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USC football coaches: Glory and gaffes, from Gloomy Gus to Lincoln Riley

Clockwise, from top left: Former USC coaches John McKay; Pete Carroll; John Robinson; Howard Jones; and Lane Kiffin.
(Los Angeles Times; Associated Press; Getty Images)
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As USC looks forward to a new era under new head coach Lincoln Riley, let’s look at the 17 coaches in the modern era of Trojans football who produced a record of 792-317-40 with 11 national championships over the last 103 years.

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Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson: 1919-1924, 45-7-0

The good: USC had played football games sporadically since 1888, but Henderson was the first full-time coach and the Trojans emerged as a power almost from his start. The Trojans went 6-0 in 1920 and posted their first Rose Bowl victory on New Year’s Day 1923, defeating Penn State. The next season, USC moved from Bovard Field on campus to the Coliseum.

The bad: Henderson was 0-5 against California, nicknamed the “Wonder Team” for its five consecutive unbeaten seasons from 1920-1924. The last loss prompted USC to fire Henderson and pursue Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne, who turned down the offer.

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The odd: Henderson was dubbed “Gloomy Gus” by Los Angeles Times sports editor Paul Lowry after a popular cartoon character because he constantly downplayed the Trojans’ chances of winning.

The letter: Henderson wrote a letter to Rockne during Notre Dame’s famed unbeaten 1924 season stating the Trojans would welcome a chance to play the Irish. Although Henderson was let go before a game could be arranged, the series was launched in 1926 with a 13-12 Notre Dame victory in front of 75,000 at the Coliseum that Rockne called “the greatest game I ever saw.”

Patience and a well-timed recruiting pitch helped USC lure Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma, sending shockwaves through the college football world.

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Howard Jones: 1925-1940, 121-36-13

USC football captain Don McNeil, who plays center, with coach Howard Jones.
USC football captain Don McNeil, who plays center, and Howard Jones, starting his 14th year as head coach, discuss the prospects of the 1938 season. (AP Photo)
(Uncredited / Associated Press)

The good: Rockne recommended Jones for the USC job after turning it down himself, and Jones was exceptional, leading the Trojans to national championships in 1928, 1931, 1932 and 1939 and five Rose Bowl wins. Dubbed the “Thundering Herd,” the Trojans outscored UCLA by a combined score of 128-0 in their first two meetings under the stone-faced Jones. The 1932 USC national championship team outscored opponents 201-13.

The sad: Described by the Times’ Jim Murray as an “austere, forbidding man,” Jones died of a heart attack at age 55 in the summer of 1941, ending his 16-year reign at USC.

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The invention: Jones created the “Howard H. Jones Collegiate Football Game,” a 1930s board game that featured a mechanical device that launched a tiny ball for punts, kickoffs and field goals. Arrows were spun to determine the outcome of plays.

The quotes: Former Thundering Herd player Nick Pappas on Jones: “Off the field, his personality was practically nothing. But on the practice field, he was electrifying. You could sense the electricity when he walked onto the field. You didn’t have to turn around and look, you knew he was there.”

Jones: “Football to me is power-massed power, functioning smoothly, driving forward relentlessly.”

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Sam Barry: 1941, 2-6-1

Sam Barry was named head football coach at USC for the 1941 season.
Sam Barry, named head football coach at USC, succeeds his long-time mentor, the late Howard Jones. (AP Photo)
(Associated Press)

The good: Football was a distant third sport for Barry. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for guiding the Trojans to a record of 260-138 in 17 seasons, including eight conference titles and 32 consecutive wins over UCLA. He is also a Hall of Fame baseball coach, leading USC to nearly 400 wins from 1930-1950 despite serving in the Navy during World War II. He’s one of only three coaches to take teams to the Final Four and College World Series.

The bad: An assistant for several seasons under Jones, Barry had the daunting task of taking over the football program after Jones’ sudden death. USC struggled in Barry’s only season, a year in which he also coached the Trojans basketball and baseball teams. Tragically, Barry also died of a heart attack while trudging up the hill at Strawberry Canyon in Berkeley to scout Cal at Memorial Stadium in 1950. He was 57.

The genius: Barry taught the principles of the triangle offense to Tex Winter, who famously taught Phil Jackson, who won 11 NBA titles with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls using the triangle.

The brave: Shortly after the 1941 season the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Barry enlisted in the Navy, ending his short tenure as USC football coach.

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Jeff Cravath: 1942-1950, 54-28-8

USC coach Jeff Cravath, left, gets together with his staff in 1949.
USC coach Jeff Cravath, left, with his staff in 1949. Front row: Ray George, Walt Hargesheimer, and Bill Park. Back row: Harry Smith, Roy Baker and Sam Barry. (AP Photo/Ira W. Guldner)
(Ira W. Guldner / Associated Press)

The good: Another assistant under Howard Jones, Cravath was an adept recruiter and innovative coach who introduced the T-formation to USC. The Santa Ana High product played center at USC and was the first Trojans alum to serve as coach. His 1943 team began the year with six consecutive shutouts, and his 1944 team was 8-0-2 and ranked seventh in the nation. In nine seasons Cravath led USC to the Rose Bowl four times, shutting out Washington in 1944 and Tennessee in 1945.

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The bad: The Trojans lost to Alabama in 1946 and to Michigan two years later, USC’s first Rose Bowl losses after eight victories. Cravath was forced to resign after going 2-5-2 in 1950.

The nickname: It wasn’t as catchy as “Gloomy Gus,” but Cravath was called “Little Jeffries” when he was young because he enjoyed fisticuffs like legendary heavyweight boxer Jim Jeffries.

The tragedy: Cravath died in Calexico at age 50, one day after his pickup truck collided with a dump truck, becoming the third straight USC coach to pass prematurely.

The quote: Said USC quarterback Jim Hardy, MVP of the 1945 Rose Bowl: “I would go to Cravath for advice where I would not even have gone to my family. He was a friend of all his players and a good coach.”

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley already has made inroads in Southern California football recruiting, which should help him bolster USC’s talent pool.

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Jess Hill: 1951-1956, 45-17-1

USC coach Jess Hill, right, talks with star quarterback Jim Contratto in 1954. (AP Photo)
USC coach Jess Hill talks with star quarterback Jim Contratto in 1954. (AP Photo)
(Uncredited / Associated Press)

The good: A former speedy running back on Jones’ Thundering Herd squads, Hill’s 1952 USC team provided the Pacific Coast Conference with its first victory over a Big Ten team in the Rose Bowl by beating Wisconsin 7-0.

The pinstripes: Hill played several years of Major League Baseball, and he replaced Babe Ruth in the New York Yankees outfield in 1935 after the Bambino signed with the Boston Braves at age 40. A year later Hill was traded to the Washington Senators, and his replacement in the Yankees outfield was Joe DiMaggio. He also played under Connie Mack with the Philadelphia Athletics.

The administrator: Hill served as USC athletic director from 1957-1972, leaving to become the first commissioner of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. until his retirement in 1978.

The stand: When an Austin hotel wouldn’t allow the three USC Black players to check in ahead of a game at Texas in September 1956, Hill pulled the entire team from the hotel and found accommodations where everyone was welcome. USC trounced Texas 44-20 behind Black running back C.R. Roberts, who rushed for 251 yards despite playing only 12 minutes on offense.

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Don Clark: 1957-1959, 13-16-1

The good: Distinguished by his crew cut and rugged build, Clark groomed assistant coaches John McKay and Marv Goux, both of whom became Trojan legends. He also mentored Al Davis, the longtime owner of the Raiders, who was an assistant under Clark. “I loved the guy,” Davis said of Clark. “I loved his family. He was a vital part of my life and my friend . . . a great leader and inspiration to me.”

The bad: Clark became coach after USC, along with UCLA, California and Washington, was sanctioned by the Pacific Coast Conference for paying athletes more than the league’s allowable limit. The Trojans went 1-9 in 1957, the worst record in school history.

The tragedy: Clark became yet another USC coach to die suddenly, collapsing while jogging in Huntington Beach in 1989.

The quote: Said Goux, the legendary Trojans assistant who began his college coaching career in 1957 as a member of Clark’s staff: “In Don Clark, you had as fine a friend as a human being could have. He was an All-American kind of individual. There has never been a finer man than Don Clark in all aspects.”

In two seasons as Oklahoma’s coach, Lincoln Riley has had two quarterbacks win the Heisman Trophy. Jalen Hurts could be next for the Sooners.

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John McKay: 1960-1975, 127-40-8

USC coach John McKay talks with defensive back Gerry Shaw (46) during 1969 game against UCLA.
USC coach John McKay talks with defensive back Gerry Shaw (46) during game against UCLA at the Coliseum on Nov. 22, 1969.
(Los Angeles Times)

The good: McKay led USC to four national championships, equaling the total of Howard Jones. The first Trojans national title team, in 1962, was 11-0 and led by the first players he recruited. The third, in 1972, was 12-0 and is considered perhaps the best college team ever. McKay’s 127 wins eclipsed the 120 won by Jones and remain the most in Trojans history.

The bad: McKay was only 52 when he left USC to coach the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. The winning touch McKay displayed with the Trojans vanished immediately — the Bucs lost their first 26 games. McKay regretted leaving USC but eventually led the Bucs to the playoffs three times.

The aye: McKay learned the “I” formation from a young junior college coach: Don Coryell. Then McKay tweaked the “I,” setting the tailback far enough behind center to get a running start into the hole or around end in the famed Student Body Left (or Right) play.

“If we’re going to run the daylight out of the football, the tailback should see the defense as the QB sees it,” McKay said.

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The yarn: The colorful McKay held court several times a week in booth No. 1 at Julie’s, a restaurant near campus. One day the curator of the nearby Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County dropped in and mentioned to McKay that the museum had an exhibit of moon rocks quarantined because of a concern about introducing the unknown objects from outer space. McKay challenged the curator to bring him the moon rocks. Before long they were handling the priceless — and potentially dangerous — moon rocks on the table.

USC coaching legend John McKay's booth at Julie's Restaurant.
(Courtesy of Jon Leiberg)

The quotes: McKay’s acerbic wit provided reporters with a steady stream of snappy quotes, often dispensed from booth No. 1.

Following an infamous 51–0 loss to Notre Dame in 1966: “I told my team it doesn’t matter. There are 750 million people in China who don’t even know this game was played. The next day, a guy called me from China and asked, ‘What happened, Coach?’”

On firing up players before a game: “Emotion is highly overrated in football. My wife is emotional as hell but she can’t play football worth a damn.”

The postscript: McKay left USC for Tampa Bay in 1975, the same year owner Julie Kohl closed Julie’s. Kohl had Booth No. 1 shipped to Tampa Bay, where it was installed in his new restaurant hangout. The booth recently was sold at auction to a USC fan.

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John Robinson: 1976-1982, 1993-1997, 104-35-4

USC coach John Robinson, center, looks on as the Trojans score a touchdown against UNLV on Oct. 4, 1997.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The good: Robinson was the offensive coordinator on the 1972 national championship USC team under John McKay. He took over as head coach when McKay departed for the NFL and won a share of the national title in 1978, along with four Rose Bowls.

The bad: Robinson left USC in 1983 but didn’t go far, becoming head coach of the Rams before returning to USC in 1993. He led the Rams to the NFC title game twice, but they lost both times. He came back to USC in 1993 and was fired after the 1997 season after going 12-11 in his last two years.

The bizarre: The Trojans fired Robinson after the ’82 season without speaking to him, hired Paul Hackett without producing him at a news conference, then wondered why Robinson hadn’t accepted an invitation to attend the announcement. That evening, Robinson was seen with his wife Christmas shopping in Pasadena.

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The consultation: At age 84, Robinson became a consultant to Louisiana State coach and former USC coach Ed Orgeron in 2019. LSU went 15-0 and won the national championship. Every Monday morning Robinson handed Orgeron about 10 observations. “I use ‘em every day. I promise you that!” Oregeron said.

The quotes: Robinson, in 2019, on USC tradition: “When I got the job from John McKay, I said I didn’t change anything. Now, I did change some things, but I didn’t talk about them. I talked about the tradition and underneath I was putting in a better passing game.”

Marcus Allen on Robinson: “He is the epitome of what a head coach should be. He looked everyone in the eye, told you what he expected. He used to tell us we could go across the parking lot and beat the Rams. You know, the Rams that were in the NFL. And most of us believed him.”

Rick Neuheisel, Jim Mora, Dave Wannstedt and Mike Stoops discuss questions facing USC leaders as the Trojans compete with LSU for a new coach.

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Ted Tollner: 1983-1986, 26-20-1

USC football coach Ted Tollner, left, stands next to outgoing coach John Robinson during a news conference.
USC football coach Ted Tollner, left, stands next to outgoing coach John Robinson during a news conference on the USC campus in November 1982.
(Lennox McLendon / Associated Press)

The good: Tollner led USC to a record of 9-3 and a Rose Bowl victory in 1984, his second year at the helm. He was named Pac-10 coach of the year.

The bad: In Tollner’s debut season, USC posted its first losing record since 1961. After the Trojans rebounded in 1984, they struggled the next two years and Tollner was fired.

The tragedy: Tollner was the quarterback at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1960 when the team plane crashed on the way back from a game in Ohio. Said Tollner: “We got up about 100 feet or so and it was the left engine that sputtered and went out. I knew we were going down, and I went into a ball to protect my head and that’s all I remember until I came to.” Twenty-two of the 48 people on board died, including 16 football players.

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Larry Smith: 1987-1992, 44-25-3

USC coach Larry Smith holds the Rose Bowl trophy over his head after a win over Michigan on Jan. 1, 1990.
(Doug Pizac / Associated Press)

The good: Smith, the first coach without Trojan ties since Howard Jones, guided USC to Pac-10 championships and Rose Bowl berths in each of his first three seasons, an unprecedented achievement. The Trojans were 27-9-1 during that stretch and won a record 19 consecutive Pac-10 games.

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The bad: USC lost to Fresno State in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, a humiliating defeat Smith compounded by saying, “Names and logos don’t mean anything. You don’t beat someone just because of your name and logo.” He was fired with three years left on his contract.

The reflection: Years later Smith stuck by his comment about the name and logo. He also admitted what was obvious to anyone who watched the low-level Freedom Bowl: “Our guys didn’t give a damn about being there.”

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Paul Hackett: 1998-2000, 19-18

USC coach Paul Hackett poses beside Marcus Allen's Heisman Trophy on the USC campus.
USC coach Paul Hackett poses beside Marcus Allen’s Heisman Trophy on the USC campus after leaving the Kansas City Chiefs to coach the Trojans in January 1998.
(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

The good: Hackett seemed right for the job. He’d been mentored by the best —- Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Marty Schottenheimer and Robinson — and was highly regarded as the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator and as a USC assistant during its 1978 co-national championship season.

The tumble: Hackett’s teams got progressively worse, and he was fired after three seasons.

The chagrin: Hackett didn’t go quietly, saying: “For someone who has given three years of his life and for the last six months hasn’t slept or eaten, I’m very disappointed. I’m disappointed we don’t get a chance to continue this and complete this. I felt things were headed in the right direction.

The legacy: Hackett recruited well and left the roster stacked for the next coach, Pete Carroll, who within two years restored USC’s winning tradition.

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Pete Carroll: 2001-2009, 97-19

USC coach Pete Carroll celebrates after a win over Boston College in the Emerald Bowl on Dec. 26, 2009.
(Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images)

The good: Carroll reeled off seven consecutive seasons of at least 11 victories, was 7-2 in bowls and won national titles in 2003 and 2004. “All we want to do around here is win forever,” he said more than once.

The bad: A few months after the Trojans lost to Texas in the 2006 BCS national championship game, the NCAA began an investigation of USC that would last four years and result in severe sanctions.

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The punishment: Five months after Carroll left USC for the Seattle Seahawks in January 2010, the NCAA ruled USC lacked institutional control and placed the program on probation for four years. Fourteen wins were vacated from the 2004 and 2005 seasons, the Trojans were banned from the postseason for two years and surrendered 30 scholarships over three years. A year later, the NCAA stripped USC of a national championship. “I wish it didn’t happen like that,” Carroll said. “It makes me sick that everybody has to go through this.”

The greeting: When Carroll was hired, the Times’ Bill Plaschke was among those believing USC had made a mistake: “Oh, no!,” Plaschke wrote. “I’m not mad at Pete Carroll. I’m mad at USC for hiring him. I’m mad that, during its most important times, the most enduring football institution in this city sometimes acts as though it discovered the game only last week.” Carroll hadn’t coached in the college ranks in 17 years and was perceived as too nice to succeed.

The apology: Three years later, Plaschke owned up in a column with the headline: “Sorry Pete, We Were Wrong.” “Today, he’s the best coach in the country, the perfect man for a perfectly impossible job, and how could anybody say anything else? Well, we did say something else.”

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Lane Kiffin: 2010-2013, 28-15

USC coach Lane Kiffin watches the Trojans play Syracuse at the Coliseum on Sept. 17, 2011.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The good: Kiffin had spent only one season as head coach at Tennessee when the abrupt departure of Carroll created an opportunity at USC, where he had been an assistant coach during Carroll’s glory years. Folks in Knoxville were livid. Saddled by the sanctions imposed by the NCAA for infractions under Carroll, Kiffin had difficulty recruiting to the level USC was accustomed. His high point was going 10-2 in a 2011 season that included victories at Notre Dame and Oregon and concluded with a 50-0 rout of UCLA.

The bad: Kiffin was perceived as immature and found himself embroiled in controversies involving deflated footballs, switched jersey numbers and rotating quarterbacks. He was on the hot seat in 2014, but not until USC was humiliated by Arizona State 62-41 — the Trojans’ seventh loss in their last 11 games — Sept. 28, 2015, did athletic director Pat Haden wield the axe. And he did so at Los Angeles International Airport at 3 a.m. immediately after the team returned from Tempe. Kiffin “was clearly disappointed and battled me,” Haden said. “He really tried to keep his job and I respect him for that.”

The aftermath: After leaving USC, Kiffin recharged his career as Alabama’s offensive coordinator for three years before heading the program at Florida Atlantic, winning 11 games in two of his three seasons. Kiffin is in his second year as head coach at Mississippi and boasts a Heisman candidate at quarterback in Matt Corral. However, he still has difficulty gaining respect.

Here’s a recap of what former college football coaches Rick Neuheisel, Jim Mora, Dave Wannstedt and Mike Stoops think about USC’s coaching job.

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Ed Orgeron: 2013, 6-2

USC interim football coach Ed Orgeron celebrates with his team after a win over Oregon State
USC interim football coach Ed Orgeron celebrates with his team after a win over Oregon State on Nov. 1, 2013, in Corvallis, Ore.
(Don Ryan / Associated Press)

The good: With his gravelly Louisiana drawl, Orgeron sounds like a coach on Henry Winkler’s staff in “The Waterboy.” The Trojans players loved it. Orgeron had been a popular assistant under Hackett and Carroll going back to 1998. He was in his second stint at USC when Kiffin was fired. Orgeron was named interim coach and went 6-2.

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The bad: UCLA crushed the Trojans in the regular-season finale and Orgeron was passed over for Steve Sarkisian for the permanent job.

The revenge: Orgeron got a second chance as an interim coach, succeeding Les Miles at LSU early in the 2016 season, and the results mirrored his interim stint at USC. The Tigers went 6-2, only this time he got the job. LSU followed 9-4 and 10-3 seasons with a national championship and 15-0 record in 2019 before getting fired midway through the 2021 season.

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Steve Sarkisian: 2014-2015, 12-6

USC coach Steve Sarkisian watches the Trojans warm up before a game against Idaho on Sept. 12, 2015, at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The good: An unlikely star quarterback at Brigham Young, Sarkisian was first hired at USC as an offensive assistant in 2001 and after a stint as quarterbacks coach with the Oakland Raiders returned to USC under Carroll. Sarkisian developed a reputation as an excellent offensive mind and after five years as head coach at Washington he was chosen over Orgeron. The Trojans went 9-4 and defeated Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl in Sarkisian’s only full season, a better record than he ever posted at Washington.

The bad: Sarkisian was fired five games into the 2015 season after repeated incidents of him appearing intoxicated on the job that included a preseason booster event and odd behavior during a game. The final straw came when Sarkisian acted strangely at a team meeting, then left campus before practice began. Haden immediately put him on indefinite leave, then fired him the next day.

“Coach Sark is a great guy despite what anyone might think,” lineman Kenny Bigelow said. “He really cared about us and the program. Whatever he’s going through, I pray he finds peace.”

The rebound: Like Kiffin, Sarkisian rehabilitated his reputation at Alabama, succeeding Kiffin as offensive coordinator in 2016. He took over as head coach at Texas before this season; Sarkisian quickly implemented a high-scoring offense but the Longhorns have had an uneven season.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian rebuilt his life after getting fired from USC because of alcohol issues, but he did so without those who helped launch his career.

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Clay Helton: 2013, 2015-2021, 46-24

USC head coach Clay Helton watches the Trojans warm up.
USC coach Clay Helton watches the Trojans warm up before a game against Stanford on Sept. 11 at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The good: Universally regarded as a wonderful person who connects well with players, Helton brought stability when he replaced Sarkisian five games into the 2015 season. Among the feats of Clay, he became the first USC coach to post 10-win seasons in each of his first two full seasons, going 10-3 in 2016 and 11-3 in 2017. USC won a school-record 19 consecutive home games from 2015-2018. He led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl win against Penn State after the 2016 season and a No. 3 ranking in the AP poll. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, USC started 5-0 before losing its last game.

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The bad: Many USC coaches either skyrocketed or divebombed in their third full season. McKay, Robinson and Carroll won national titles; Tollner, Hackett and Kiffin sagged. And so did Helton, going 5-7 in 2018 and fending off calls for him to be fired.

The Lasso: Shortly before he was fired, Helton was asked if he’d ever watched “Ted Lasso,” a popular TV show about a clueless yet affable man hired to coach a lousy British soccer team. “One of my favorite shows,” Helton said. “I get to deal with 18- to 21-year-olds. It’s not only the Xs and O’s on the field, but you’re also teaching them life. . . Maybe that’s the reason I like the show. I appreciate that question.” Many Trojan players and their families undoubtedly appreciated Helton’s approach, but the results waned and he was fired Sept. 13 after a home loss to Stanford.

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Donte Williams: 2021, 3-6

USC interim coach Donte Williams talks with players on the sideline during the Trojans' game against Utah
USC interim coach Donte Williams talks with players on the sideline during the Trojans’ game against Utah on Oct. 9 at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The good: Williams became the first Black head coach in USC history when he was named interim coach Sept. 15 following the firing of Helton. The enthusiasm with which Williams coaches was immediately on display during a 45-14 victory over Washington State in his first game.

The quote: Williams was raised in Crenshaw,three miles west of the Coliseum. “It’s not just about me, per se,” Williams said. “It’s about a lot of guys that came before me, it’s a lot of guys that will come after me, so it’s about making sure I do what’s best for this team, for this university, for this community.”

The exit: The perceived need to replace Helton with a big-name coach worked against any chance Williams had of keeping the job beyond this season. Losses at home to UCLA, Oregon State and Utah bolstered that perception, and Lincoln Riley, 38, was hired away from Oklahoma as the next Trojans head coach.

Patience and a well-timed recruiting pitch helped USC lure Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma, sending shockwaves through the college football world.

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