USC names Clay Helton as head football coach

USC has dropped "interim" from football Coach Clay Helton's title.

USC has dropped “interim” from football Coach Clay Helton’s title.

(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)

Clay Helton, who took over a USC program in turmoil and guided the Trojans to the Pac-12 Conference championship game, has been hired as USC’s permanent head coach, Athletic Director Pat Haden announced Monday.

“After weeks of searching the collegiate and pro ranks, interviewing candidates, and speaking with head coaches, athletic directors, NFL executives, and very knowledgeable football people, and after observing Clay in action the past seven weeks, it became abundantly clear that what we were searching for in a coach was right here in front of us,” Haden said in a statement. “Choosing a coach is an inexact science. In Clay’s case, there is exactness. We have a man with unquestioned integrity. He is a fantastic person and he is real. Clay is a leader of young men. He is a terrific communicator. He brings high character, stability, continuity, consistency, toughness and resiliency to our program.

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“We have known Clay well for the past six years. He earned this opportunity. He has been positive and upbeat handling adversity. He was built to be a head coach. Football is his family business. He is a coach on the rise and he will be coaching a team on the rise. As our interim head coach, Clay brought back USC’s style of physical football. I have been impressed with how hard and how inspired our team has played for him, as well as the support they have shown for him.

“Clay was not hired because his team defeated UCLA Saturday. He was not hired because many current and former players voiced their support for him. And he was not hired because he is a Trojan. He is our choice because we believe he can win Pac-12 and national championships here. Clay Helton is the right man at the right time for the USC football program.”


Said Helton in a statement: “I am extremely humbled and grateful to Max Nikias, Pat Haden and the Trojan Family for having the opportunity to be the head football coach at the University of Southern California. During my six years here, I have learned the standard of excellence that it takes to be a Trojan. I understand the expectations of this great university and welcome the challenge. I am so proud to have the chance to lead what I feel is the pinnacle of college football and to represent our Trojan Family.”

Helton, 43, had been a USC assistant for five-plus seasons before he was elevated to interim coach for the second time after Haden fired Steve Sarkisian on Oct. 12.

The Trojans are 5-2 since Helton took over. They defeated UCLA, 40-21, to win the Pac-12 Conference South title and advance to the conference title game for the first time.

The Trojan finished the regular season 8-4 overall and 6-3 in conference play.

Helton also was interim coach for the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl, and he guided the Trojans to a victory over Fresno State.

Helton, the son of former college and pro football coach Kim Helton, grew up in Texas and was a reserve quarterback at Auburn and Houston before he began his coaching career.

He was a graduate assistant and then running backs coach at Duke in the mid-1990s before coaching running backs at Houston for three seasons. He moved to Memphis where he coached running backs, receivers and then quarterbacks during a 10-year stint, the last three as offensive coordinator.

Helton was hired as offensive coordinator at Arkansas State after the 2009 season, but he was staff for only a few months before Lane Kiffin hired him at USC before the 2010 season.

Helton coached quarterbacks for three seasons and then added offensive coordinator duties in 2013, though he never called plays under Kiffin.

Helton was retained by Sarkisian after the Las Vegas Bowl victory but he did not call plays in 2014. He was given that responsibility this season.

Haden put Helton in charge of the team after Sarkisian did not show up for practice on Oct. 11. Sarkisian had previously slurred words and shouted an expletive during USC’s annual Salute to Troy booster event in August. The event was closed to the media. Some people who attended the event told The Times that Sarkisian appeared and sounded intoxicated.

Helton took over when Sarkisian was fired four days after a loss to Washington.

In their first game under Helton, the Trojans lost at Notre Dame, 41-31. They defeated then-unbeaten and third-ranked Utah, California, Arizona and Colorado before losing at Oregon, 48-28.

USC rebounded with its victory over UCLA, its first win over the rival Bruins since 2011.

Reaction to the news was met with enthusiasm, with tweets from several current and former Trojans.

Current players:

Freshman tight end Tyler Petite, “Helton 2016! Great day to be a Trojan”

Senior fullback Soma Vainuku, “Helton!”

Freshman defensive back Ykili Ross, “Helton 2k16!”

Senior Kris Albarado, "#Helton2016 #BeattheFarm”

Former players and coaches:

Pete Carroll, “Congrats to @USCCoachHelton! An awesome head coach for the Trojans! Couldn’t be more fired up! Good luck this weekend! #FightOn”

Hayes Pullard, “Clay Helton”

Marc Tyler, "#Fighton !!!! The best news is we get to keep @coachtee17 a coach we couldn’t lose”

Kevin Graf, “Congrats @USCCoachHelton you deserve it! Can’t wait to watch you lead these guys to victory”

Dion Bailey, “Can’t explain how happy I am for my former coach @USCCoachHelton!! Keep being you coach!!”

Nickell Robey: Great Hire! Congrats Coach Helton #USC

Matt Barkley: Could not be more proud of @USCCoachHelton for his leadership and passion this year! Great choice to keep him! I’m with you Coach!