Column: Get it right this time, USC. Hire somebody who’s somebody as your next football coach

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEP 11, 2021. USC head coach Clay Helton on the sideline during a game against Stanford.
USC coach Clay Helton stands on the sideline against Stanford at the Coliseum on Saturday. Helton was fired by USC on Monday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

On a day when the USC football program finally put torment in its past, there was no containing the size of its future.

It burst through my in-box Monday afternoon almost immediately after Clay Helton was fired.

It came in the form of a statement from Rick Caruso, chairman of the USC Board of Trustees.


“I appreciate everything that Clay Helton has done for our students over the last several years,” Caruso wrote. “However, it has become abundantly clear that it is time to make a change and I am supportive of the actions taken today by President [Carol] Folt and AD [Mike] Bohn. We have a proud football tradition of excellence, and I am confident in our ability to attract a world-class coach who will return the USC football program to the most competitive and highest levels of collegiate football.”

Did you hear that? “World-class coach?” “Most competitive and highest levels of collegiate football?”

USC has fired embattled coach Clay Helton, who had long been a source of fan discontent, in the wake of the team’s 42-28 loss to Stanford on Saturday.

Sept. 13, 2021

Those lofty goals should go without saying, but the Trojans’ leading power broker said it anyway. The tone has been set for a football coaching search unlike any the school has conducted in 20 years.

They need to go big, go powerful, go national, go gravitas.

Go greatness.

They need to forgo the odd, inner-circle hirings of the last two decades and hire the absolute biggest, brightest and most influential figure possible. This is still a plum job, and, while it might be intriguing to uncover a diamond in the rough, don’t get cute.

Hire somebody who is somebody.

No more precocious Trojans sons like Lane Kiffin. No more slick Trojans disciples like Steve Sarkisian. And no more Trojans interims like Clay Helton.

No more searching for a coach like you’re putting together a family reunion. No more looking for the quiet brother, the safe cousin, the spunky nephew.


Folt and Bohn need to put aside the fears of past USC administrators who worried that if the football coach was too dominant and dynamic, the program would become its own fiefdom and the university would lose control.

USC president Carol L. Folt stands next to USC athletic director Mike Bohn.
USC president Carol L. Folt stands next to USC athletic director Mike Bohn during his introductory news conference in November 2019.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Call it the Pete Carroll Effect. In the strangest of evolutions, the coach who led USC to the greatest sustained glory in the program’s history has been affixed with a scarlet letter by some university officials because of the rules he broke and independence he created.

Well, all those rules are barely rules anymore because the NCAA, the organization that enforced those rules, is barely an organization anymore. And all those wins happened because Carroll was not only a coach, but also a chief executive who ran the program like the Fortune 500 company that successful Power 5 programs mimic today.

Carroll lifted both the USC football program, and the university’s overall stature, to greatness because he had the power, swagger and independence to create that greatness.

For too many years, USC quietly tried to separate itself from The Carroll Effect, but it should now seek it, embrace it and hire it.


Swallow the egos. Cede the control. Don’t fear the giant.

Who will be taking over Clay Helton’s football coaching job at USC? Here’s a look at 13 coaching candidates primed to be front-runners for the permanent job.

Sept. 13, 2021

Mike Garrett hired Carroll because Garrett was secure in his legacy and wasn’t threatened by the coach’s NFL pedigree, his charisma, the power he would wield.

Pat Haden hired Kiffin, Sarkisian and Helton partially because Haden believed in a more patriarchal system in which the athletic director maintained all that power.

Lynn Swann gave Helton that insane contract extension that saved Helton’s job for the same reason. Swann knew Helton would keep quiet and follow orders.

The Trojans don’t need that, they need a force who will boldly give the orders, and it’s now on Folt and Bohn to follow Caruso’s mandate and find one.

While this will be the most visible move in Folt’s brief tenure, even more is at stake for Bohn. It may seem unfair to the many other successful Trojans sports teams, but the hard truth is that the USC athletic director has basically one job: hire the right football coach.

There were many other championships won under Garrett, but his legacy as athletic director is forever defined by him hiring the right football coach.


There were many great things that happened under Haden, and a few great things that happened under Swann, but their legacies are both defined by the hiring and backing of the wrong football coaches.

USC fired Clay Helton and named Donte Williams its interim football coach Monday, making him the first Black coach in school history.

Sept. 13, 2021

For Bohn, this is everything. And considering he’s never made a hire this big in his previous stops at Idaho, San Diego State, Colorado or Cincinnati, this probably will make some Trojans fans nervous.

So, Mike, a few ideas.

Start with Stoops. Make your first call to Bob Stoops, the retired former Oklahoma national championship coach. He built an empire on the plains, and, at age 61, he’s still young enough to do it again in Hollywood.

Phone up Petersen. Make a call to Chris Petersen, the retired former Boise State and Washington coach. He built two Pac-12 champions, won two Fiesta Bowls, has an .800 winning percentage and, at age 56, is younger than Stoops.

Think aura. Think presence. Think inside the box.

There will be a lot of inside-football talk about Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, but beware of hot names from smaller markets. This hire can’t be a person who can build national credibility. This must be a person that already has national credibility.

The directions are clear.

“World-class coach.”

Now go find one.

USC president Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn can no longer delay firing football coach Clay Helton, a good man who is a bad fit to lead the Trojans.

Sept. 12, 2021