Exhale, Trojan fans.
After years of middling play and empty promises, USC’s firing of head coach Clay Helton has brought an end to a once great program’s revel in mediocrity.
And it’s about damn time.
Helton’s resume at USC does include a memorable Rose Bowl victory in an all-time classic against Penn State, as well as a Pac-12 Championship in 2017. Since the departure of Sam Darnold, however, the Trojans have managed a measly 19-14 record. If you watched last year’s misleading 5-1 campaign, you might know how easily that record could have slipped below .500.
Below .500? USC football?
The same legendary program that boasts 11 national championships and six Heisman winners?
That is what the standard for USC football has always been, and that’s what the standard should always be. Not going 5-7 in 2018 and retaining your head coach.
The decision came following Saturday night’s inexplicable home loss against unranked Stanford, one that was much worse than the scoreboard reflected. USC’s late fourth-quarter touchdown and two-point conversion served only to keep Stanford from doubling the Trojans’ score, making it a modest two-possession game with less than a minute remaining.
From the opening kickoff, Stanford played with more heart, motivation and energy than the Trojans ever came close to matching. An 87-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter brought an ominous feeling into the Coliseum: Is this really happening again?
I won’t make you relive the three frustrating and excruciating hours that followed, but it’s worth emphasizing just how bad of a loss this was against what was supposed to be a far inferior opponent. By the end of the night, the Coliseum was a sad and empty place, void of fans who would have continued to call for Helton’s job had they not already fled the stadium in shame and disappointment.
For those who weren’t there, “Fire Helton” was one of the nicer chants emanating from the student section.
Expectations for USC were high this season. Very easy schedule. No Washington. No Oregon. A Pac-12 Championship appearance at worst, and a College Football Playoff appearance a looming possibility.
So, losing egregiously to a bad team in Week 2 didn’t just create angry Trojan fans, but perhaps something worse: indifferent ones.
Fans, particularly students, have called for Helton’s removal for several years now, and USC’s administration had no choice but to finally oblige them, else the school may have entirely lost the support of the fans and even the boosters.
The only thing worse than boos in your home stadium is silence in your home stadium. Trojan football has been dangerously approaching irrelevance, even on its own campus. Had USC stuck with Helton, any remaining optimism would have vanished, and the packed student section of Saturday night would look much different two weeks from now, when USC hosts Oregon State.
Since the Darnold days, disappointing is the most apt term, although it is probably an understatement.
Every year has looked something like this: USC starts the season with high expectations, underperforms in the regular season, loses their bowl game (if they have one) and ends up ranked in the preseason AP top 25, just good enough to reignite the expectations for the next season.
This year is the same story, but it didn’t take long for USC’s organizational flaws to shine brightly enough to finally warrant a coaching change. They were outplayed, outcoached and out-competed in every stage of Saturday’s loss. Not the first time under Helton, but mercifully the last.
So, what’s next? Removing Helton does not immediately turn the Trojans into championship contenders; it was clear to anyone who watched on Saturday that this team is not built to win the rest of its games, let alone compete with the titans of college football in the SEC come January.
However, there’s one thing we do know: Clay Helton, as great a person as everyone claims, wasn’t the right guy. Consistent underachievement eventually proved the Trojans could not win a championship under his leadership.
In that sense, USC has taken a long-overdue step in the right direction, or has at least stopped walking in the wrong one.
For the first time in a long time, there is the relief of a fresh start for a fanbase that has been tortured with disappointment.
For the first time in even longer, the future of Trojan football is truly uncertain.
It’s impossible to predict what the rest of USC’s season will look like under the new leadership of cornerbacks coach Donte Williams. Hell, they could even win out in conference and play against Oregon for the Pac-12 title, although I wouldn’t count on it. Either way, this program desperately needed a change of pace.
On the football side of things, the quarterback position might be interesting to keep an eye on going forward. Junior quarterback Kedon Slovis was far from impressive on Saturday, and I was surprised we didn’t see any of freshman backup Jaxson Dart as the fourth quarter rolled around. New leadership on the sideline might call for new leadership on the field as the season progresses.
On the administrative side of things, USC finally gave its fans what they wanted, but that’s only half of the job. USC needs to do this right, and that doesn’t mean playing it safe, as the higher-ups have done with Helton for years.
Finding Helton’s replacement will likely be a lengthy process, but USC needs some new blood (I like Iowa State’s Matt Campbell) to rejuvenate a stagnant organization. The right coach is out there, and the right coach will be expensive, but USC can’t afford to screw this up again.