USC keeping coach Clay Helton despite 5-7 season
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Clay Helton will remain Southern California's head coach after the Trojans' first losing season since 2000.
USC athletic director Lynn Swann made the announcement Sunday, one day after the Trojans finished 5-7 with a narrow loss to Notre Dame.
Despite widespread dissatisfaction with Helton among USC's boosters and fans, Swann elected to keep the embattled coach. Nine months ago, Swann gave a contract extension through 2023 to Helton, who is 32-17 in his first head coaching job.
Helton's Trojans won the Rose Bowl two seasons ago to cap a nine-game winning streak, and they won the Pac-12 title last season. But USC lost five of its final six games this season, capped by back-to-back losses to archrivals UCLA and Notre Dame.
"I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve," Swann said in a statement. "One season does not define a coach."
Swann's decision extended the unlikely reign of the genial longtime assistant coach atop the West Coast's most storied college football program. Helton was the Trojans' offensive coordinator when he was abruptly promoted to head coach during the 2015 season after Steve Sarkisian was fired following a series of alcohol-related misbehaviors.
Helton immediately brought stability and professionalism to a program that had been repeatedly rocked by turmoil ever since Pete Carroll's departure six years earlier. His 21 victories in his first two seasons were the most by a coach in USC history.
Yet Helton has never won over a significant portion of USC's fan base, which felt his two years of success rested on the shoulders of the Trojans' formidable raw talent base and the brilliance of quarterback Sam Darnold. The Trojans' second-half collapse without Darnold this season seemed to confirm those beliefs for many boosters, but Swann chose stability over another round of turmoil for his marquee program.
"We acknowledge and understand our deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff," Swann said. "We agree that changes need to be made, and they will. We will improve and get better in all areas. Coach Helton has a plan in place to get USC back to the top."
The Trojans' slide culminated in a 24-17 loss to the No. 3 Fighting Irish at the Coliseum on Saturday night in their annual intersectional rivalry game. USC largely played well for Helton in season finale, but failed to gain bowl eligibility — an unthinkable failure at the Pac-12's glamour school, which has had only four losing seasons since 1961.
A banner advocating for Helton's firing was flown over the Coliseum before the Trojans faced Notre Dame. Helton was booed while he left the Coliseum field after the loss, but he responded with the school's signature "Fight On" gesture.
"We understand that championships are what is expected and deserved at USC," Helton said in a statement. "I have met with Mr. Swann and discussed changes and improvements that will be made moving forward. Our staff, our players and I will work tirelessly this offseason to produce a disciplined football team that executes at a championship level. I truly believe that with the continued development of the talent we have on this team, the best is yet to be. Our number one goal is to win championships and we will not be satisfied with anything less."
Swann repeatedly backed Helton publicly during the season despite the unusual nature of their partnership. Swann inherited Helton when he took over his alma mater's athletic department in July 2016, but the new AD still gave a lucrative extension to Helton last February.
The Trojans had won their first 19 home games during Helton's tenure before losing their final three in a row before dwindling crowds at the Coliseum, which is undergoing an expensive makeover this year to entice donors and fans to buy season tickets and suites.
Helton's Trojans lost eminently winnable home games against Arizona State and California over the past five weeks before a 34-27 loss last weekend to a rebuilding two-win UCLA team in Los Angeles' annual crosstown showdown.
A win in any of those three games could have made the Trojans bowl-eligible. Instead, USC won't play in a bowl game during a season without an NCAA postseason ban for the first time since 2000 — the final season of coach Paul Hackett's tenure before Carroll took over.
Helton, brought to USC by Lane Kiffin as quarterbacks coach in 2010, first led USC to a win in the Las Vegas Bowl in late 2013 during a one-game stint after interim head coach Ed Orgeron left the program when Sarkisian was hired as Kiffin's full-time replacement — a fairly typical development in this school's tumultuous post-Carroll era.
When then-AD Pat Haden fired Sarkisian and promoted Helton in 2015, Helton transformed the program's culture by emphasizing a quaint devotion to faith, family and football. Helton's folksy Southern charm didn't exactly appeal to many USC fans, but the coach's players and recruits seemed to buy in, expressing genuine gratitude for Helton's caring and management skills.
But results matter most at a program of USC's stature, and Helton is 12-13 in games with any starting quarterback other than Darnold, who took over in the fourth game of the 2016 season and quickly asserted himself as one of the nation's best passers.
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