Column: Clay Helton, in his happy place at Georgia Southern, is still rooting for USC

Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton celebrates with defensive back Jalen Denton and long snapper Jackson Wheeler.
Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton, center, celebrates with defensive back Jalen Denton, right, and long snapper Jackson Wheeler after a win over James Madison on Oct. 15. Helton is heading to a bowl game with Georgia Southern a year after being fired by USC.
(Stephen B. Morton / Associated Press)

Fifteen months ago, the following words appeared in this column:

“USC needs to remove Clay Helton right here, right now.”

A few days ago, Clay Helton genially answered a phone call from that same columnist.

“Good to hear your voice, my friend!” he said.

Fifteen months ago, Helton was fired from his job as football coach at USC in an ugly conclusion to a protracted drama highlighted by constant criticism and punctuated by a stark termination statement.

“…We provided every resource necessary for our football program to compete for championships. … It is already evident that, despite the enhancements, those expectations would not be met without a change in leadership,” said USC athletic director Mike Bohn.


A few days ago, Helton began a phone interview by expressing his love for those same Trojans.

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Lincoln [Riley] has done a magical job out there,” he said. “To watch those kids play and do what they accomplished, it’s really cool to watch.”

That settles it. End of discussion. The perception honed during his seven seasons as the unassuming leader of Hollywood’s team has proven unassailably true.

Clay Helton is still the nicest college football coach in America.

When this longtime critic recently reached out to him at Georgia Southern — a school which he has marvelously led to a winning season and a bowl berth — it was uncertain whether Helton would even take the call.


Yet he not only answered, but happily talked nonstop for nearly 30 minutes in a voice that described his USC tenure with brimming joy and no regrets.

“It was tough, it was hard, but it was dang beautiful,” he said.

When asked about a Trojan team that was sparked by Riley to heights that Helton could never attain, it was uncertain whether he would even want to discuss such an awkward topic.

Yet he further expounded on it, saying he stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch them this season while openly cheering for them, now and forever.

“Me and my wife have just been rooting for those kids, having been part of those kids lives, you’ll always cheer for them, we’ll always cheer for the Trojans,” he said.

Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton leaves the field with his wife after a win over Nebraska on Sept. 10.
Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton leaves the field with his wife, Angela, after a win over Nebraska on Sept. 10.
(Steven Branscombe / Getty Images)

“If you would say to any coach in the world, hey, you’re going to have the opportunity to be at USC for 12 years, you don’t think anybody would love to have that ride?”

— Clay Helton

Hard feelings toward Bohn? You know Helton. He not only considers his former boss a friend, but they have contacted each other throughout this season.

“We exchange texts, he congratulates me on big wins, after every one of those moments he’s texting me,” Helton said. “And I thank him, he gave me every resource possible, I’ve got no hard feelings.”

Bitterness over the way he was consistently ripped by media and fans? You know Helton. He spoke about his rocky journey as a privilege.

“Unbelievable relationships … unbelievable memories … if you would say to any coach in the world, ‘Hey, you’re going to have the opportunity to be at USC for 12 years,’ you don’t think anybody would love to have that ride?” he said. “I enjoyed the ride, and I don’t have one regret.”

A cynic might point to Helton’s reported buyout of around $10 million as a reason for his continued loyalty to USC. But virtually every fired major college coach has a buyout these days, and yet you rarely hear such unabashed praise for a former employer.

No, there’s no room for cynicism in the Clay Helton saga, in which he is truly a college football version of that beloved television soccer coach played by Jason Sudeikis.

“Ted Lasso? I’ll take that comparison,” said Helton. “That show is pretty cool because it teaches life lessons, which is part of our job as college coaches.”

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Since his firing in September 2021, after compiling a 46-24 record with teams marked by a lack of focus and discipline, Helton has been the personification of a life lesson.

Sometimes, good things really do happen to good people.

Take the circumstances around his hiring at Georgia Southern, which took place just six weeks after his USC firing.

He was shopping for a car for the first time in 27 years — he had always driven university-leased vehicles — when he received a call from Eagles athletic director Jared Benko. Helton needed privacy, so he asked the car salesman if he could conduct the impromptu job interview in the front of the seat of a new Ford Explorer.

The call lasted more than an hour, and, while Helton got the job, he felt so guilty for occupying the unsold vehicle for so long, you can probably guess what happened next.

“I felt so bad for the salesman I told him, ‘Man, I love this car,’ and I bought it,” Helton said.

Another Helton moment occurred shortly after he arrived on campus in the small Georgia town of Statesboro, located 210 miles southeast of Atlanta and known as, among other things, the Gnat Capital of the World.

He was officially only an observer until the end of the 2021 season. But he became involved with his players’ lives immediately. While meeting individually with the team, he asked them what they would like to see improved.

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“Coach,” said one, “it would be great if our showers had hot water.”

The next day, hot water for everyone.

“Those six weeks I was out … it reminded me, ‘Gosh, I wanted to be part of kids’ lives again,” Helton said.

He has blended well with a Georgia Southern culture as homespun as that drawl that sounded so strange in Santa Monica. He always seemed a little out of place on the USC sideline. He fits in perfectly in the pines.

First, there’s his positive outlook toward the gnats, whose presence in the Statesboro skies are so overwhelming that Helton’s top recruiting restaurant is known as, “Gnat’s Landing.”

“I don’t care what you do, nothing gets rid of them, nothing, no bug spray, no nothing,” said Helton of the little creatures. “At some point in time you’re going to eat a couple and you say, ‘Well, I got some extra protein.’”

Then there is his embrace of the rickety yellow school buses which drive the players around campus before the games as a testament to the program’s hardscrabble beginnings.

Helton stands in the front of the bus and, as his team sings something known as, “The Valley Song,” he relishes leading them into the fight.

“Those buses show that blue-collar toughness that this place was founded on,” Helton said.

Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton leads his players onto the field before a game against Louisiana Lafayette on Nov. 10.
(Matthew Hinton / Associated Press)

This season his team was also a reflection of that aura, as they rebounded from a 3-9 season to go 6-6 and earn a spot in the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., against the University at Buffalo.

The Eagles beat a Power Five school for only the second time in their history by winning at Nebraska, then qualified for a bowl game on the final play of the regular season, defeating Sun Belt Conference rival Appalachian State in double overtime.

In typical Helton-led fashion, they won it with a 25-yard touchdown pass to a receiver — Ezrah Archie — who entered the game with one catch all season.

In another typical Helton moment, the fans at Georgia Southern’s 25,000-seat Paulson Stadium stormed the field with the sort of excitement that surrounded him when his Trojans beat Penn State with a game-winning field goal in the 2017 Rose Bowl.

“I only had that feeling one other time, and that was the Rose Bowl,” he said. “You look up in stands, you wonder, where are all the fans, then you realize, they’re all on the field, every one of them.”

New Year’s Day in Pasadena, a November Saturday night in the Gnat Capital of the World, it’s all the same to Helton, who continues to coach his way through life with Georgia Southern sweat, USC fight and a Ted Lasso smile.

“I’m having a great time being a ball coach,” Helton said.

Go Eagles.