News Analysis: USC’s unfulfilled promise leaves coach Clay Helton’s future in limbo

USC coach Clay Helton talks to a referee during a win over Arizona in November.
USC coach Clay Helton, left, talks to a referee during a win over Arizona in November. Helton has struggled to meet expectations in his tenure at USC.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

With every frustrating finish came the same flimsy assurance.

USC was close, Clay Helton would say. Better days were always just one season away.

When the Trojans fell to 5-7 in 2018, their first finish below-.500 in nearly two decades, Helton explained in a statement that “the best is yet to be.” When USC was humiliated at the Holiday Bowl a year later, the coach promised it was “on the cusp of being great.” And by last Friday, when a crushing defeat to an inferior Oregon team cost the Trojans a Pac-12 title, Helton assured again in that familiar, rosy tone that USC was just “on the edge of winning championships.”

But after five full seasons under his care, it’s clear the Trojans are no closer to realizing that potential under Helton, who, at 18-13 in his last three seasons, could soon find himself on the precipice of unemployment.


A day after losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, USC announced it will not play in a bowl game because of the risks associated with COVID-19.

Dec. 19, 2020

Whether USC would actually venture to make such a bold move in the midst of a pandemic remains to be seen. It’s not an ideal time to make a coaching change. There are serious financial concerns to consider, with the university anticipating an operational deficit in the hundreds of millions, and Helton still under contract through 2023 with a hefty buyout attached. But it’s a conversation at least worth having, one that’s raging all around the Trojans disillusioned fanbase.

When Mike Bohn decided a month after his arrival to retain Helton, igniting that rage the first time, the new USC athletic director sat down with the coach to ask him what he still needed to succeed. They wound up retooling most of the operation, revamping the support staff, and committing an influx of new resources to recruiting. They added top recruiters and up-and-coming defensive coaches, graphic designers and video editors, everything possible to support Helton’s pursuit of progress.

But that support came with an understanding: There were no more excuses to be made for underachieving.

“He’s well aware of the expectations and the commitments we’ve made,” Bohn told The Los Angeles Times in February.

The pandemic upended that evaluation process, seemingly guaranteeing Helton a pardon for whatever unfolded in 2020. But in the wake of last Friday’s defeat, that no longer seems so assured.

On paper, it’s hard to argue with a 5-1 finish to a season packed with unprecedented challenges. The Trojans didn’t start their campaign until November and still won their first five games for the first time since 2006. They won the South division for the first time since 2017 by mounting three comebacks in the final minute. They fell short of a fourth in the Pac-12 title game by just a single possession.


The sham of amateurism in NCAA sports is a settled moral argument, Times columnist LZ Granderson writes. Sometime in 2021 the Supreme Court will address where the question falls legally.

Dec. 20, 2020

But that’s a particularly rosy perspective, one that ignores some important context. While the Trojans might indeed have been a score away from a Pac-12 title, they also spent most of the season on the brink of unraveling.

They dug early holes in nearly every game, only to claw their way back just in time. It took an onside kick, a tipped touchdown catch, a long kick return, and three amazing final drives from quarterback Kedon Slovis just to keep USC afloat. Those three hard-fought victories came against teams with a 5-13 overall record.

With the most talent in the conference and the easiest schedule, USC should’ve coasted through its shortened season, on its way to a Pac-12 title. Instead, it repeatedly shot itself in the foot.

Helton has vowed more than once to address that pervasive lack of discipline, but over the last two seasons especially, there’s been little sign of progress in that regard. USC went from giving away 67.5 penalty yards per game in 2019, worst in the Pac-12, to giving away 71 per game in 2020, also worst in the Pac-12. Against Oregon, nine penalties played a large part in USC’s undoing.

A consistently ineffective run game was another constant issue. In each of Helton’s five seasons, USC’s rushing yards per game has declined precipitously, culminating this season in the Pac-12’s worst ground game at 97 yards per game.

That’s not to say there weren’t some signs of progress this season. The defense took a major step forward under new coordinator Todd Orlando, while the rest of USC’s defensive assistants have had the intended effect, bringing a more physical, imposing attitude to the entire unit. Special teams, under new coordinator Sean Snyder, are no longer a disaster. And recruiting bounced back from the 64th-ranked class last year to the 11th-ranked one this year, with room to climb even higher if No. 1 overall recruit Korey Foreman pledges to USC early next month.


“You want to see movement forward, you want to see progression, and that’s where we’re at,” Helton said on the “Trojans Live” radio show Monday night. “We’re on an upward trend right now.”

But for all his promises of progress, the Trojans are still just on the cusp ... on the brink ... on the edge of being the program Helton vowed it would be.

Close, yet still so far away.