Mike Bohn’s plan: Clean up USC’s athletic department before tackling football

LOS ANGELES, CA, SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 2019 - USC head coach Clay Helton and Athletic Director Mike Bohn.
USC coach Clay Helton and athletic director Mike Bohn share a laugh at midfield after the Trojans’ 52-35 victory over UCLA at the Coliseum in November.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Wonder of wonders, maybe the USC athletic department really does have a plan.

Miracle of miracles, maybe Mike Bohn really does know what he is doing.

Within hours of former beloved Trojan Ed Orgeron winning a national championship somewhere else, and within days of celebrated booster Brian Kennedy calling the football program, “dog ... ,” maybe USC finally got something right.

The seemingly ominous narrative that began last month with the stunning retention of football coach Clay Helton came into clearer, brighter focus Tuesday when other longtime Trojans were reportedly swept away.


Three of USC’s most senior athletic officials left the university — separated, resigned, fired, whatever — in what could be the first stage of a remodeling that could eventually reach the football team.

Gone are longtime Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer Steve Lopes, longtime senior associate athletic director Ron Orr and associate athletic director Scott Jacobson.

Three of USC’s most senior athletic department officials, including Steve Lopes, the CFO and COO, will not continue in their roles.

Taking their place will eventually be new voices that will contribute new ideas to the staid USC culture.

If Helton stumbles in the fall, it is those voices that will help create and nurture a forward-thinking atmosphere that the Trojans hope will lure the best and brightest coaching candidates.

Call this the housecleaning before the housecleaning.

People familiar with USC’s thinking believe that’s the plan, anyway.

Bohn was unavailable for comment, but it seems his blueprint is coming into focus, even if it was initially executed rather clumsily and amid great outrage.

It turns out that Bohn retained Helton not only because of money concerns — the $20-million buyout was clearly a factor — but also because of environmental concerns.

Bohn didn’t want to bring in a new coach until he had cleaned up the toxic surroundings. With USC being the only school targeted in both FBI college athletics probes in the last 18 months, he didn’t want a new coach to have to suddenly be hit with questions about legal issues out of his control.

The university was particularly focused on ridding the school of any officials with potential or alleged involvement in the college admissions scandal.

The university’s goal to get the feds out of its athletic offices cannot be overstated. That has always been their first priority. That is why Bohn was hired. His first job was not to clean out the football team, it was to clean up the athletic department.

“You can’t run a program if you don’t have integrity,” said Carol L. Folt, USC president, in an interview last fall with The Times’ Ryan Kartje.

Bohn viewed the Helton situation through that lens. In terms of the entire athletic department makeover, Helton was actually one of the least of its problems.

Before making a coaching change, Bohn wanted to make an infrastructure change. He felt he needed a revitalized department before he enlisted a new coach. He didn’t want a new coach to be smothered in the ancient USC mind-set that allowed the program to fall into disrepair. He wanted to give a new coach a fighting chance.

So Bohn decided to keep Helton for at least one more season — probably only one more season — while he set his sights on fixing everything around him.

Bohn surely had no idea of the fury that decision would unleash. He undoubtedly underestimated the passion that burns within the Trojans family.

But he was not going to bring a new coach into a chaotic and unsettled situation. And, just for the record, according to USC people familiar with the situation, Urban Meyer was never considered, nor will he ever be considered; it’s that integrity thing.

USC booster Brian Kennedy is happy for LSU coach Ed Orgeron, but he can’t shake the feeling in his gut that this should be USC being coached by the fiery Cajun on the sport’s grandest stage.

So Bohn saved $20 million and took the heat and stuck to his plan. Tuesday was the first big step. There will surely be other steps. Employees with any sort of baggage will be removed. New faces will arrive. One now wonders whether coach Andy Enfield of the scandal-touched basketball program will survive.

It’s all leading up to next football season, when the team will be surrounded with new administrators, new ideas, two new major positional coaches and, USC hopes, a refreshing absence of scandal.

Suddenly, the USC football coaching job might become a good one again. Just like that, the Trojans could perhaps attract a top candidate again.

Certainly, Helton and his team could defy the odds and have a terrific season. But he’s on such an incredibly short leash, here’s guessing the Trojans would need to win the Pac-12 Conference championship for him to have any chance to save his job.

If Helton was removed this winter as most everyone wanted, including in this space, the next guy would be in the middle of lingering turmoil that could be a recipe for failure.

If Helton is removed next season, the athletic department would be in a perfect position to set up the new guy for support and success.

OK, so I still say Bohn could have made a coaching change and found someone special and the new guy could have endured a little chaos and eventually enjoyed the assistance of a revived athletic department.

But this way could work too.