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Commentary: Mike Bohn playing the long game when it comes to Clay Helton and USC football

USC football coach Clay Helton is congratulated by athletic director Mike Bohn.
USC football coach Clay Helton, left, is congratulated by athletic director Mike Bohn following the Trojans’ 2019 victory over UCLA at Coliseum.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Throughout college football’s frenzied New Year’s weekend, I kept thinking about Mike Bohn.

What must have been going through the USC athletic director’s mind Friday as he watched Luke Fickell, the coach he hired at Cincinnati, lead the Bearcats to a fourth-quarter lead in the Peach Bowl over the Georgia Bulldogs, a lead that would have held if not for a 53-yard field goal in the final seconds? Surely it was taking all of Bohn’s inner restraint not to pick up the phone and console Fickell with a feeler about potentially joining him in Los Angeles before the talented young coach is courted elsewhere.

What must Bohn have thought as Alabama and Ohio State — two blue bloods like USC — performed to the standard set by their forebears in pummeling Notre Dame and Clemson, respectively, to meet on the sport’s biggest stage? Before Bohn’s time at USC, the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes also had their way with the Trojans, prompting the first spirited critiques of Clay Helton among a fan base that has grown more tortured since.

That afternoon, as the national semifinals got going, news leaked that USC was firing offensive line coach Tim Drevno and allowing the contract of strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus to expire. The moves effectively put to rest any speculation that USC finally could be ready to move on from Helton, sending the faithful into further depression just hours into 2021.

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Korey Foreman, the defensive end from Corona Centennial High, announced his decision to attend USC on national television Saturday.

And that was only Friday.

How did Bohn feel Saturday morning when Texas, weeks after athletic director Chris Del Conte announced Tom Herman would be back, fired Herman with plans to hire Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to replace him? Now one of USC’s upper-crust competitors had shown it was so fed up with mediocrity that it was willing to fork over a reported $24 million in coaching buyouts to start over — never mind that Texas was excited to do so with Sark, who flopped during his less-than-two-season head-coaching tenure at USC just six years ago.

Given all of that, it didn’t take much detective work to know how Bohn felt Saturday afternoon when Korey Foreman, the consensus No. 1 overall recruit in the 2021 class and a defensive end out of Corona Centennial High, announced he had signed with USC. Foreman, a onetime Clemson commit, chose the Trojans over the Tigers, Georgia, Louisiana State and Arizona State. His decision followed the announcement of top cornerback Ceyair Wright of Loyola High picking USC.

Saturday night, Bohn tweeted, “Great to have the best recruit in the nation stay home to play for @USC_FB. Welcome to the Trojan Family, @koreyforeman54! #FightOn” — certainly the most enthusiastic “Fight On” Bohn has delivered since he bellowed the Trojan mantra at his Nov. 2019 introductory news conference.

Bohn’s tweet was accompanied by an earlier tweet from USC football’s main account that featured the phrase “Land of Opportunity” and a picture of Foreman flexing on the massive promotional video board outside Galen Center. None of this — not the Trojans’ work to keep many of this class’ best players in Southern California home, not the social-media-savvy acknowledgement of that accomplishment — was by accident.

It was all according to plan. Bohn’s plan.

The large majority of USC alums, donors and fans might not agree with the most crucial aspect of it — continuing with Helton as head coach until further notice — but it would be advisable for their sanity as the calendar turns to focus more on the rest of the vision for now because that part appears to be working.

USC coach Clay Helton, center, walks off the field with Markese Stepp, left, and Kedon Slovis.
USC coach Clay Helton, center, walks off the field with Markese Stepp, left, and Kedon Slovis following the Trojans’ loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 18.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

Bohn’s predicament as USC AD has fascinated me since the moment he stepped on campus. Because of the timing of his hiring, he has now overseen the dissatisfying end of two Trojans football seasons, the latest one shortened by half because of a global pandemic.

The first time, Bohn could have become an immediate hero among the faithful if he fired Helton. This time, his caution was less surprising, considering the pandemic’s impact on an athletic budget that already was playing from behind and the optics at the university level of soliciting donations for a football coach’s buyout amid these tragic societal circumstances.

We also have to remember that Helton’s fate very well could be out of Bohn’s hands. We don’t know the dynamic between university President Carol Folt, the board of trustees and the athletic department. For the sake of simplicity in discussing what is certainly a complex situation, let’s assume Bohn is neither all in on Helton nor fully against him and is being nudged to keep him based on factors beyond his control.

Whether Bohn knew when he took the job that Helton would remain his coach or whether that came as a shock, he has shown the confidence to play the long game at the expense of his popularity.

This season, Bohn couldn’t control Helton’s ability to coach “the discipline of the game” as the Trojans finished last in the Pac-12 in penalty yardage per game. What Bohn could do was support the program with the addition of eight support staff positions, fund the hiring of ace recruiter Donte Williams from Oregon and encourage ingenuity with the oncoming ability of USC players to profit from their name, image and likeness in the L.A. market.

Williams was the key cog in USC’s revamped recruiting machine, which flexed like old times Saturday with Foreman’s spurning of Southern powers for USC. Yes, it would have been fun to beat Oregon for the Pac-12 title, but if you want Helton out, winning a second league crown would only have gotten in the way. Recruiting victories like Foreman and Wright — and top quarterbacks Miller Moss and Jaxson Dart — will be much more important a year or two from now to make the USC job as attractive as it should always be for prospective candidates.

While Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl win spared us from another Alabama vs. Clemson game, the College Football Playoff is still lacking interest and parity.

Rather than bring in a new coach when the program had gone 13-12 in two seasons and had minimal resources to compete on a national scale with its traditional peers, Bohn has built sound infrastructure. His detractors would say none of it matters because the structure has a faulty core in Helton, but Bohn has tried to make improvements that should have staying power for whomever the coach is going forward.

While Texas’ move to buy out Herman and his staff was uncomfortably juxtaposed with Del Conte’s earlier decision to lay off 35 staff and cut another 35 vacant positions using the pandemic as an excuse, USC has not had a layoff or a furlough this year. The Trojans also have not had to cut nonrevenue sports as other Power Five schools have.

Folt’s administration wants USC to be compared to Ivy League institutions, not fat calf Texas, so Bohn potentially has earned trust that can be cashed in later when the moment is right to strike.

Maybe the takeaway from Fickell’s big year at Cincinnati isn’t that he should be USC’s head coach and Bohn blew it by not getting it done. Maybe it’s that Fickell’s success means Bohn knows how to build a high-functioning football program and is quietly already doing it again with the Trojans.


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