USC fires football coach Clay Helton, puts faith in Donte Williams to salvage season

USC coach Clay Helton watches the Trojans warm up before Saturday's loss to Stanford.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When Clay Helton was first elevated to head coach, after years of scandal and impropriety surrounding USC football, he was viewed as a virtuous caretaker, capable of restoring a troubled program with a fresh sense of integrity and stability.

But that virtue, unquestioned to the end, was not enough amid towering expectations. After years of unfulfilled promises and festering fan frustration over the direction of USC’s underachieving football program, the Trojans fired Helton just two games into his seventh season.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn twice chose to keep Helton as coach even in the face of fierce ire from the Trojans’ fanbase. But by Monday, in the wake of a disastrous defeat to Stanford two nights earlier, Bohn’s patience had finally worn thin.

“As I committed to upon my arrival at USC, during the past two offseasons we provided every resource necessary for our football program to compete for championships,” Bohn said in a statement. “The added resources carried significantly increased expectations for our team’s performance, and it is already evident that, despite the enhancements, those expectations would not be met without a change in leadership.”

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Associate head coach Donte Williams will serve as USC’s interim coach. He is the first Black coach in Trojans football history. Bohn said he made the decision to fire Helton and elevate Williams with the hope of salvaging the Trojans’ 2021 campaign.

Williams said during the “Trojans Live” radio show that he didn’t plan to make any major changes, but rather “enhance everything we do.” Williams, who also serves as cornerbacks coach, found out about his new position just before the team was told on Monday afternoon.

“You’re really going to enjoy Donte Williams,” Bohn said in a separate interview on “Trojans Live.” “I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do. Everything is in front of us as far as our aspirations to win the league still.”

Further staff changes are not anticipated at this time. But with Helton gone just two games into the season, Bohn will have the next three months to conduct a national search for his replacement.

“With our storied history, our talented young roster, and the major investments we’ve made in the infrastructure of our football organization, I’m optimistic that we are better positioned right now than we have been at any other time in the past decade to recruit the best and right leader for us,” Bohn said.

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In a statement posted to Twitter, Helton thanked USC’s administrators, players and fans for the opportunity to coach the team.

“I am so appreciative for all of the hard work that our current staff and student-athletes have put into preparing for this season, and while it will be hard to not be in the fight with you, I am confident great things lie ahead,” Helton said.

The decision to fire the embattled coach comes in the wake of a deeply disappointing 42-28 loss to Stanford on Saturday at the Coliseum, one of the worst defeats in recent memory for the Trojans. But the tension surrounding USC’s football program had been building over multiple tumultuous seasons. Fan discontent was already swelling after USC struggled before eventually pulling away from San Jose State in its season opener. It reached a feverish pitch on Saturday, as boos cascaded through a half-empty Coliseum amid USC’s most lopsided loss at home to an unranked opponent since 2000.

Faced that night with all-too-familiar questions about his future, Helton pleaded for more time during his postgame news conference.

“Let’s see at the end of the year,” Helton said. “Let’s see. It’s Game 2. It’s Game 2. I have total faith in this staff. I have total faith in the men that are in there, players, coaches. We didn’t play our best tonight. But I know this. At the end of the season, see where we’re at.”

Instead, Helton was fired two days later, closing his tenure as USC’s coach with a 46-24 record. His win percentage (.657) ranks ninth in USC football history, sandwiched between the Trojans’ last two fired coaches, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian.

Helton would ultimately meet the same in-season fate. Before 2013, when Kiffin was fired in a late-night meeting at Los Angeles International Airport, USC had never fired a football coach midseason. Since then, the university has made it common practice, firing Sarkisian five games into a tumultuous 2015 season, and now Helton even earlier — albeit under far different circumstances.


Helton still had two years remaining on his contract, which was extended after he led USC to his only Pac-12 championship, in 2017. The Trojans are just 19-15 since, but still Helton clung to his job, even as the athletic director who extended him, Lynn Swann, resigned in September 2019.

Middling performance and swelling outrage among USC boosters apparently outweighed any concerns that came with paying a hefty buyout in the midst of a financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. That price tag, which has been difficult to pin down because USC is a private school not required to release contracts in response to public records requests, was believed to be one of the primary factors in Bohn‘s previous decisions to retain Helton.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEP 11, 2021. USC head coach Clay Helton on the sideline.
USC coach Clay Helton walks the sideline during Saturday’s loss to Stanford.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The first of those controversial decisions came in 2019, less than a month after Bohn was hired away from Cincinnati as athletic director. After USC finished its regular season at 8-4, Bohn deliberated for 11 days before announcing he planned to keep Helton and reinvest resources to build up the football program around him.

Those plans led USC to double the size of its football support staff, turn around its struggling recruiting operation, and modernize its infrastructure for the new world of name, image, and likeness. But a year later, it appeared they’d done little to change USC’s fortunes on the football field — or the capabilities of its head coach.

As the health crisis wiped out games on a whim in 2020 and threatened to upend the season at any moment, the Trojans managed to win their first five contests and earned a place on the fringes of the College Football Playoff semifinal conversation. But three of those victories required furious comebacks in the final minute. The luck finally ran out during a Pac-12 title game loss to Oregon.

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Still, as fans clamored for a change, Bohn put his faith in a Helton turnaround. “I can’t think of one area where we didn’t improve,” Bohn told The Los Angeles Times in January.

It took just two games the following season for Bohn to change his mind.

“Our university and its leadership are committed to winning national championships and restoring USC football to glory,” the athletic director said in his statement.

Even as players sung Helton’s praises and administrators raved about his sincerity and the admirable character for which he was hired, many outside of the program wondered if he’d been miscast as a head coach at one of the nation’s most prestigious programs.

His folksy twang and reputation as a consummate gentleman endeared him to administrators early on, as he stood in stark contrast to Sarkisian, who was fired in October 2015 after a series of events, including appearing intoxicated at a university event.

Under fire for his handling of Sarkisian, former athletic director Pat Haden removed Helton’s interim coach tag a month later and lauded him as “a man with undisputed integrity.”

It was the same language Bohn and USC president Carol Folt would use years later to describe an ideal steward for USC athletics. But at the time of his hiring, even Helton understood he was something of an unusual fit. When Haden first introduced him as head coach, Helton apologized for “not being glitzy,” while acknowledging the desire of some USC fans for a bigger-name coach.

“Sometimes, the right choice is not always the easy choice,” he said. “I understand I’m not a flashy name.”

But as USC football continued to fade and the frustrations of its fans mounted, Bohn made the call many had long demanded. He fired Helton, setting his sights on restoring something more elusive than sincerity.


“We’re committed to winning national championships,” Bohn said, “and we believe that in order to do that, a change was needed.”