USC's great gambit this offseason was doing the easiest possible thing and retaining interim head coach Clay Helton as a permanent head coach in the wake of Steve Sarkisian's midseason firing. But a poor close to the season, including a 23-21 Holiday Bowl loss to Wisconsin on Wednesday night, suggests that gambit may be destined for failure.
Helton's served admirably as an interim coach for USC twice, once after the firing of Lane Kiffin and departure of Ed Orgeron in 2013 and again after Sarkisian's firing. He's only been the Trojans' permanent head man since November 30, when USC removed his interim tag two days after a lopsided win in its rivalry matchup with UCLA.
USC lost by a similarly-wide margin in the Pac-12 Championship Game, though, getting rocked by Christian McCaffrey and Stanford, and fell behind 10-0 and 20-7 before rallying to take a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter.
Cody Kessler, with 221 yards and a touchdown pass, had a decent game, despite one stretch in which Wisconsin's Jack Cichy blew up a possession with three sacks. Cichy also got to Kessler when USC, down two points, tried to rally for the winning drive, hitting Kessler as he threw an interception by Wisconsin defensive back Soujorn Shelton.
Helton's offense hasn't really been a major issue since he arrived in Troy in 2010, and he's seen as an affable guy.
He also represents a break from the Pete Carroll coaching tree, something that USC arguably desperately needs: Kiffin and Sarkisian, co-offensive coordinators under Carroll, had tumultuous tenures as the lead Trojans, never winning the Pac-12 under either man's watch and getting let go in ignominious ways. Kiffin, an elite recruiter, ably restocked the cupboard while USC was hampered by sweeping NCAA sanctions related to illegal benefits provided to Reggie Bush, and Sarkisian kept the pipelines open, but there has been a sense that the Trojans need a more mature leader.
Helton could be that. But he could also represent USC (and ailing athletic director Pat Haden) settling for the safest candidate instead of hopping onto the busiest coaching carousel in recent memory. USC fans could've dreamed of any of many hot names — Houston's Tom Herman is the obvious choice, but the athletic department reached out to Chip Kelly, reportedly, so even less obvious boldface names could have been on the radar — and chose instead to go with a coach who's only really well-known inside its own facility.
Maybe that will eventually pay off: there are still plenty more games in Helton's USC career, in all likelihood. He is 0-2 in the only two he has coached as the permanent head coach in Los Angeles, though, and just 6-4 overall. There's plenty of reason to pine and whine already.