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USC AD Mike Bohn to fans who want a coaching change: ‘We’re committed to winning’

USC head coach Clay Helton and athletic director Mike Bohn share a laugh together at midfield.
USC head coach Clay Helton and athletic director Mike Bohn share a laugh together at midfield after a 52-35 win over UCLA at the Coliseum on Nov. 23, 2019.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In his nearly two years as USC’s athletic director, Mike Bohn has seen the Coliseum filled with fans just one time. It was late November 2019. He’d been on the job two weeks then, watching intently as USC beat UCLA. A few months later, the tenor of that job would change dramatically.

Bohn’s tenure has since been marked by empty stadiums and cardboard fans, pandemic protocols and PCR tests, county health administrators and constant, crippling uncertainty, all amid a backdrop of landscape-altering changes to the very model of college sports.

Those ripples are ongoing. The pandemic lingers on. Earlier this week, Los Angeles County moved to mandate masks at outdoor mega events, which includes USC football games. The specter of further gameday changes, including vaccination requirements, looms as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, just two weeks before the season.

But amid the unanswerable inquiries and unsolvable quandaries associated with the pandemic and the approaching football season, the question of Clay Helton’s status as USC’s head coach has remained a constant since the last time fans flooded the concourse of the Coliseum.

Nearly everything around Helton has changed in the meantime. His coaching staff was rebuilt. The recruiting operation was retooled. The infrastructure of the football program was modernized, from the beefed-up support staff to the new in-house creative studio.

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USC freshman tight end Michael Trigg is still learning the playbook, but he has impressed his coaches and teammates with his talent and athleticism.

That progress is unimpeachable, and as Bohn and his chief of staff Brandon Sosna met with reporters Thursday ahead of the season, both were happy to point to it as proof their process is working. But as so much has changed around their embattled head football coach, the pertinent question now is what it will take, in their eyes, for Helton to hold up his end of the bargain?

Neither was about to set any bars or offer any ultimatums. But when asked if it was fair to characterize the upcoming season as make-or-break for Helton, Bohn said he didn’t think that was accurate.

“We recognize the improvement in the program and all the different things we’re doing,” Bohn said. “Our trajectory is strong.”

That path led the Trojans to a 5-1 finish and a Pac-12 title game loss last December. Since, USC has signed a top-10 recruiting class and launched a significant operation on name, image and likeness, offering tangible evidence that many of the investments made by Bohn and his department are paying off.

The fact that those changes were made amid the circumstances of a pandemic make them all the more impressive. But they still aren’t enough to satiate a frustrated fan base hellbent on seeing Helton’s ouster.

“Obviously, we’re committed to winning,” Bohn said when asked about the fairness of fans’ frustration. “And I think that our investments and the things that we’ve done that we said we’d do, we’ve delivered on and we’re going to continue to do that. So we’re gonna do everything we can to ensure that we can attract the type of support that can play a significant role in helping us.”

Ever since his arrival, Bohn has been asked regularly about those expectations. He assures his own haven’t changed.

“We want to be in the Rose Bowl and being a part of that College Football Playoff,” Bohn said.

“Those are our goals, and you think of where we were before the ’19 season, we were ranked 47th, 48th, 49th, somewhere right in there, and we ended up 28th. The following year, through COVID, we were ranked 17 and we ended up 17, and this year we’re ranked 15 to start the season, so we’re making progress.”

USC offensive linemen Courtland Ford and Jonah Manheim bookend offensive line in perhaps a glimpse of starting lineup.

It’s unclear where that bar is set ahead of Helton’s seventh season as USC’s coach. He still has three years remaining on his contract, which was extended in 2018.

But the major hindrances Helton outlined to Bohn and Sosna early on in their tenure have, by and large, been addressed.

On Sosna’s desk, he still keeps two Post-it Notes from their first meetings with the coach, filled with issues they set out to handle within the program. Everything from recruiting to support staff to other organizational details.

“I think we’ve checked off almost every single one of those boxes,” Sosna said.

The Post-its are a reminder of how much they’ve been able to change in a short time.

But as another football season approaches and fans prepare to fill the stands, it’s up to Helton to check off the final, most elusive box.


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