Opinion: USC football needs time to contend

Fans must show patience despite valid frustration.

A photo of USC interim head coach Donte Williams

USC football is not what it used to be.

After just four games, the program has now suffered two humiliating losses to unranked Pac-12 opponents in the Coliseum. The most recent defeat came Saturday at the hands of Oregon State, a team that hasn’t beaten USC in Los Angeles since 1960.

The good news for fans is that 1960 was John McKay’s first year as USC’s head coach — his legendary tenure with the program earned him a building on campus, the immaculate John McKay Center which serves as the team’s private athletic facility. So, if history is repeating itself, this loss to Oregon State will be followed by 15 years of excellence, full of Pac-12 titles and national championships.

It is important to remember, though, that even McKay had down years. In his first two seasons, the program went 8-11-1. In today’s climate, there would be calls to have him fired.

Fans would say, USC football below .500? The team went 8-2 under Don Clark in 1959, McKay must not know what he’s doing!

No, he just needed time.

In McKay’s third year as coach, the team went 11-0, won the conference title and a national championship — his first of four. What would USC fans have lost if they didn’t have the patience to wait through those first two seasons?

There are parallels between that period in the program’s history and the present. The team has seen a recent coaching change, disappointing losses and frustration on all sides. What’s different about today’s program is the larger atmosphere that surrounds it.

USC football is the subject of national conversation thanks to a highly oversaturated sports media climate that specializes in constant speculation. Everyone, from fans to reporters to television commentators, can express their opinion about what needs to happen.

USC needs a proven coach! Better recruitment classes! Smarter play calls!

Yes, the program could use all of this. But it could also use some patience on the part of a fanbase that has become, frankly, out of touch.

“Fire Helton” chants were a frequent occurrence at games in recent years. That’s not exactly a fan culture that inspires winning, let alone attracts a proven coach and top recruits.

It’s just toxic.

What star high school player would be interested in coming to a program whose fans vocalize their disdain for its head coach while they are trying to win games? What proven play-caller is interested in leaving his current position to take on one where he might be embarrassed like that?

Sure, Helton’s teams underperformed after the Rose Bowl win in 2016. And yes, the program needed — and still needs — a new head coach. There are many questions as to what steps need to be taken to right the ship, but one question which deserves to be asked is whether fans’ expectations are simply too high.

It’s fair to expect USC football to compete for national championships, but it’s unrealistic to expect this to happen in the near future. As history has shown, it takes time to turn the program around.

In today’s world, do fans have the patience for that? If 1960′s John McKay — a man whose name is enshrined on campus — was instead hired in 2021, and in his first two seasons he lost more games than he won, would there be chants of “Fire McKay” in the stands?

Probably. And that ought to change.

After the loss to Oregon State, interim head coach Donte Williams’ candidacy for the full-time position is likely out of the question. But who knows? He could be the next John McKay.

Regardless of who is hired to lead USC football, though, they deserve to be given enough time to prove their worth. It may be frustrating, it may take multiple seasons of disappointment, it may test fans to their limits, but one thing is certain: it will take time.