‘We wanted him to be the next Pete Carroll’: USC players regroup after Clay Helton’s dismissal

USC head coach Clay Helton on the sideline during a game against Stanford.
USC head coach Clay Helton on the sideline during a game against Stanford at the Coliseum on Saturday. Helton was fired Monday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Isaiah Pola-Mao didn’t sign with USC for this. The safety had much loftier expectations than seeing his head coach fired.

“We wanted him to be the next Pete Carroll,” Pola-Mao said Tuesday of recently dismissed Clay Helton. “We wanted to lift him up and be great. Of course, things don’t go our way, stuff happens in this business, but he’s always with us. He’s always part of this family.”

Still picking up the emotional pieces of losing their head coach after Helton was fired on Monday, players are trying to rally behind interim head coach Donte Williams, who will lead the Trojans (1-1) into Saturday’s game at Washington State.


Helton spoke to the team Monday to break the news, a specific request he asked of athletic director Mike Bohn. Bohn granted the wish, allowing Helton to say goodbye to the group he had recruited. Players will hold the moment closely, punter Ben Griffiths said after the team’s first practice with reporters after the coaching change.

After Helton addressed the team, Bohn spoke, followed by Williams, marking a passing of the torch as the Trojans try to salvage a season during which they have already fallen out of the Associated Press top 25 after two weeks.

“It’s very rare that you get a reset button in sport and we’ve got that opportunity now to really fix what we need to do and really attack the backend of the season,” Griffiths said. “It’s not really the backend. It’s the start, really.”

USC was right to fire Clay Helton, but the Trojans need a big name to return them to glory. Maybe not Pete Carroll, but the power and swagger Carroll represented.

The new life comes with a first-time head coach as Williams takes over. The 39-year-old has never even been a full-time coordinator, but earned the interim job based on his ability to build relationships, Bohn said, evidenced by his reputation as an ace recruiter.

Although it’s still early in Williams’ tenure, receiver Drake London noticed an increase in competition at practice Tuesday. It’s part of Williams’ main message of “going 1-0 about everything we do.”

“Life is all about competing,” Williams said.

The Culver City High alumnus spent almost the entire practice Tuesday watching the No. 1 offense, hoping to catch up on verbiage and operations he never had to learn while focusing on cornerbacks. He easily got lost among the crowd of players and other assistants dressed similarly in all black. Even when a deep completion from quarterback Kedon Slovis drew cheers from players, Williams remained inconspicuous.

The defense-minded coach is still learning to cheer for the offense.

“That’s something I’ve never experienced,” Williams said with a smile. “I’ve never got so happy when a receiver caught a ball and a quarterback made a perfect throw.”

Needing to focus on the entire team is completely different, Williams said. While he’s already made an impression on the defense, where he coordinated a passing defense that improved from 96th to 43rd in the nation in yards passing allowed, offensive players will now get a taste of Williams’ straight-forward coaching style.

“He’s a real genuine guy,” Pola-Mao said. “He’ll tell you how it is, he’s not going to sugarcoat nothing, he’s going to really tell you how it is. If you’re doing bad, you’re doing bad, he’s going to make you step up, make you want to do good.”

Here’s everything you need to know about USC football in the wake of the team’s decision to fire coach Clay Helton following its loss to Stanford.

The Trojans need their new coach to spark a drastic turnaround. Even before the deflating loss to Stanford, USC struggled against San Jose State in the season opener. The offense has struggled in the red zone, settling for field goals on five of nine trips in two games. After an impressive season opener, the defense regressed against the Cardinal and gave up 42 points and 7.1 yards per play.

But hope remains. A conference championship is still possible as the Trojans have yet to face a Pac-12 South opponent.

“Coach [Keary Colbert] told me, some of the best teams, they have a fluke in the beginning of the season, then they win all the rest and they go to the ship,” London said. “So the ship’s not sunken yet, I can tell you that.”