s Holiday Bowl and rolls into the 2020 kickoff against Alabama. Win those two games and much is forgiven. Lose both and donors will again be asking “why is he here?” and “why didn’t we break the bank to get someone else?”

The answer is somewhere between “we did break the bank” and “we don’t have more,” which admittedly is not very compelling. Especially considering USC spends among the best in the Pac-12 but its football team is not among the best.

The sense I get from people with knowledge of the situation is that Helton is on a very short leash that may tighten depending on what happens after the opener.

Even if that’s true, it may not be nearly as important as whether USC can keep fighting the big guns shorthanded. And if not, will disappointed donors pony up the difference to get the coaches who are used to getting more than what USC is used to giving?