Clay Helton’s unlikely tenure as the head football coach at Southern California began bizarrely and lasted far longer than almost anybody expected.
The folksy Southerner won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title early on, but he never won over most of the Trojans’ fans.
After one more embarrassing defeat for a school desperate to add to its 11 national championships, USC finally moved on.
Helton was fired on Monday, two games into his seventh season in charge. Athletic director Mike Bohn made the move two days after a 42-28 home loss to Stanford that sent the Trojans plummeting out of the AP Top 25.
“I think that in the end, it’s just a sense of ensuring that long-term, we have the ability to build,” said Bohn, who took over the athletic department in November 2019. “I think we’ve made some nice progress in the time that Clay and I worked together. I enjoyed working with Clay. He’s an incredible person, and we did some neat things. … But I think that we’re committed to winning national championships, and we believe that in order to do that, a change was needed.”
Helton thanked USC’s leaders and his assistant coaches and players in a statement posted on his social media accounts.
“While it will be hard to not be in the fight with you, I am confident that great things lie ahead,” said Helton, who went 46-24 at USC. “As you compete for a championship, no one will be cheering louder than the Helton family.”
Donte Williams, the Trojans’ cornerbacks coach and associate head coach, is taking over for the rest of the season alongside offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
Williams, a Los Angeles-area native, becomes the first Black head coach in USC football history. He joined the program in 2020 from Oregon, and he has played a major role in the Trojans’ recruiting advancements over the past two cycles.
USC (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) visits Washington State this weekend for its road opener.
The 39-year-old Williams called his promotion “the opportunity of a lifetime.” He didn’t find out about the administration’s plans until moments before Helton and Bohn broke the news jointly to the players.
“We have a lot of games left, but the season has started,” Williams said. “It’s hard to make, I guess, huge changes right now, so my biggest thing is about enhancing everything we do. … Everyone in this organization needs to do something a little bit (more) than what they were doing before, including myself.”
Helton finished 22 games over .500 during the seventh-longest coaching tenure in the history of a longtime West Coast college football powerhouse. He took over as USC’s interim coach before permanently getting his first head coaching job late in the 2015 season.
While Helton brought stability to a tumultuous football culture and ran a clean program, he never won over a significant portion of the Trojans’ vast fan base, even during his early success. Helton’s genteel manner didn’t inspire confidence in fans used to Pete Carroll’s intensity, while his Texas twang and aw-shucks style often seemed out of place in Los Angeles.
Almost nobody doubted Helton, who was under contract until 2023, genuinely loved USC and his players.
But the Trojans simply didn’t win frequently enough to satisfy the expectations at a program once synonymous with success: Helton was 19-14 since the 2017 season.
“Really disappointed for that regime, because that affects a lot of people,” said Carroll, who won two national titles in his nine seasons before moving to Seattle. “It’s not just one guy. His whole staff gets affected. … and the families that were counting on their kids playing for them, all of that. It’s a very difficult decision to make, and they’re making the decision for what they feel is the right reasons.”
The Trojans won the Rose Bowl after the 2016 season and the Pac-12 title in 2017 while Sam Darnold was their quarterback, but the rest of Helton’s tenure was disappointing — and for many fans, even those three-loss seasons in 2016 and 2017 weren’t good enough.
After the seasoned Bohn replaced inexperienced Lynn Swann as USC’s athletic director, the school refreshed its aspirations for national prominence with major infrastructure additions to all areas of the football program.
“The added resources carried significantly increased expectations for our team’s performance,” Bohn said. “It is already evident that, despite the enhancements, those expectations would not be met without a change in leadership.”
USC appeared to be in position to make a run at the Pac-12 title this season with a talent-stacked roster. But the offense struggled in a season-opening win over San Jose State, and then the Trojans were humiliated on national television by Stanford.
“I know I got beat by Stanford a couple of times, too,” Carroll said. “It’s hard. And like (former USC coach) John McKay always said, by far the toughest matchup we ever had was with Stanford, and it carries a lot of weight. Clay is a good man, good ball coach, and he’ll bounce right back, but it’s a tough decision for the Trojan family on this day.”
USC committed 109 yards in penalties, fell behind by 29 points and got shredded defensively by the Cardinal, who scored only seven points in their season opener. Thousands of fans left the Coliseum early in the second half, and many of the remaining supporters chanted “Fire Helton!” in the fourth quarter.
The Trojans return home against Oregon State on Sept. 25, and Bohn says USC should be in Pac-12 contention.
“We’ve got a lot of big ballgames coming up,” Bohn said. “We’ve got 10, and hopefully a premier bowl game to be able to play in. Everything is in front of us as far as our aspirations to win the league.”
Bohn’s decision means one of the most visible and most powerful jobs in college football is open just three weeks into the new season, and there will be no shortage of candidates.
USC fans have spent years calling for the Trojans to chase three-time national championship coach Urban Meyer, but he is only one game into his tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Bohn hired successful Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell when they were both with the Bearcats, while many USC fans admire and covet Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. Chris Petersen, a California native who built excellent programs at Boise State and Washington before citing stress for his decision to leave the Huskies two years ago, is currently working for Fox Sports.
Helton’s firing brings an end to one of the most surprising coaching tenures at a premier football program in recent NCAA history.
Helton had been at USC since 2010, when Lane Kiffin hired the former college quarterback as his QBs coach. Helton became the Trojans’ offensive coordinator under both Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian before assuming the head job when Sarkisian was suspended and ultimately fired for alcohol-related misbehavior.
Helton also served as the Trojans’ interim head coach for a victory in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl when interim coach Ed Orgeron resigned after the full-time job went to Sarkisian instead of Orgeron.
Helton quickly stabilized a program that had just gone through six straight seasons of turmoil, including a two-year NCAA postseason ban. Swann gave a lucrative extension to Helton in 2018 over the objections of many fans.
Helton’s continued employment put a perpetual cloud over the USC program in recent years, with rivals using his tenuous status against the Trojans in recruiting. The coach navigated this treacherous terrain with a smile and consistent optimism, never failing to express his gratitude and appreciation for his position.
“I love USC, because you know what the standard is? Championships,” Helton said earlier this summer. “You can be at USC and win every game but one, and if it’s the last one, it’s looked at as a bad season. That’s being at a special place. You can have an undefeated regular season and win the Pac-12 championship, and everybody is sad. That’s a special place to be.”